Youth Is Served Bucking the odds and conventional wisdom, an old hand guided the upstart Marlins to a World Series triumph

November 03, 2003

When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet rumored to have once played for Jack
McKeon

It all made sense, once the cigar smoke cleared, anyway: how the
Florida Marlins could be world champions for a second time in
seven years, even though they have never finished in first place.
This was, after all, the postseason from hell, what with all the
talk about the ghosts in New York, the curse in Boston and the
dead goat in Chicago. Forget a scorecard. You needed a cauldron
and a clove of garlic to follow these playoffs. And you needed
the blessed ignorance of youth to win them. ¶ Twenty-year-old
rightfielder Miguel Cabrera is, fittingly, the face of the
Marlins--a face, in his case, with no apparent need for a
razor. He stood near the batting cage before Game 1 of the
World Series at Yankee Stadium and observed, "There's a lot of
history here, a lot of tradition, but this isn't about the past
as much as it is about the future."

The kid was right, of course. One week later the Florida players
were whooping it up inside the diamond at Yankee Stadium after
Game 6, the 100th World Series game played at the old
ballyard--home office of the Fall Classic--but only the seventh
in which the visiting team had eliminated the Yankees. The crowd
watched in eerie silence as the ghostbusting Marlins celebrated
the world championship clinched with a 2-0 victory. Nobody said
boo.

Viewed against the cruelty heaped upon the League Championship
Series-losing Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, Florida's
refreshing triumph is proof that the baseball gods have a
conscience. The franchise is now 6-0 in postseason series
(including 1997) and has a powerful, young starting rotation that
could very well bring the Marlins back for more. As catcher Ivan
Rodriguez said after the game last Saturday night, "If you keep
this ball club together for the next three, four, five years,
you'll see more than one World Series."

Tradition means little in Florida, especially in the rightfield
corner of tacky Pro Player Stadium, where the bronzed busts
belong not to Whitey, Mickey and the Babe, but to Jenny, Cindy
and the rest of the babes who serve as cheerleaders by stripping
down to bikinis and taking a dip in a fieldside hot tub. Talk
about your Monument Park.

The Marlins are nothing if not unconventional, which was evident
after pitcher Josh Beckett, the highest caliber of the young
guns, played long toss in the Pro Player outfield several hours
before Game 5, two days after he lost a Game 3 pitching duel to
Mike Mussina that was much tighter than the 6-1 final score.

"How does it feel?" pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal asked,
referring to Beckett's right arm.

"Fine," Beckett said. "I was more sore yesterday. I'm good to
go."

"You've got Saturday," Rosenthal said.

Beckett gave the answer Emerson would have expected when Duty, if
not the Marlins' 72-year-old gnome of a manager, Jack McKeon,
called. McKeon had decided that as long as Beckett felt fine
after that light workout, he would start Game 6 on three days'
rest, regardless of where the Series stood. (Florida would win
Game 5 to take a three-games-to-two lead.) Pitching on three
days' rest is the baseball equivalent of running with scissors or
swimming less than an hour after eating. You just don't do it
because...well, just because that's the way it has always been.

Critics howled. Why, they wondered, wouldn't he use Game 2
starter Mark Redman or rookie southpaw Dontrelle Willis in Game 6
and save a properly rested Beckett for Game 7? They harped on the
fact that Beckett is only 23--you can practically see the
shrink-wrap on him--with a gift for a right arm, that he had
missed almost two months during the season with a sprained elbow
and that, thanks to a convention-bending, four-inning,
between-starts relief job in Game 7 of the NLCS, he would be
pitching for the fourth time in 14 days. Orthopedic surgeons
circled like vultures and cleared room in their appointment
books.

What escaped the notice of the critics is that McKeon is a man
who invested 54 years in the game before it yielded his first
opportunity to be in uniform for a World Series. He wasn't about
to treat any Series game as a throwaway. And he wasn't going to
start managing by convention at this point.

Standing in almost the exact spot where Cabrera had delivered his
opening monologue, McKeon said before Game 6, "There are no
guarantees. Game 7 is no [guaranteed win] if Josh pitches. This
is the game we want to win. Forget pitch counts, rest, innings
pitched and all that. If he's throwing good, I'll leave him in
there for nine innings."

Two days earlier McKeon had been asked what he thought about
sabermetrics, the use of statistical analysis that has become the
hip religion among a new wave of baseball executives. McKeon's
eyes glazed over for a second or two. Then he replied, "I didn't
take that at school." McKeon is so old school that he's
postmodern. He's so old that when he says, "Abe Lincoln? He had a
real good cutter," you wait a moment to make sure he's kidding.
His ideas on pitching have been abandoned for so long they seem
revolutionary. "The more guys pitch, the better they become,"
McKeon says. "They don't really put it together until they reach
200 innings."

Says Rosenthal, who was promoted from the minors when McKeon was
hired to replace Jeff Torborg on May 11, "One of the first things
Jack did was to make sure the pitchers knew the kid gloves were
coming off. He had a meeting and told them, 'If you don't want to
pitch, we're going to get somebody else up here who does.'"

Beckett was the epitome of a pitcher reared according to modern
methods. Picked second, out of high school, in the 1999 draft,
Beckett had started 88 professional games by the end of this
season and had been allowed to complete none of them. "Josh has
been babied his whole career," Marlins righthander Rick Helling
says. "When I heard after he shut out the Cubs [in the NLCS] that
it was his first complete game on any level, I couldn't believe
it. I thought, Something's not right. He told me that in the
minor leagues they never let him throw 100 pitches, and at the
first sign of trouble they'd take him out."

McKeon believes that how a pitcher throws is more important than
how much he throws. "If a guy has mechanical problems, he's going
to break down," McKeon says, insisting that form matters more
than pitch counts and innings. "In Cincinnati, [pitching coach]
Don Gullett and I would tell them, 'Trade these guys before they
end up hurting themselves.'"

Rosenthal, who didn't know McKeon until they were paired five
months ago ("The day I was hired they asked me, 'Do you want to
meet your manager?" he says), tweaked Beckett's delivery during
the season. He slowed his young pitcher's windup, made sure he
used his legs more and stayed over the rubber longer before
starting forward, and emphasized that his left hip should lead
toward the plate. To illustrate his instructions, Rosenthal
showed Beckett tapes of Curt Schilling, which may be why the
Yankees' pre-Series scouting report compared Beckett with the
Arizona Diamondbacks' righthander, whose smooth delivery belies
the power of his 97-mph fastball--"easy cheese," in the
vernacular.

By the postseason Beckett had the look and mentality of an ace,
one of five twentysomething Florida starters whose combined
career wins (147) didn't equal those accumulated by the least
accomplished New York starter, Andy Pettitte (149). McKeon used
those young pitchers aggressively in October. Beckett, Brad
Penny, 25, Willis, 21, and Carl Pavano, 27, all started and
relieved in the postseason. Redman, 29, was yanked from the
rotation to give Beckett the Game 6 start.

"It's the postseason," Rosenthal said after Penny won Game 5 and
McKeon had the world guessing who would start Game 6. "You worry
about today's game today, not tomorrow. We don't do things in a
conventional way, and our pitchers have the attitude to make it
work. Tonight Penny was saying he needed to get his blister taken
care of because he wanted to be available for relief in Game 7."

The only Florida starter who stumbled was the soft-tossing
Redman. Otherwise the righthanders, Beckett, Penny and Pavano,
pounded the strike zone with a barrage of fastballs in the mid-to
high-90s. The New York hitters succumbed meekly, losing their
reputation for grinding out at bats--thanks especially to Alfonso
Soriano's flailing (postseason-record 26 strikeouts) and Jason
Giambi's ominous breakdown (patellar tendinitis in his left
knee). Those three power pitchers were 3-1 with a 1.47 ERA in the
Series while allowing only seven hits in 50 at bats with runners
in scoring position. Marlins starters threw fewer than 20 pitches
in 36 of their 41 innings. "We threw inside to lefties and
righties the whole Series, and they didn't make any adjustment to
it," Rosenthal says.

Says Pavano, "We threw a lot of strikes. We came right at their
hitters. That's very important against them because they like to
get your pitch count up and wear you down."

Pavano allowed one run in eight solid innings in the
Series-turning Game 4, which would be remembered as the last
start of 41-year-old Roger Clemens's career except for its
late-inning dramatics. Trailing 3-1 entering the ninth, the
Yankees tied the game on a two-out, two-strike, two-run pinch
triple by Ruben Sierra and seemed poised to win it in the 11th,
with the bases full and one out. In the most crucial at bat of
the Series, however, Braden Looper whiffed Aaron Boone with the
infield in.

The Marlins won in the 12th on a walk-off solo homer by Alex
Gonzalez off righthander Jeff Weaver, who was making his first
appearance since Sept. 24. Gonzalez's homer tied the famously
telegenic one by Carlton Fisk in 1975 as the latest ever in a
World Series game. Another 40-plus Yankees starter, lefthander
David Wells, checked out of Game 5 with back spasms after just
one inning, and Florida continued to build momentum with a 6-4
win.

The knockout blow came from Beckett, the man in full. He had
sometimes sneered at reporters and annoyed the Yankees with
profanity-laced drivel and a brashness that seemed odd for
someone with just 17 career wins. "It's not up to us to say
anything," Mussina said after Game 6. "The game has a way of
taking care of those things. The game has a way of being
humbling."

"Cocky," New York general manager Brian Cashman called Beckett on
Saturday, "but he can back it up."

"He's been that way since he was three years old," his mother,
Lynn, says. "He had to have his boots, his belt and his cowboy
hat. But he doesn't mean it in a negative way. It's confidence
more than anything."

He overmatched the Yankees with his fastball, sharp-breaking
curve and a changeup so deceitful that he's one of the rare
righthanders who throws the pitch to righthanded hitters.
"Mussina, Pedro [Martinez] and [Brad] Radke do it, and Josh is in
that class," Helling says.

After the eighth inning McKeon asked Rodriguez, "How's he
throwing?"

Said the catcher, "Great. Don't you even think about taking him
out."

"Don't worry, I'm not," McKeon said. "Those two guys warming up
are for show."

Beckett completed his gem with a perfect ninth inning. The man
with no career complete games entering the postseason became the
first starting pitcher to throw the last pitch of a World Series
since Orel Hershiser in 1988. What made it even more impressive
was where he did it.

Throughout the Series the Marlins chipped at the Yankees' history
that they cared so little about. Twice they beat New York by one
run--the Yankees had been 18-4 under manager Joe Torre in
postseason one-run games--including Torre's first such loss at
home (in Game 1). They became the first team since the 1981 Los
Angeles Dodgers to eliminate the Yanks at home.

Beckett is the seventh pitcher to eliminate the Yankees at Yankee
Stadium--and none of the others had as few major league wins as
Beckett when they did it. He joins Johnny Beazley (1942), Johnny
Podres (1955) and Lew Burdette (1957) as the only ones to do it
without relief help. Says Helling, "Last year he was just a guy
who tried to throw it by you. He's become a pitcher, a special
pitcher. This was his moment. This is the beginning of the rest
of his career."

The Marlins need a stadium with a roof in rainy Miami and, after
the shameful fire sale of their 1997 world championship team,
continuity. Rodriguez, second baseman Luis Castillo and closer
Ugueth Urbina are free agents, while third baseman Mike Lowell
and first baseman Derrek Lee are key players in line for big
raises through arbitration. "For the sake of the baseball fans in
South Florida, they need to bring back as much of this team as
possible," Lowell says. "[The fans] can't take another
dismantling."

Says owner Jeffrey Loria, who owned another small-payroll club,
the Montreal Expos, from 2000 to '01,"We're going to keep doing
more exciting things. We will keep some players. We'll sit down
and look at everything in a few weeks. We will do good things for
baseball, and we will do good things for the fans."

With Cabrera, a June call-up, looking like a budding franchise
player and with its young rotation, Florida is positioned to
survive the inevitable cost-saving deletions that do take place.
Moreover, righthander A.J. Burnett, the 26-year-old erstwhile ace
who blew out his elbow in April, is expected to return early next
season, when he's eligible for salary arbitration. "He may have
the best stuff of all of them," Helling says. "That could be
scary: four guys throwing 95-plus, and Dontrelle flinging from
the left side. That could be something special. The nucleus is
here to have a great team for a long time."

A spoilsport critic--the same type to note that pitchers on short
rest over the past five postseasons had been 6-20 before Beckett
took the ball last Saturday--might point out that Florida pushed
all its young arms past their professional high in innings
pitched: Penny by 13 1/3 innings, Beckett by 20 2/3, Pavano by
35 1/3 and Willis by 52.

Game 6, however, did not seem the time to suddenly apply
conventional wisdom, considering the beating it had been taking
in this Series. Florida was outhit and outscored by New York but
not outmaneuvered, which is why, late Saturday night, Loria was
running the bases at Yankee Stadium like a little kid, and the
visitors' clubhouse felt like a luxuriant steam bath, with
champagne dripping from the seven-foot ceiling and great aromatic
clouds of cigar smoke wafting about.

Youth, according to a British proverb, looks forward, but age
looks back. The Marlins never did see any ghosts.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO HOME FREE Gonzalez deftly eluded Jorge Posada's tag to score the only run Florida would need in Game 6. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS FINISHING KICK Beckett shut down the Yanks in the clincher with a lethal mix of power and off-speed stuff. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS ALL THE WAY With the support of Rodriguez, Beckett pitched only the second complete game of his career in the finale. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON TURNING POINT Clemens bid farewell in Game 4 but was upstaged by the late drama that included Boone's crucial whiff. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER BIG BLOW Gonzalez's 12th-inning game-winner off Weaver evened the Series and gave the Marlins the momentum. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON AGONY AND ECSTASY In his first World Series, the 72-year-old McKeon beat old hands Torre and Zimmer at their own game. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above]

"Last year he was just a guy who tried to throw it by you,"
Helling says of Beckett. "He's become a pitcher, a special
pitcher."

"We don't do things in a conventional way," Rosenthal said, "and
our pitchers have the attitude to make it work."

McKeon is so old that when he says, "Abe Lincoln? He had a real
good cutter," you wait a moment to make sure he's kidding.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)