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Rooting for 80-year-old skipper Jack McKeon, the Marlins' Merlin


In America, there are two kinds of old people: Dopes and sages. You're either Mr. Magoo or Mr. Miyagi, with no in-between. At a certain age, TV depicts you as a doddering fool or a bearded wise man. Neither is recognizably you, or even recognizably human, but that's your choice at 80: Dumb or Dumbledore, take it or leave it.

That's why I'm rooting for 80-year-old Jack McKeon to succeed as new manager of the Marlins -- and also rooting for him to fail. May he win some and lose some, make good decisions and bad ones. I hope he stakes a new middle ground for old people, somewhere between the polar opposites of Grandpa Simpson and Grandpa Walton. In short, I hope he comes off as a human being.

History tells us it won't happen. McKeon will be forced to one end of the spectrum. Which will it be: Out-of-touch buffoon or homespun statesman? Mr. Furley or Wilford Brimley? A binary nation needs to know.

At the moment, it could go either way. But it definitely won't go both ways. Only Casey Stengel, in the history of geriatrics, was allowed to be both clown and soothsayer. In taking over a team that went 1-18 in its previous 19 games, McKeon is almost certain to succeed on the field, relatively speaking. Two wins and he's Gandalf, three wins and he's Yoda.

This week he's the Marlins' Merlin. McKeon's wizarding skills were highlighted in his first game as manager on Monday, when he benched his struggling star, Hanley Ramirez, reportedly for poor baserunning. It's precisely the kind of complaint you want from a man who was born the year Lou Say died. Lou Say was the Cincinnati shortstop in 1880, giving McKeon, in 2011, one degree of separation from baseball's barehanded era.

And that's the problem. The jokes are so easy, and so compulsory, that it might not matter what he does. McKeon is now a number, and that number is 80. "Tonight he had to make four trips to the mound and 12 trips to the bathroom," Jimmy Fallon said on Monday night.

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Yes, the man is old. He's the same age as the chocolate-chip cookie and the ground-rule double. Pluto was discovered in the year of his birth. Before 1930, Mickey Mouse called his dog "Rover," a fair ball that bounced into the stands was a home run and Santa Claus had to choke down oatmeal raisin cookies on Christmas Eve. There: I've now told you precisely how old Jack McKeon is, fulfilling my journalistic duty to contextualize the age of anyone over 65.

We've become conditioned -- by movies, cartoons and every birthday card we receive after age 21 -- to think of old people literally as jokes. Recall the Chevy commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, in which people younger than Jack McKeon were portrayed as the bickering, near-deaf residents of an old folks' home. In a Disney Channel sitcom my daughters were watching the other night, the children -- and their parents -- tried desperately to avoid talking to grandma on the phone. Even cued up by the canned laughter, my kids were confused: They like talking to grandma on the phone. Does that make them uncool?

I don't know who these old people are -- the geniuses or the fools. They're not my 77-year-old father, a regular user of iPhone and iPad and ibuprofen. He doesn't wear white loafers and salmon-colored blazers, but neither is he Morgan Freeman, speaking in aphorisms. The same seems true of 67-year-old Charlie Manuel, 69-year-old Jim Calhoun, 69-year-old Alex Ferguson and 84-year-old Joe Paterno, all of whom are successful and flawed and -- yes -- older than the average coach.

It certainly doesn't help that McKeon manages in Miami, where he's one of countless 80-year-old men wearing teal double-knits, according to our longstanding comedy caricature. Never mind that in a lifetime of nearly annual trips to South Florida, I've never seen anyone playing shuffleboard. (Not anyone.) It's like those New Yorker cartoons of a man in rags marooned on a desert island. The cartoons are funny, but -- just between us -- those guys don't actually exist.

Neither does Jack McKeon. Not the one you're thinking of, anyway -- the one who'll give runners the green light and a perpetually blinking left-hand turn signal. No, the actual, three-dimensional Jack McKeon is a baseball manager who's won a few more games than he's lost and is, by his own description, "no miracle worker." Good: The best thing he can do for the nuanced depiction of old people is to work no miracles (in the manner of Della Reese in Touched by an Angel) while avoiding outright slapstick (as embodied by the old guy on Benny Hill).

In a business dedicated to youth, it was ridiculous to choose a bespectacled, cigar-chewing 80-year-old to lead a multi-million-dollar operation. But MGM did it anyway, in 1976, when casting The Sunshine Boys, for which George Burns won an Oscar at 80.

By comparison, the bespectacled, cigar-chewing, 80-year-old McKeon has modest goals. Moses led his people out of slavery at 80. McKeon just has to lead his people out of last place. That would be refreshing: Finding oneself, at 80, in the middle of the pack.