By RICHARD SANDOMIR / New York Times
Jack McKeon’s baseball days begin in a pew. At 8 on Tuesday morning, the Florida Marlins’ manager attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, less than 12 hours after his team beat the Mets on a 10th-inning grand slam. Such games are testament to his faith in the saint he prays to every game during the national anthem.
Jack McKeon took over the Florida Marlins in 2003 and led them to a World Series title over the Yankees that year. McKeon returned to the Marlins halfway through this season.
“A good night for St. Thérèse,” he said, sitting in the lounge of a Midtown Manhattan hotel.
In each major league city, McKeon has a favorite, or at least a convenient, Roman Catholic church. If he does not know their names, he can describe them or tell you how to get there. In Cincinnati, it’s SS. Peter and Paul. In Chicago, Mass is at Holy Name Cathedral. In Philadelphia, he goes to what he calls “the oldest church in the U.S.” When the Marlins stayed at a hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he followed these directions: “Walk out the door, take a left, walk 30 yards, and take a right, where the homeless hang out.”
For each of the regular churches in his personal directory, he learns the Mass schedule.
“At St. Patrick’s it’s 7, 7:30, 8, noon and 12:30,” he said. “They’re very flexible.”
Mornings at church “give me energy,” he said. “You’re free. You feel good.” His daily ritual is part of a baseball routine that is now in its 62nd year, stretching back to D League ball in Greenville, Ala.
“When I go to the ballpark, I have no worries,” he said. “God’s looking after me.”
McKeon is renowned for taking over the Marlins earlier this season at 80, which made him a hero to ambitious octogenarians. Through Monday, his Marlins were 22-15. Returning to his previous managerial routine has been no more difficult than riding a bicycle again, he said. “I’m not 80,” he said. “I’m 58.”
His faith, while no secret, is not as famous as that of the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who was also a daily worshiper. Nor is his devotion as recognized as his 2003 World Series championship with the Marlins, his cigars, his wit or his Trader Jack nickname, which stems from his days as the general manager of the San Diego Padres. McKeon, who grew up in South Amboy, N.J., recalled his father’s initial refusal to let him sign a professional contract out of high school. Scouts were interested in him. But his father wanted him to go to college.
“So off I went to Holy Cross, and every night, I’d pass the shrine of the Virgin Mary on my way to the dining hall,” McKeon said. “I asked her to intercede with the Good Lord to convince my father to let me sign. I got home for Christmas and the scouts were back, and one day, my father said, ‘You really want to play? If you promise to get a college education, I’ll let you sign.’ I attribute that to the power of prayer.”
McKeon said that in 1950, he asked John B. Coakley, an older minor league teammate in Gloversville, N.Y., to join him for Mass one Sunday morning. “He said, ‘I’d love to, but I don’t understand all the signals you have,’ ” McKeon said, laughing at the memory. In a telephone interview, Coakley added: “I told him if he taught me the signals, I’d become a Catholic.” And he did.
Harry Dunlop, who coached for McKeon at Kansas City, Cincinnati and Florida, attended Mass often enough with McKeon to enjoy it.
“If you’re a Presbyterian, it’s tough to go to church on Sundays, because you have to get to the park early,” he said. “So I said: ‘What’s the difference? It’s a house of God.’ ”
He converted, too.
One managerial job eventually led to another for McKeon, but not always neatly.
The Reds fired him after the 2000 season, when he was 69. He prayed to St. Thérèse.
“She’s the prodigy of miracles, and I needed a miracle,” McKeon said. “I don’t know God’s plan,” he recalled saying in his prayers, “but I don’t think my career has been fulfilled. And then came the Marlins.”
He took over the Marlins in the midst of the 2003 season, just as he did this year. On Oct. 15, 2003, before Game 7 of the National League Championship Series in Chicago, McKeon attended Mass. It was the morning after Steve Bartman interfered with a foul ball and the Cubs wilted.
“I’m in the pew and the pastor says that today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila and I say, ‘We’re in, we’re going to win today.’ ” Never mind that St. Teresa is not his St. Thérèse. But she was in the ballpark.
The Marlins won, and went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series. Msgr. Neal Dolan, the pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Poway, Calif., said McKeon’s faith “has always impressed me because he believes in being positive.”
“That’s why he’s still managing,” he added.
Their friendship began when McKeon was running the Padres; Dolan officiated at the weddings of two of McKeon’s four children and the conversion of one of his sons-in-law.
“People in baseball believe their talent comes from God,” Dolan said. “And Jack recognizes that.”
One of McKeon’s partners in faith is Tommy Lasorda, a former Los Angeles Dodgers manager.
At church one morning in Cincinnati, McKeon watched Lasorda light a candle.
“Later,” he said, “when I got to home plate, I said, ‘Tommy, I saw you light a candle, but it won’t work. After you lit it, I went up behind it and blew it out.’ ”