WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—“Trader Jack” is back at spring training and couldn’t be happier. Back in baseball, where he belongs, after a season away.
Now a special adviser to the Washington Nationals’ general manager, Jack McKeon feels refreshed after a bit of a break from the place that’s been his world for most of his 88 years. He managed more than 1,000 wins in the majors, another 1,000-plus in the minors and was a GM, too.
“This is in your blood. It’s your love. When I used to manage the Marlins, I’d get up at 7, go to church at 8:30, then turn around and go right to the ballpark. People said: How come you went to the ballpark alone at 9 o’clock, 9:30? I’d say that it was like my living room. My home,” McKeon said during an interview at the Nationals’ spring training facility. “I’d go out and jog. Read the papers. Smoke a few cigars and wait ’til the game started.”
Those cigars are still around, but only to gnaw on; he stopped lighting them up more than a half-dozen years ago after double-bypass heart surgery.
“When I see people, first thing they ask is, ‘Can I get a picture? Where’s your cigar?’ So I always keep one on hand,” said McKeon, whose son, Kasey, is Washington’s director of player procurement. “I cut ’em in half, chew ’em. Just stick ’em in, like a prop.”
So much else is the same as it ever was when it comes to the manager of the 2003 World Series champion Florida Marlins—today, they’re the Miami Marlins—along with the Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds.
His nickname—earned because, as he says, “I kept wheelin’ and dealin’, and so it stuck” while running the Padres in the 1980s—is so ingrained that the license plate on one of his cars reads “Trader J.” Friends call him “Trader Jack,” and he signs text messages simply with “Trader.”
Also unchanged: His knowledge of the game. His sense of humor. And, of course, his penchant for telling stories.
Oh, those stories.
Get McKeon started, and he’ll regale you for 10, 20, 30 minutes, each tale leading to another, a wink and a smile punctuating his promise of, “I’ll tell ya one more.”
There are common threads. Every character is truly a character, depicted in detail—how tall or slender, how voices sounded, how smart (or not). There’s usually an element of self-deprecation. There’s always a punchline.
On this particular morning, as birds chirped around in the breeze, McKeon got on a roll. He recalled setting up an electronic “wire” that allowed for direct communication with his pitcher in the early 1960s at Triple-A Vancouver, predating by a half-century the watches Major League Baseball tested this spring to evade sign-stealing. Or the time he wanted rope tied around a player’s feet when he reached first base so the guy wouldn’t take off when he shouldn’t. Or when he went to a pawn shop and bought a $3.95 gun that shot blanks to scare a runner ignoring “Stop!” signs at third base.
“You try to absorb as much as you can,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s definitely a teacher. And I try to be a student.”
Washington GM Mike Rizzo wanted McKeon for precisely that purpose: passing along what he knows.
“He’s a mentor to me. He’s a person that you can bounce things off of. I can. Davey can,” Rizzo said. “He checks just about every box that you need as an experienced baseball person.”
McKeon was available because he was among four Marlins executives—along with Andre Dawson, Tony Perez and Jeff Conine—let go after a group led by Derek Jeter bought that team in 2017.
That scuttled a plan to let McKeon run Miami for one game in September 2018 so he could break Connie Mack’s record for oldest manager in the majors.
“I’m not worried about it. I’m not politicking. It would have been nice. I just didn’t want it to seem like a PR thing,” McKeon said. “If it ever happens, fine. If it doesn’t, so be it.”
McKeon will be based in Washington during the season, which begins Thursday, and will travel to help minor league managers and coaches and evaluate prospects.
In sum, Rizzo vowed to keep McKeon busy. Trader Jack is just fine with that. after his brief respite, even if it afforded him time to go to the beach or Las Vegas or spend time with a family that includes 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“I got a chance to see what the other side lives like. As the season wore on, especially near the end, it got boring hanging around. I needed to go back to work,” McKeon said, then added with a chuckle: “Plus, my wife kept saying, ‘Why don’t you go? Go. Go. Go.’”