MiLB

Jack McKeon Reminisces About His Days as Manager of the Omaha Royals

Jack McKeon

In 2010, shortly before Rosenblatt Stadium was razed, I had a chance to attend a celebration for the 1970 Omaha Royals championship team. The team’s manager, Jack McKeon, came back for the event and I had a chance to interview him. Here’s the article I wrote at the time. The man has a baseball memory like none I’ve ever seen. 

You might think winning the 1970 Championship as the manager of the Omaha Royals would rank pretty far down the list of accomplishments on Jack McKeon’s resume considering he went on to manage the 2003 Florida Marlins to the World Series title, was twice named the NL manager of the year (1999 and 2003) and managed some 15 years at the big league level with stops in Kansas City (1973-75), Oakland (1977-78), San Diego (1988-90), Cincinnati (1997-2000) and Florida (2003-05).

But McKeon holds the 1970 title in high esteem.

“You’ve gotta look back at my career and say number one is the winning the World Series in 2003,” said McKeon, who was at Rosenblatt last night for a dinner honoring the 1970 Championship team. “Number two was in 1999 when I was manager of the year in Cincinnati and we won 96 games and didn’t make the playoffs. And I think after that, number three would be the 1970 team in Omaha.”

McKeon reminisced about that team with the media.

“In ‘70 we started off very slow,” McKeon said. “We had such good, resilient players and despite being out of first place by 10 or 12 games on July the 6th, we came back and won the thing. That’s why I always have fond memories of the ‘70 team. They were like biscuits. You know, when things got hot, they rose to the occasion.”

He didn’t need much prompting to continue talking about the team.

“The ’70 team was special. We never got to .500 until August 1 that year and I kept preaching to the players about the fact that, ‘Hey, get to .500 and we’ll roll.’ Well, you know, I was trying to be politically correct and trying to be optimistic and maybe deep in my heart I didn’t believe it, but I was trying to sell them guys and trying to motivate them. But we got to .500 on August 1st. From August the 1st on, I think we won like 26 out of the next 34 games and ended up winning the pennant by two or three or four games.”

McKeon’s memory is spot on. The Royals went 73-65 in 1970 and went on to win the East Division of the American Association by three games over the Iowa Oaks. Then they went on to defeat the Denver Bears four games to one to win the championship. The 1970 title was the second one for Omaha in just its second year of existence.

Was there one particular moment that turned the season?

“We struggled early in the year and I made a call to Kansas City and I said, ‘Look, we’ve got a bunch of old guys here that can’t play. Let’s get them out of here and bring some young kids in.’ That’s when we brought in the Lloyd Gladdens, the Jim Yorks, and a Charlie Days, and [Ted] Parks at third base. We brought some of those young players in and they kind of sparked us and, you know, we just started to roll.”

The 1970 season wasn’t the first time McKeon pleaded for younger players in Omaha. He recalled his battle to get young players up with the 1969 team, too.

“I remember Paul Splittorff as a young kid having a very good Spring Training,” McKeon said. “And the director of player development, Charlie Metro, I saw him in Spring Training, and I said, ‘I’d like to have him [Splittorff], and Jerry Cram and Al Fitzmorris in Omaha – three young kids and they said, ‘Ah, you can’t have those guys. They’re too young. They’re not ready. You’ll ruin ‘em. They’re [in] over their heads.’

“I kept pleading and pleading and finally they gave in and I remember Charlie Metro telling me, ‘Don’t you come complaining to me in about mid-May or June that these guys can’t cut it.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of ‘em.’ Well, the rest is history. Each one of them won anywhere from 10 to 13 games that year and we won the pennant by about six or seven games.”

Again, his memory is right on. The Omaha Royals won the pennant by six games over the Tulsa Oilers in 1969. Splittorff won 12 games that season; Cram won 10; and Fitzmorris won 10.

So, does McKeon ever think about those formative years at the beginning of the organization and the role he played in the success of the organization later in the decade?

“Oh yeah,” McKeon said. “The good thing about not only managing the Royals here in Omaha was the fact that I managed the instructional league team as well. And that gave me an advantage to teach my system – not only to the players in Omaha, but they knew it before they got to Omaha. So, when I became the manager in Kansas City, all these players that graduated up there with me, they knew how to play the game. And fortunately, we had some successful years in Kansas City.”


Shortly after this interview with McKeon, I had a chance to interview Paul Splittorff and we talked about McKeon going to bat for him and other young players of that era. This interview was conducted on September 2, 2010 (the Omaha Royals final game at the stadium).

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MiLB

The Boy Who Stole the Show at the Speed Zone Booth

A buddy and I attended a minor league game a month ago. We sought shelter from the sun in a covered picnic area in left field, giving us the perfect view of speed zone.

Speed zone is that booth where you pay an attendant two dollars to throw three pitches toward a dummy catcher, trying to prove you belong in the big leagues, but when the radar gun flashes 47, you realize you belong in the left field stands.

I certainly wasn’t going to try to prove myself. No ER visits for me, thank you.

A few kids gave it the old college try and some of them had better arms than me.

I learned later that one kid, who was in the 13 and under category, hit 67 earlier that day. I was a pitcher when I was fifteen and I’m sure I never hit that speed.

An older man (maybe 60 years old) offered the young attendant his two dollars and reached for three baseballs.

He wound his arm around several times, as if he were waving a runner home from third. I had a feeling that no amount of stretching was going to help.

He put his left hand on his right shoulder in his final warm-ups, as if he feared his shoulder might explode with his first attempt to hit 90 miles per hour.

He went into his first windup and stepped forward to unleash the fury.

His first pitch was high. Very high and pretty slow.

His second and third pitches bounced.

A woman behind him glanced up at the speed gun and laughed. That’s never good. But maybe it was his wife and maybe she was laughing with him.

Yeah, I don’t believe that either.

As he walked away, he wound his arm again in windmill fashion and grabbed his shoulder. I bet he felt it the next day. And maybe the one after that.

Another man, maybe in his 40s, sailed three pitches over the dummy catcher, hitting the top of the tarp. He, too, grabbed his shoulder after his turn.

A little boy with Down syndrome, who was maybe five, was next. What happened next is the most precious sight you’ll ever see.

He took a few steps in so he was closer to the plate. He wrapped the ball behind his back and looked for a sign from the dummy catcher. Once he got it – a fastball, no doubt – he came set. Apparently, he’d inherited a runner or two, so he was pitching from the stretch.

The game was on the line.

His first pitch hit the catcher’s mask.

Strike one.

After getting ahead, his second pitch bounced in front of home plate in an attempt to get the dummy battery to chase it. Sure enough, he did (at least in my mind). A swing and a miss.

Strike two.

His mom only bought three chances, so he’d need to go for the strikeout with his remaining ball.

He lofted the pitch, LaLob style. Somewhere, Dave LaRoche was applauding – even though he hasn’t toed the slab since 1983. This kid must come from good stock – a mom or dad who is teaching him the history of the game.

The dummy batter had no idea what he was looking at as the ball fell from the sky. He swung three seconds before it reached home plate.

Strike three.

“Yer out!”

Yeah, I have an imagination. But that’s the best part of going to a baseball game.


By the way, if you haven’t seen LaRoche pitch, you’ll want to check out this video:

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