Jack McKeon didn't need to bench one of his better-known players to trigger the "old" jokes.
Just accepting a major league managing job at age 80 will do that.
Still, when Hanley Ramirez assumed the pine in Trader Jack's first day back on the job after a six-year hiatus, the quipsters practically fried their megabytes getting in the first shots at a man who announced upon his hire, "Maybe I'm not hip with the Twitter or the Facebook ... But outside of that, I don't have any problem with disciplining my kids or disciplining any of these players."
One online commenter proferred that Ramirez had stepped on the old guy's lawn without permission. Another said old Jack thought Hanley was Manny, an allusion to McKeon's well-deserved reputation for forgetting and mixing up names.
The truth, of course, is that McKeon's first Marlins lineup card since 2003 did not include the name of his struggling and often sluggish shortstop because Ramirez showed up late for a clubhouse meeting. He also didn't run very hard in a Sunday loss to the Rays, the new manager said.
Batting only .200 before Tuesday night, Ramirez has been in the eye of several Florida storms. His run-ins with Fredi Gonzalez were said to have cost the manager his job last summer. Edwin Rodriguez, Gonzalez' replacement, tried a kinder, gentler approach before resigning -- some reports said he was pushed -- over the weekend.
"If you try to be a friend, that will get you fired," McKeon said upon his hire.
"I think we might need that," leftfielder Logan Morrison said, referring to McKeon's no-nonsense approach. "We got a lot of guys on this team that Edwin said don't play hard. Maybe Jack can kick them in the ass."
"I think he expects everyone here to play even harder," Ramirez said. "He knows we have lot of talent here. We just have to show it out on the field, and we haven't done that for the past 20 days. So, he's gonna get on everybody here -- if you don't play hard, you're not gonna be here."
Unless you're Manny ... um, Hanley. Ramirez' six-year, $70 million contract, signed in 2008, has more than $50 million remaining. After earning $11 million this season, Ramirez is due $15 million in 2012, $15.5 million in 2013 and $16 million in 2014.
Which means the softer he plays, the more likely no one will want him for any price, and thus the more likely he will be here, beyond McKeon's latest managerial term. And that makes McKeon's latest reincarnation his most interesting and challenging yet.
When McKeon took over the Marlins in 2003, Ivan Rodriguez was the only everyday player earning more than $5 million a year. The lineup included Derrek Lee, Mike Lowell and Juan Pierre, huge character guys who also had formidable baseball skills. On the bench sat 37-year-old Marlins mainstay Jeff Conine.
McKeon also had a slew of young, healthy arms, and a month's more of season to turn attitudes and records around. The Marlins were 16-22 when he took over for Jeff Torborg on Mother's Day that year. After his first loss in his latest tenure Monday night, the Fish stood at 32-41 and had lost 22 of their previous 25 games after beginning the season at 29-19.
Can they afford to sit a $15 million player? The Fish are due to move into their new ballpark next season, and the idea of a big dead one decaying on the bench and stinking things up seems unfathomable. No, Hanley must play, no matter how tough the old man talks, and the guess here is that Hanley knows that all too well. Brave talk is cheap -- "It's going to be his way, and if you don't like it, then we're going to find somebody else to do it his way," team baseball operations president Larry Beinfest said -- but sitting a sulking $15 million superstar for too long is mighty mighty expensive.
Manny ... um, Hanley ain't going anywhere any time soon. Jack is. He has the dreaded "interim" attached to his title this time around, and the conjecture is the Marlins will bring in another manager -- Hanley's sixth since arriving via trade in November 2005 -- when the new park opens next year.
McKeon told reporters when he was hired in 2003 that he was not a miracle worker. Someone reminded him of this the other day.
"I'm not a miracle worker this year, either," he said, and went on to "hope" for "some of that magic."
Meanwhile, in a less mystical statement made by the skipper, Ramirez was back in the lineup Tuesday night, batting cleanup against the Angels, and the Marlins snapped their 11-game skid with a 5-2 win. Because as any manager 67 and above will tell you, you're only as magical as your players allow you to be.