YANKEES DIDN’T KNOW JACK
Before the start of Game 1 of the World Series, Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon was sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Yankee Stadium when someone asked what he thought of showbiz types like Billy Crystal and Robin Williams hanging out on the field and turning batting practice into celebrity photo ops. “We get our fair share of celebrities down in Miami, too, y’know,” boasted McKeon. “We get Vanessa Williams, and that Estefan girl. And, oh yeah, Chi Chi Rodriguez!” The subject then turned to a more baseball-centric topic: Was McKeon happy about having the DH in the games in the American League park, thus enabling him to get Juan Encarnacion back in the lineup? “Who?” asked McKeon, furrowing his brow. “Er, Juan Encarnacion, your right fielder?” “Oh, him? He’s good!”
Although talking to the 72-year-old McKeon stirred up childhood memories of weekend visits with a semi-oblivious uncle, the Marlins’ swim to the crest of the baseball world surely proved that, even if Trader Jack heard most of the questions wrong, the old coot somehow wound up with all the right answers. Hired in May by Marlin owner Jeffrey Loria to replace Jeff Torborg after a two-hour meeting in which McKeon repeatedly called Loria “Jerry” (“I guess he knew I wasn’t trying to impress him,” he later cackled), McKeon took over a ball club floundering at 16-22. Then he guided the players to a 91-71 finish, good enough for an NL wild-card berth and a playoff run that saw them upend the heavily favored Giants, the Cubs, and the Yankees to become World Series champs. Managing mostly by gut—and guts—McKeon and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal improvised with a starting rotation whose members (average age: 25) could literally be his grandchildren. And, à la buffoon savant Tommy Lasorda, he went with hot hands and hunches over stats and probabilities and made it work like a charm.
“Is anyone gonna ask me now if [Josh] Beckett got enough rest between starts?” he crowed outside the champagne-filled Marlin clubhouse after his young fireballer shut out the Bronx Bombers in Game 6. “I don’t think so.” As it turned out, about the only thing McKeon mismanaged was his cigar box. Appearing without his expected victory smoke at the post-Series press conference, McKeon confessed, “I left them out on the desk, and Rosenthal and the players grabbed ’em all. Guess I should’ve hid a few.” Oh, those kids! —Billy Altman
SPREE FOR VAN HORN: THE NUMBERS
It’s easy to understand why many Knicks fans are irate over the trade of Latrell Sprewell for Keith Van Horn. Spree played with a passion that was palpable, especially compared with Van Horn. But look beyond the images and a surprising conclusion emerges: The deal makes all kinds of sense. Van Horn averaged 15.9 points a game in just 31.6 minutes last year with the Sixers, a better rate than Sprewell’s, while shooting a markedly higher percentage (48.2 to 40.3). He is a vastly superior rebounder, and rebounding’s an area where the Knicks got mauled last year. Most importantly, he’s five years younger.
For all the joy Spree brought over the past five seasons, it’s easy to forget that the glory days of that 1999 playoff run are long gone. Sprewell may still have the passion, but Father Time is eroding the skill. In 1998-99 and 1999-2000, Spree averaged 18 points a game, shot 43 percent, and got to the line nearly five times a night. Last year, he slipped to 16 points, shot 40 percent, and got to the line just three times a game. Can’t everyone out there see where this is headed?
Scott Layden has made so many lame moves during his stewardship of the Knicks that you can’t help being skeptical. But subtract the emotions and look at the production, and for the first time in memory, it’s hard to argue with Layden’s logic. —John Hollinger
BLAUWET: HELL ON WHEELS
Sunday’s New York City Marathon will be chock full of heroines like American hopeful Marla Runyan, who’s legally blind and discerns the pavement but not the identity of her rivals, and Lornah Kiplagat, who won the New York Mini 10K in June and pours her road-race earnings into training camps for Kenyan girls. But their sagas may not overshadow Cheri Blauwet, a Stanford med student who went from being a short-distance Paralympics medalist to one of the top wheelchair marathoners in the world in the space of a year, after realizing, she recalls, “I was feeling stagnant and wanted a new challenge mentally and physically.”
Blauwet was a decisive victor over defending champ Francesca Porcellato of Italy by 22 minutes in New York City last November and then won the wheelchair division at the Los Angeles Marathon in March and the Columbus Marathon on October 19. She also set a world 5,000-meter record of 12:03 this winter. “Cheri has no fear,” says Karna Walter, an assistant director of the Honors College at the University of Arizona, where Blauwet was a 4.0 major in molecular biology and a Women’s Sports Foundation nominee for Athlete of the Year. Paralyzed after being run over by a tractor on her Iowa family farm at the age of one, Blauwet insists, “I just saw myself as a normal kid and did normal things.” Not anymore. In addition to racing, she interned this summer at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau of Global Health, and at Stanford she’s interested in developmental pediatrics and may add a master’s degree focusing on international health policy issues. —Peter Gambaccini