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Mudville: April 18, 2024 9:58 am PDT

Don’t Blame Bartman

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Steve Bartman got a raw deal. That’s the truth.

Here we are 20 years later come October 14th, and yes, baseball time does fly.

Don’t believe me about Bartman?

How about listening to Jack McKeon, who was manager of the Florida Marlins at the time in October of 2003 watching from the dugout at Wrigley Field. His Marlins were facing elimination in Game 6 of the NLCS and trailing the Cubs, 3-0 with one out in the eighth inning with Juan Pierre at second base and Luis Castillo at the plate.

Castillo fouled off a pitch from Mark Prior down the left field line and Bartman, sitting in Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113, and other fans went after the baseball. It happened to hit Bartman’s hands. Moises Alou did not make the catch.

Five outs away from elimination the Marlins then stunned the Cubs, putting up eight runs to win Game 6, 8-3 and the next night eliminated the Cubs with a 9-6 victory; that’s 17 runs over the last 11 innings of play – but it was all Bartman’s fault. Yeah, right.

Let the record show that the umpire closest to the Bartman play, Mike Everitt, did not rule fan interference.

Then it was onto the World Series for McKeon’s Marlins where they beat the Yankees in six games. The Marlins had their second World Series victory.

Florida Marlins' manager Jack McKeon raises his hand in victory at Yankee Stadium after the Marlins shut out the New York Yankees, 2-0, in Game 6 to win the World Series. (Photo by James Keivom/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Twenty years later they haven’t come close to a third. This year’s team is in the NL Wild Card race. Isn’t everybody?

The Bartman incident is one of the most memorable baseball happenings of all time, and since it happened I’ve always felt Bartman became a scapegoat for a team – the Cubs – that simply could not get the job done.

Here at BallNine we love our baseball history, and we love to talk to baseball people who tell it like it is – and that is why on Saturday I gave a call to Trader Jack McKeon.

“It was questionable, I didn’t think Alou could catch it, but I wasn’t that close to see where the ball was landing,’’ McKeon told BallNine.

I asked McKeon if he felt sorry for Bartman and he said, “Sure I do. I think the guy took a tremendous beating. They crucified him.’’

Years later Alou even admitted, “Nobody talks about the ground ball that should have been a double play. They took advantage of it and it cost us our trip to the World Series. It wasn’t (Bartman’s) fault.’’

Back in 2003, At the age of 72, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria named McKeon the manager after the Marlins got off to a 16-22 start under Jeff Torborg. McKeon held a team meeting that first day. He told me Saturday what he said, something of which there should be more in baseball today, but the owners have cut off the (base)balls of today’s managers.

“When I took over in Florida and the first meeting I had, I told them I wasn’t here to babysit,’’ McKeon said. “I was here to get this train moving north. And if you don’t want to be on the train, there is the bleeping door!’’

Hey, when you are 72 managing a Major League club you have no time to get another year of seasoning for a can’t miss prospect at AA – on Miguel Cabrera

McKeon praised those Marlins for their unselfish play.

“I had some Hall of Fame players in Pudge Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, guys like Mike Lowell,’’ McKeon said. “Today if you want to manage you have to do what ownership says and the analytical people are running the ballclub. That’s why I was lucky to have Jeffrey Loria, he never told me to do anything.”

McKeon added, “About a month later, after that first meeting, Derrek Lee came up to me and said ‘Hey Skip, we didn’t know what to think when you told us there was the bleeping door.’ ’’

It was Derrek Lee who delivered the big two-run double after the key error by shortstop Alex Gonzalez in that eight-run eighth inning against the Cubs in that Game 6.

After that initial team meeting, the Marlins went 75-49 the rest of the way to win the wild card with McKeon pushing the right mental and physical buttons. When he got them to October, this is what he said.

“That whole playoffs my theme was ‘Let’s have fun,’ ’’ McKeon told me.

Before the NLDS against the Giants, McKeon said to his team, “We showed them we could win, we are having fun, there’s no pressure on us. The pressure is on the Giants. They won 100 games, no pressure on us. Pressure is on them. They are the ones who are supposed to win, we aren’t supposed to win. Let’s go play our game.’’

And they did just that.

Led by players like Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez and future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera who was just a 20-year-old kid at the time – and the story behind The Story was that McKeon had to fight like heck to get Cabrera called up to the Marlins the third week of June but he knew Cabrera would be a difference maker.

Hey, when you are 72 managing a Major League club you have no time to get another year of seasoning for a can’t miss prospect at AA. McKeon told Jeffrey Loria and his GM Larry Beinfest exactly that in no uncertain terms.

In his first game up in the majors, Cabrera blasted an 11th-inning home run to beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. That’s a lot better than hitting a home run for the AA Carolina Mudcats.

The Marlins did play loose in the postseason – they had nothing to lose – and knocked off Felipe Alou’s Giants 3-1 in the NLDS, that 100-win team that featured big-headed Barry Bonds who posted a 1.278 OPS that season with a .341 average and 45 home runs. It was Felipe’s son Moises who was the Cubs left-fielder who was so upset with Bartman after the foul ball clanked off Bartman along the left-field line at Wrigley, so McKeon’s team did a number on the Alou family that October, beating both Felipe and Moises.

Also consider this: the three managers McKeon’s team beat that year in October were Felipe Alou, who was 68, Dusty Baker, 54, and Joe Torre, 62. That is some baseball royalty there and at a time, only 20 years ago, when veteran baseball managers were allowed to manage and were not puppets to their non-accountable Nerd analytics departments.

Manager Jack McKeon of the Florida Marlins celebrates their 9-6 win over the Chicago Cubs during game seven of the National League Championship Series October 15, 2003 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

When the Marlins got to the World Series against the Yankees, and I was there covering that series, McKeon did not make a big deal about playing in Yankee Stadium. There was no talk about the ghosts of Yankee Stadium.

He wanted to keep his players loose, this was just another series and the Marlins finished off the Yankees in Game 6 in the Bronx behind Josh Beckett, who fired a shutout on three days’ rest.

As for Cabrera, he was involved in the key on the field play after the Bartman incident. Mark Prior threw a wild pitch for ball four to Castillo, allowing Juan Pierre to advance to third. Pudge Rodriguez then singled to score Pierre and advance Castillo to second.

Then came The Play of the series.

Cabrera hit a double-play grounder to the usually sure-handed Alex Gonzalez. The shortstop booted it and the next batter Derrek Lee doubled home two runs and the comeback was going full force.

“It seemed like every time Cabrera came to bat, something good happened,’’ McKeon said of that season and postseason. “He’s the guy who hit the ground ball to Gonzalez who booted it.

“I did a show with Bob Costas, Mike Lowell and Alex Gonzalez a few years back with MLB,’’ McKeon said, “And we talked about that game, it was one of the craziest games ever.’’

There are even more McKeon connections to this story 20 years later. That’s the great thing about baseball. Remember I told you that McKeon had to fight to get Cabrera called up? Cabrera owns 3,134 hits, 22nd on the all-time list. The next hitter on the list is Tony Gwynn with 3,141 hits.

“Oh yeah,’’ McKeon recalled. “I had to fight to bring Cabrera up. Our people, the farm director and those guys, they all didn’t want to bring him up. He’s in AA and I had Mike Lowell playing third base and I said I’ll play (Cabrera) in the outfield – and they said, ‘Oh he never played the outfield before, maybe a game or two.’ I fought like hell and finally got him up.’’

Manager Jack McKeon of the Florida Marlins hugs Miguel Cabrera #20 after the Marlins defeated the New York Yankees 2-0 in game six of the Major League Baseball World Series on October 25, 2003 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

McKeon was the GM for the Padres when they snatched Tony Gwynn out of San Diego State with a third-round pick, 58th overall in 1981, a pick McKeon demanded the Padres make. He wanted the Padres to select Gwynn in the second round, but the scouting department went with right-handed pitcher Bill Long.

“I had to fight to get Gwynn up too,’’ McKeon said. “I wanted to take him in the second round and they talked me out of taking him in the second round so I finally said, ‘He’s next. Regardless. I don’t want to hear a damn word’ and that’s how we got him in the third round.

“I had all the super scouts saying Billy Long was a better prospect. I said, I did not see Billy Long so I can’t tell you that. But I saw Tony Gwynn, that was enough. Both of these guys who saw Billy Long and Tony Gwynn, they said Billy Long.’’

In the third round of the draft, one of the greatest drafts the Padres ever had – and in the first round they selected Kevin McReynolds – Jack McKeon said Tony Gwynn.

They also selected John Kruk in the secondary phase.

Here is how McKeon found out about Gwynn. McKeon lived close to San Diego State and would go to their games. They started playing January 1 because there were no schedule restrictions back then.

“I see San Diego State play 15 times and all the scouts are there watching Bobby Meacham,’’ McKeon said. “I didn’t see Tony Gwynn. So now we play San Diego State in an exhibition game the day before the season starts. I’m sitting in the box with their athletic director and this guy comes to the plate and doubles off Juan Eichelberger and then later in the game he tripled off another guy, I forget who it was pitching. I said to the AD, who the heck is this guy? He said, ‘That’s Tony Gwynn, he just came out a week ago because he finished his basketball season.’ I said, ‘He’s the best player on the field.’ Then I went and watched him play a game or two, but that first game convinced me he’s The Guy.’’

Tony Gwynn sure was The Guy.

And that is one great scouting story.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

Comments
  • Mike

    Scouting…where the hell has it gone?

    August 4, 2023
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