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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Picking up the pieces
It has been just more than a month since the McKean family of four became a heartbreak for three.
By JOHN ROMANO
Published June 17, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - God knows what goes on in that room. And God would have to tell, because Jim McKean is not saying much at all.
So the sons watch their father, this tall man with soft eyes and an easygoing manner, and they look for anything out of place. Any sign that he is suffering.
And he appears, for all the world, just like one of the guys tossing around the usual barbs and jokes. At least until he disappears behind that bedroom door.
"He goes into his room at night, and there's nobody next to him, " Jamie McKean said. "And you just know how tough that must be."
It has been just more than a month since this family of four became a heartbreak for three. Ann McKean, mother of two college baseball players, wife of a retired major-league umpire, was just 55 when liver cancer took her away on May 15.
So now her sons take care of her husband. And her husband takes care of her sons. And all three try hard not to be a burden on each other.
But the boys know the old man. And they know, even if he won't say it, that it pains him to climb into a familiar bed that now rests empty.
"That is the hardest part, " Jim McKean says quietly when the boys are gone. "I'm good in the daytime. When the lights are on and people are around.
"But the nights are dark, and they're long."
Once, it was just another day on the calendar. The third Sunday in June might as well have been the first Friday in May or the second Saturday in July.
When you're a major-league umpire, summer days have an unavoidable sameness to them. You work on Memorial Day and Labor Day and every holiday in between, so why should Father's Day be any different?
He'd probably tell you that today, too. But, in his heart, Jim McKean knows better. He knows that on this day devoted to elaborate breakfasts and cheesy greeting cards, the best gift of all is simply being eligible for the honor.
My gosh, look at those boys.
Jamie, the quiet one, so thoughtful and so steady. Brett, the outgoing one, so expressive and so adventurous. One looks more like his father, the other like his mother. One is taller and leaner, the other is shorter and thicker.
They are 23 and 19, but have traveled nearly identical paths. Jamie won a state championship while a shortstop at Clearwater Central Catholic. Brett, a first baseman, reached the state semifinals at CCC. Jamie, now in his first year at Stetson Law School, won a Division II College World Series at the University of Tampa as a senior last year. Brett won one as a UT freshman last month.
"I'm blessed to have two kids like that, " Jim McKean said. "It obviously had a lot to do with their mother because their father was gone all the time."
Funny how the definition of normal can change from family to family. To the McKeans, it was nothing to have Dad gone for weeks at a time, only to see him fly a red-eye home from the coast to sit dog-tired through a Little League game and then jet away again for some big-league game in some other city.
To Jamie and Brett, it was not so far out of the realm of the ordinary to attend the 1995 World Series and have their father introduce them to Chipper Jones and Greg Maddux in a hotel elevator.
And, really, what's so strange about Mom taking a curveball off the thigh while Jamie practiced pitching, or Dad being called in a Yankee Stadium clubhouse to break up a fight between brothers 1, 000 miles away?
"That's all we knew, " Jamie said. "To us, it was weird seeing the other dads around all the time."
You should know that marriage and parenthood came later in life for Jim McKean, 62. He had, in fact, already enjoyed an entire pro career before that.
A native of Montreal, McKean played quarterback for Saskatchewan in the Canadian Football League from 1963-69, winning a Grey Cup with the Roughriders in 1966.
It was in a hospital, recovering from back surgery related to football, that McKean became acquainted with an attractive young nurse named Ann.
Jim would spend three years in the minors and nearly 30 more in the American League before retiring from the field in 2002 to become an umpire supervisor for Major League Baseball. The timing seemed perfect.
Jim saw Jamie's CCC team win a state title, and saw Brett's entire prep career. And he and Ann were ready to spend retirement together after so much time apart.
But Ann, who beat breast cancer in 2004, began feeling stomach pain in late April. They diagnosed liver cancer, and things went downhill quickly.
"I got to the hospital and my dad was bawling. I had never seen that before, so I knew it was bad, " Brett said. "At least we all got to spend time with her.
"She told me the best words I'll ever hear. I said, 'Mom, we're going to win you a national championship.' She just laughed. She said, 'It doesn't matter if you win on the field, just win in life.' "
Ann McKean died three weeks after her diagnosis and two weeks before the University of Tampa won its second straight national title.
What hurts, Jim said, is knowing what is to come. Brett's graduation from UT. Jamie earning his law degree. And the grandchildren Ann couldn't wait to see.
He is back at work now, evaluating and assisting major-league umpires around the country. Life gets a little easier each day, although Jim is still struck by the number of reminders of Ann that stop him cold in his tracks.
"You come across a plant or a tree that Ann might have liked and then, boom, all of the sudden you're in that hole again, " Jim said. "It's not easy but the only thing I can say is I'm not the only person in life who's had to deal with this. So I understand that. You just never realize how tough it is until you have to go through it yourself."
And so they go through it together. Jamie has been doing the grocery shopping and trying to cook. Brett has been in charge of laundry. They are learning collectively things like paying the bills. And cleaning the house. A lifetime's worth of chores that Ann seemed to handle without hassle or complaint.
A man and his boys, together still.
Somehow, the idea they missed a few holidays along the way no longer seems important or relevant.