The Florida Marlins hiring of 80-year-old Jack McKeon on June 20 to manage their team for the remainder of the baseball season was greeted with widespread ridicule. Sports-talk radio hosts on WFAN 660 in New York mocked the Marlins, and others were quick to do so as well. No one other than the legendary Connie Mack, who also owned his team, has ever been an older manager.
But turning the ill-informed criticism aside, McKeon’s qualifications were beyond reproach. In 2003, at age 72, the Marlins hired McKeon in May while similarly mired in last place. All he did that year was lead the young Marlins to a World Series Championship which included upset playoff victories over the heavily favored Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees.
In both series, the Marlins won the clinching games on the road at Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium. That made McKeon only the second manager in baseball history to take over a team at mid-season and lead it to a championship.
McKeon followed up that performance by leading the Marlins to winning seasons in both 2004 and 2005 despite the fact that the squad had one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball. He then retired as manager, but has remained active as a consultant to the team’s ownership.
Known as “Trader Jack” from his days as a baseball general manager, McKeon assembled the San Diego Padres team which won the 1984 National League pennant. He also experienced success managing the Cincinnati Reds in leading the team to a one-game playoff, which it lost, in 1999. Another winning year followed in 2000. For his efforts, McKeon was fired. After his exit, the Reds went a decade before finally having another season where they won more games than they lost.
Clearly, McKeon is a guy who knows what he is doing. He also enjoys a well-earned reputation for getting players to earn his respect and play hard for him. So the question really isn’t why the Marlins opted to hire McKeon, but why not? After all, what other candidate would have had a more impressive background?
And yet, the ageism in so many of the comments about McKeon’s hiring was striking. You may or may not want an octogenarian fighter pilot. But managing a baseball team requires acumen, decisiveness and the ability to deal with people, all skills which the Marlins new manager possesses in great measure.
When the Boston Red Sox hired then 28-year-old Theo Epstein as the team’s general manager eight years ago, less was made of the inexperienced Epstein’s age than was the case with McKeon. Epstein ultimately proved to be a great hire as well in one of the most difficult media markets in the country. All he did was help end the infamous “Curse of the Bambino” as the Red Sox won two World Series titles in a four-year span. The first of those titles ended an 86-year drought.
The take-away message is that young or old, it is the quality of the job candidate that matters most—not their age. There are many other Jack McKeons out there who could still be making strong contributions in a wide variety of positions if given the chance.
At the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens retired last June at the age of 90. Until the end, Stevens was an adept writer and questioner. He also regularly was more engaged during oral arguments than some of his colleagues, including Justice Clarence Thomas who was 30 years his junior.
Age is just a number. Every person is different, and must be judged on their individual merits rather than by arbitrary stereotypes.
About the Author: David Weisenfeld served as U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for LAWCAST from 1998 through June 2011. During that time, he covered every employment law case heard by the Court, and also wrote and co-anchored the company’s employment law newscasts. In addition, his work has appeared in the American Bar Association’s Supreme Court Preview magazine.