Runners stand at every base. The pitcher glances at them one by one from his vantage point on the mound, as if he is hoping they will evaporate, will reveal themselves to be characters in a bad dream that will end if he concentrates hard enough. Wake up, wake up! But the runners remain; the situation is real. For the pitcher, it is an unfortunate situation. The batter is Carmelo Martinez, the Padres' left fielder, a young slugger with a baby face and shoulders that practically bulge out of his uniform. The pitcher winds up and throws; Martinez watches the pitch goby. “Strike two!" cries the umpire.
In his box high behind home plate, the Padres’ general manager. Jack McKeon, takes a cigar out of his mouth momentarily. “You gotta jump on pitches like that in this situation," he remarks. “You don't need a good eye here, you gotta knock the runners in."
The pitcher (a member of the Houston Astros) wipes sweat from his forehead with his glove, steps off the pitching rubber, walks down behind the mound, picks up the rosin bag that is lying there, throws it down, walks back up on the mound and puts his foot on the rubber, glances into the stands, then squints at his catcher. Is there anything else he can do to delay throwing the next pitch? No. It is time. He winds up and throws, but the ball never quite reaches home plate. As it nears the plate s vicinity it is intercepted by Martinez's bat, and with a crisp, loud crack! the ball Hies like a waist-high rifle shot between the shortstop and the second baseman. Before either of them can take more than a step toward it, it is past them, skittering into the outfield: a base hit. Two runners come in to score.
McKeon takes a drag on the well-saturated butt end of his cigar. Smoke rises in a cloud above his head. Impassively, still staring at the field, he nods.
The afternoon is stiflingly hot.
Summer’s dog days have not only arrived but are turning out to be unpleasantly persistent. The team has lost nineteen of its last thirty-two games in recent weeks and has hit into more double plays than you can hear in a week of listening to 91X. Some of the players have been dropping throws and fly balls and otherwise' making errors reminiscent of the old Padres — the ones who between 1969 and 1983 lost an average of more than ninety-one games a year, more than any other team in baseball.
Still, no one on the team is panicking, least of all McKeon. In the last month the Padres have slipped in the division standings by only a game and a half, and lead second-place Houston by eight games. The Padres are not a great team, but in a year when other teams have been plagued by injuries and by so-called superstars who are having mediocre years, the Padres’ strength seems to be that they do not have any glaring weaknesses. For the first time in their history they have average or above-average players at every position (with several more on the bench), and this year that has been enough to give them an excellent chance of competing in the playoffs and perhaps even the World Series.
The turnabout was accomplished by cashiering the team’s old personnel over the last few years and bringing in a host of new players, and the man who is principally responsible for the changes is Jack McKeon. In the four years since he took over as the Padres’ general manager, McKeon has traded away some forty players and traded for forty-four. He has signed a couple of free agents and at least one college player who is now a starter on the team. Only one man who was a member of the Padres the day McKeon went to work in the front office is still around — reserve infielder Tim Flannery. “Who knows? Flannery coulda been gone, too, if someone had asked for him,” McKeon observed not long ago.
The numerous trades McKeon has worked with other teams have earned him the nicknames of “Trader Jack” and “the Sultan of Swap” — nicknames the plain-spoken baseball executive clearly relishes. McKeon had never held the position of general manager when he came to the Padres; he had never traded for a player, never negotiated a contract. Nevertheless, his success does not surprise him. He regards it as proof that he has an ability not possessed by many; that during his thirty-seven years of playing, scouting, and managing in baseball he acquired the elusive knack of being able to judge a good ballplayer before that player has matured or has even become very good. “I’ve coached for Jack McKeon, and I think his judgment of young ballplayers is as fine as anyone I've ever known in baseball,” says George Bamberger, a former manager for the New York Mets and the Milwaukee Brewers. “He's gifted with foresight. Other guys can only tell if a player has great talent. Guys like Jack, the top guys in baseball, can look at players with mediocre talent and see that they might develop into players with great talent.”
The game continues, with the Padres hitting line drives all over the park for a quick eight-to-nothing lead. McKeon begins to study a sheet full of statistics that shows the latest individual and team records for nearly every category in baseball, from strikeouts to home runs. Patiently he updates the teams’ won-lost records as games around the league are completed and their scores appear on the stadium scoreboard in right field. It is a chore he does out of habit, just to pass time; a new sheet with updated statistics will be on his desk tomorrow in any case.
Suddenly there is action on the field. A Houston player is heading for the plate, but so is the ball, hurled in a long, low trajectory by the Padres' right fielder, Tony Gwynn. The ball arrives a split second ahead of the runner, but the Houston player slides in safely before catcher Terry Kennedy can whirl and tag him out. McKeon swivels in his chair to watch the instant replay on a television suspended from the ceiling of his box, chomping down hard on his cigar. Again ball and runner head toward home, again the runner’s long leg stretches toward the plate, again his foot slides across it just before the burly catcher can tag him.
“Goddamn,” McKeon says, turning back to his statistics sheet. “Goddamn, Terry, block the plate.”
McKeon was named acting general manager of the Padres in August, 1980, at a time when the team appeared to be headed nowhere. Although there were different players on the field, in terms of ability it was little different from the team that owner Ray Kroc had publicly berated over the stadium's loudspeakers in 1974. A lot of people who appreciate good baseball sympathized with Kroc’s feelings, if not his style; after all, the 1974 Padres finished an amazing forty-two games out of first place, and had a team batting average of only .229. The 1980 squad had a composite batting average of .255 but finished nineteen-and-one-half games out of first — which placed them, as in 1974, dead last in the western division.
When he appointed McKeon acting general manager, club president Ballard Smith made it clear that McKeon had almost no chance of getting the permanent job. Yet within two months Smith formally named McKeon the team’s general manager. “There was a lot of pressure from my father-in-law I Kroc], the media, and the public to hire someone with a ‘name,’ ” Smith said recently. “There was a feeling that with my inexperience in running a sports organization, the person that was going to be making the talent decisions ought to be someone with a proven track record.
“But I spent a lot of time interviewing people [including A1 Rosen and Gene Mauch], and I came to the conclusion that the people who really had the track records already had jobs. Second of all. Jack went out and made some moves that I thought were good.”
What McKeon did, before and after he got the title of general manager, was get rid of a lot of older players with established (if mostly unspectacular) reputations, players such as Jerry Mumphrey, Kurt Bevacqua, Willie Montanez, Rollie Fingers, Randy Jones, Gene Tenace, and John D'Acquisto. They were replaced with young players that fans had never heard of: Luis Salazar, Alan Wiggins, Terry Kennedy, Tim Lollar, Chris Welsh, Joe Lefebvre, Tony Phillips, Randy Bass, and John Pacella. Many of these players later wound up being traded to other teams for other players (Tony Phillips, for instance, went to Oakland with two additional players for pitcher Bob Lacey, and Lacey soon was traded to Cleveland for second baseman Juan Bonilla). The Padres also made only a halfhearted effort to negotiate with their one true star, Dave Winfield, who became a free agent after the 1980 season and eventually signed with the New York Yankees.
To the public, McKeon’s strategy seemed like a huge gamble. It wasn’t the first time that a lot of young, unproven players had joined the Padres, and most of them had later departed still young and still unproven. But McKeon had seen many of the players he was trading for during his tenure as a manager, and was convinced they were players who could not only make it to the major leagues but remain there. (In addition, he felt Winfield’s attitude was a bad influence on the team. “We got rid of the bad apples,” he says now, expressing no regrets at having let Winfield go. And a nationally known sportswriter, who asked that his comments not be attributed to him by name, noted recently that letting Winfield go was “an excellent move. Winfield’s a loser — the number-one ‘Me guy’ in baseball.’’)
At baseball’s annual winter meetings in Dallas in 1980, United Press International sports editor Milton Richman noted that McKeon was by far the hardest-working baseball executive visible, often prowling the hotel lobby until three or four in the morning in the hopes of running into someone with whom he could trade a few players. “If you’re up in your room sleeping, you can’t make any deals,” McKeon told Richman. “I’m here to make the Padres a pennant contender as quickly as possible. Mark my words, they will be in a few years.”
McKeon is a short, thick man with big jaw set in a broad face — a prizefighter’s face. An enormous cigar fs almost constantly clamped between his teeth. His is ambitious, demanding, and not reticent about speaking his mind or touting his abilities. “I’m not sayin’ I’m a miracle worker, but I’m a winner,” he says. “I know what makes baseball work. A lot of these guys sittin’ in my position today [with other baseball clubs] are guys that worked up through the system as office boys and clerks, and they hung around long enough to assume the position [of general manager]. I’m not sayin’ that some of ’em are not good. But none of ’em can compete -- with me as far as experience — I mean in actual playing time, and knowledge of the game, and knowledge of the players.”
A bulge around his middle hints at the good life the fifty-three-year-old McKeon leads now, but his roots are in the blue-collar town of South Amboy, New Jersey, a community of about 10,000 people some twenty-five miles from New York City. His father owned a garage and taxi service, and McKeon drove taxis, fixed tires, and helped out in the family business wherever else he could, too. But even as a teenager his life revolved around baseball. “We didn't have the distractions and opportunities to travel and take vacations that kids have today.” he recalls. “All you did was grow up with a baseball. I mean, in New Jersey we’d take batting practice in December, in the snow. Or at night, in the middle of a cloverleaf on the highway, where there were streetlights so you could see. My father had a garage that he used to store trucks and snowplows and stuff in. Hell, it was a big enough garage that we used to take the trucks out, put wire over the windows, and take batting practice.”
John O’Brien, a high school friend of McKeon’s who is currently the assistant manager for operations at Seattle’s Kingdome, remembers playing baseball with McKeon on highway cloverleafs and in McKeon’s father’s garage. The garage “wasn’t that big, but it was a place we could play if it was raining,” O’Brien recalled recently in a telephone interview. “Back in those days there wasn’t much to do, and there wasn’t a lot of money around. Sports was the big thing. I can’t remember when we weren’t playin’. Half the town thought we were crazy.”
According to O’Brien, McKeon also had a good sense of humor. The two attended the Catholic St. Mary’s High School in South Amboy, and O’Brien remembered that “Jack had to stay after school a lot. Once, we filled up a nun’s desk drawer with grasshoppers. When she opened the drawer. . . well, she was the first flying nun. I think we got blackboards after school for a week for that one.”
In 1948 McKeon signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. He was just out of high school and got a $500 bonus. His goal was to play in the big leagues, but after three years of playing in Pittsburgh’s minor-league organization he tried to evaluate his chances objectively. “I decided to scout myself,” he says. “I was a good defensive catcher with a great throwing arm, and a good knowledge of pitchers. But I wasn’t a good hitter, and I lacked speed. I said to myself, ’Hey, you’re not going to make it to the big leagues as a player.' So I decided I was going to make it as a manager. I kept my goal the same, but I changed directions. And I ended up managing in the big leagues in 1973.” McKeon managed the Kansas City Royals from 1973-75 and the Oakland As from 1977-78, but not before putting in nearly twenty years as a coach, scout, and manager for minor league teams in Denver; Vancouver; Missoula, Montana; and Aricebo, Puerto Rico, among other places. As a minor-league manager he gained a reputation for pulling some bizarre stunts, including tying one of his players to first base. ‘‘We had a guy named Sandy Valespino at Missoula who was always running at the wrong time, try in’ to steal bases and gettin’ thrown out,” McKeon explains with a faint smile. “So I got a rope, and whenever this guy got on base the first-base coach would tie the rope around him, just to hold him there for a couple of pitches, then let him go. Teach him a lesson.
“I figured that when you're in the minor leagues you're a showman, you try to entertain the fans. But some of the clubs I managed were so bad I'd do something like that just to get [the players’] minds off losin’.”
McKeon finally gave up managing in 1979, burned out, he claims, by a schedule that had him managing in the United States during the spring and summer, and in Puerto Rico during the winter — a total of ten months a year. He came to the Padres as an assistant to general manager Bob Fontaine that same year, and soon had Fontaine's job all to himself when Fontaine was fired.
‘ ‘One of the reasons we made a change was because we didn’t feel there was any talent coming up from our farm system,” says Ballard Smith. “It appeared to me at the time that we were good at developing players who were very successful at the minor-league level, but who were not able to make the jump to the major leagues. I was looking for someone who could develop major-league players.”
McKeon did not turn the Padres into pennant contenders overnight. In the strike-shortened 1981 season the team won forty-one games and lost sixty-nine — good for last place in the western division once again. “We were playing just knowing that we were going to get beat,” recalled Eric Show, who was a rookie during the 1981 season. “There wasn’t a lot we could do. We tried, but we just knew that there would be something that would happen in the seventh inning or the ninth inning or whatever, that would be detrimental. The only thing guys had to look forward to after the game was eating the spread in the clubhouse.” McKeon went on making trades, however, sending shortstop Ozzie Smith and pitcher Alan Olmstead to St. Louis for shortstop Garry Templeton and pitcher Luis DeLeon. Juan Eichelberger and Broderick Perkins departed to Cleveland for pitcher Ed Whitson. Frank Howard, the manager McKeon had hired to get tough with the team after the dismal experiment of having announcer Jerry Coleman manage the Padres during the 1980 season, was fired, too; at the time, McKeon told the press that Howard was let go “because we didn’t make as much progress as we should have in fundamentals and in learning to win.” McKeon had had high hopes for Howard, but as Thomas Boswell, baseball writer for the Washington Post, noted recently, “Frank Howard was too nice a guy, [as are] a lot of people who are six-foot-seven and weigh 300 pounds. They learn to tread lightly so they won’t be perceived as monsters. Howard has the disposition of someone who’s five-foot-seven and weighs 150 pounds. . . . His undoing was that he was too simple and decent and normal a man.” Howard's replacement was Dick Williams, an experienced and capable if somewhat controversial manager, who has a genuine reputation for being tough on players when necessary.
Under Williams the Padres finished the 1982 season at 81-81, their best finish in four years. McKeon signed free-agent Steve Garvey that winter, and when the team finished the 1983 season with the same record, 81 -81, he kept right on trading. Pitcher Gary Lucas went to Montreal for pitcher Scott Sanderson, and Sanderson was promptly traded to the Chicago Cubs for Carmelo Martinez, Craig Lefferts, and another player. In January of this year McKeon signed free-agent Goose Gossage, one of the best relief pitchers in the major leagues, and in March the general manager traded pitcher Dennis Rasmussen and a player to be named later to the Yankees for third baseman Graig Nettles. All at once the Padres, long a benchmark for truly bad sports franchises, had one of the best line-ups in the league.
By his own estimate McKeon spends nearly 300 days a year scouting baseball players. Often he is scrutinizing players who play for one of the Padres’ opponents during a regularly scheduled game; other times he will journey to towns such as Durham, North Carolina, or Stillwater, Oklahoma, specifically to see a college or minor-league player who may be of interest to him. On the latter trips he is usually acting on the recommendation of one of the team’s fourteen full-time and fourteen part-time scouts, who mail reports to the Padres' front office every few days. Many of these scouts are former major-league players who regularly attend games between obscure teams from even more obscure places in the hopes they will discover some kid loaded with baseball talent. As the Padres' general manager, McKeon has duties that also include overseeing the team's five minor-league teams and negotiating contracts, but he regards scouting as his strongest suit and prefers to judge young players with his own eyes, even though such activities tend to fill up his already crowded schedule.
“When this club’s on the road. I’m gone,” McKeon told me as he sat in his stadium office one morning not long ago. “I’m either out lookin’ at a minor-league club or I’m lookin’ at some [major-league] players here or there. I want to be prepared. That way when some player’s name comes up [in trade discussions], I’ve seen the guy and I got an idea if I want him.
“I’ve probably spent more hours [working] than anyone else in baseball in this same position. I'm not tryin’ to outwork everybody for ego, or just to say that I work hard. But there are no shortcuts to success; it takes a certain amount of work. I said I was gonna make this club a winner and I’m gonna make ’em one.”
McKeon admitted that he does not know much about such things as Walter Mondale's campaign platform or the latest bulletins in the endless media frenzy over the fall of San Diego financier Jerry Dominelli. However, he can talk all afternoon about what it takes to be a good baseball player. “I like the guy who can run and throw,” he declared. “I'm not so much worried about the guy who can't hit. You can teach a guy to hit, but you can’t give him good legs and a good arm. Besides, you find a lot of guys who can hit and can’t do anything else.”
McKeon conceded that even a player with speed and a strong arm “has to be some kind of decent hitter” to be considered a good prospect, and added that what he looks for in a hitter is “power and a quick bat. You also look at how many ‘holes' the guy has in his swing — whether he has loops in his swing, or pitches he can’t handle; whether he backs away from the pitches inside.
“With a pitcher, all you look for is good velocity [in throwing the ball]. You take your chances on everything else.
“I like big guys, too, especially big pitchers, but that’s just a personal preference. They seem to be more intimidating on the mound. A lot of the most successful pitchers in the big leagues are pretty big guys. Lefthanders can be a little smaller, though; they seem to get away with it. I have no idea why.
“When I'm lookin' at a player I don’t get too carried away with his statistics. A lot of scouts are what I call ‘performance’ scouts. They go to a game to see some guy, and if he gets three hits they like him. If the guy goes 0 for 4, they have some doubts. Hell, when I went to see [Kevin] McReynolds for the first time, he went 0 for 4, and I took him number one [in the June draft]. He didn’t hit the ball well at all, but there was something else there. ... I liked the way he carried himself, and he had good speed. I watched him in batting practice, and he obviously had good power. ... He was a pretty good defensive center fielder, too. So it just happened to be one of those games when he went 0 for 4.”
That was in 1981; today McReynolds is the Padres’ starting center fielder, and is tied for the team lead in home runs with twenty.
McReynolds is, in many ways. Jack McKeon's ideal baseball player, and not only because he’s big, fast, and powerful. The general manager considers attitude almost as important as physical talent, and says he values a player who can remain emotionally stable through the highs and lows of a long season. McReynolds is legendary among his teammates for his close-mouthed manner, and his face is expressionless whether he has just struck out or walloped a home run. (He even told reporters recently that his wife often gets exasperated when, in the middle of an argument, he responds to her comments with blankfaced silence.) “You want to see a guy who’s got confidence in himself,” explained McKeon. “You don’t want a moper, a guy who’s going to get down on himself all the time. I also like to stay away from the players who habitually bitch and are not honest with themselves. Players have a tendency to fault someone else — the front office, or the management, or the coaches — if they’re playin’ poorly. A real pm will say, ‘Hey, I'm not doin’ the job.' Jesus, we’re not dumb; we’re not going to keep a guy out of the line-up if he’s playin’ well.”
Although McKeon and manager Dick Williams confer about what positions need to be strengthened and which ballplayers might be desirable for the job, McKeon said he never second-guesses Williams publicly about strategy or whether a particular player is not getting enough playing time. “I might do things differently sometimes, but I wouldn't second-guess him because when I was a manager, I didn’t appreciate that,” said McKeon. Williams agreed that McKeon leaves him free to manage the way he sees fit. “Jack gets the players and I run the team,” he said. “This is as good a situation as I’ve ever managed in, right here.”
McKeon, in turn, has almost total autonomy at his job, a situation unlike that of many other general managers in the league and one that is particularly helpful when he wants to acquire a player from another team. “The only time I have to run anything by Ballard is if I would dramatically increase the payroll — you know, pick up a guy who’s making two million dollars a year — or if there is an ‘undesirable’ out there [a player with a history of drug abuse or emotional problems] that I would be willing to trade for. But if I want to trade for someone tomorrow, and Ballard is in Florida or Chicago, I won’t sit around thinking, ‘Well, 1 gotta check with Ballard.’ If I think it’s right. I'll do it and then tell him. A lot of credit belongs to Ballard Smith. He has had faith in me, and he has let me do my job without standin' over me all the time.”
By all accounts McKeon is unusually straightforward when negotiating a trade. St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog (who completed several trades with McKeon in his former capacity as the Cardinals' general manager) said that “one thing you have to like about Jack is that he lays everything out there. There's no bullshit. When we want to make a deal we talk about it, and think about it for a while, and then if we want to do it we do it.” And as George Bamberger has noted, McKeon s style is the exception rather than the rule among baseball's general managers. “When you talk trades with ball clubs today, they kind of jerk you around,” said Bamberger, “They play games . . . they ask for a top player, and in return offer you some guy who can't even play. What they’re lookin’ for is a counteroffer. I think Jack more or less goes on the premise, ‘Let's not mess around, here’s what we want. Can we do it or can’t we?’ ”
McKeon himself bemoans the slowness with which most teams negotiate a trade, and it is not the only point on which he differs from most of his counterparts with other ball clubs. “A lot of general managers seem to get their rocks off by saying, ‘Look how many kids we brought up to the big leagues from our minor-league system,' ” he said scornfully. “Well shit, if they can't play, who cares?
“I’ve called up other general managers in the last month,” he continued, “and ...” McKeon’s voice trailed off, and he sighed. “And they’re not in. They're out playin' golf. That's great. They've got a second-division ballclub and they’re out playin' golf? We’ve been in First place all year and I can't play golf because I don’t have time for it. I like to play golf. I like to get away. But I don’t have time for it because / haven’t completed the job.” Actually, with the Padres virtual shoo-ins for the National League’s western-division title, even McKeon managed to squeeze in a round of golf one morning recently. But he only gave himself another reason to stay away from the links. Playing at Stardust Country Club with Tony Gwynn, he shot a ninety-nine.
Batting practice on a hot day; the flag hangs like a corpse on the pole at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Two hours before game time the players arc out on the Field, where, to the driving beat of the Pointer Sisters and Huey Lewis and the News coming over the stadium's p.a. system, they warm up and banter with their teammates and with players from the opposing team. The scene is punctuated by the steady thwack! thwack! of baseballs being solidly hit as each player takes his turn at the plate. It is a time when the players can relax, when they are still wearing plastic or rubber cleats (instead of the metal spikes they will put on for the game) and every third ball hit seems to fly over the fence.
’ At this rime of year, though — early September — heat and weariness are also on the players’ minds. “Right before and after the game, you're thinkin’, ‘Man, will I be able to make it through another game?” said Terry Kennedy, the Padres catcher. “But after the First pitch, you don’t even think about it. You’ve always got more [energy] than you think you’ve got, even in the heat.
“I’ll never forget one game when I was still playin’ for the Cardinals. It was about this time of year, and it was on a Sunday. We were playin’ the Reds in St. Louis. The air temperature was 107, and it was 152 on the artificial turf. We played thirteen innings, and I played all thirteen. And I remember the Fielders, when they d come into the dugout between innings, would stick their shoes in tubs of ammonia water to cool the spikes off. You could hear 'em sizzle. I ran a lot that day, and I lost thirteen pounds.”
Although they are tired, the Padres know they are almost certain to make the play-offs for the First time ever, and Kennedy and many other players on the team acknowledge that McKeon deserves the credit for putting together a team capable of accomplishing such a milestone. *if you’ve got the horses, you win, and Jack has done a tremendous job assembling this team,” said Eric Show. “He filled in some serious holes, particularly power. He alleviated a serious power shortage. Some people would argue that we still don't have enough, but he's made a great stride in that regard. This team is not awesome, but it's consistent.”
“Jack deserves all the credit,” agreed Kennedy. “When he decided he wanted somebody, he went out and got him. And when the Krocs realized how close we were getting [to a championship team), they decided to put out the money for the free agents. You don’t usually get free agents to build a team, you get them to put you over the top.
“Since 1980 we’ve gone from pretenders to contenders. I mean, we talked a good game before, but we couldn’t back it up because we didn’t have the talent or the experience. Now we know we can beat anybody, and that comes from developing the right players at the right positions.”
It also comes from spending the money that good players demand; players such as Garvey, Gossage, Kennedy, Nettles, and Templeton are all veterans with hefty salaries worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and even manager Dick Williams’s contract is worth a reported $450,000 annually. Nevertheless, it takes more than money to fashion a winning team. For instance, the New York Yankees and the California Angels have team payrolls in the neighborhood of $15 million; the Padres’ payroll this year is $7.5 million, and the team has a far better record than either the Yankees or the Angels.
The Padres are, in fact, remarkably free of contract disputes, and a number of players say this, too, is largely due to McKeon. Kennedy, the only player currently on the Padres who does not have an agent, was advised by his father when he negotiated a six-year contract in 1983. The negotiations, he said, were “so easy it was unbelievable. We offered, they counteroffered, we counteroffered, and they accepted. The whole thing took about five or six phone calls, with about two weeks between each phone call. Probably it was better for me not to have an agent. . . . A lot of agents are not well liked. And besides, I don’t have to pay my father ten percent.”
Eric Show joked that the lack of contract hassles “is due to McKeon's very clever philosophy of, ‘Sign ’em up for two years, at least, if you think they have any potential at all. Eliminate [binding] arbitration, if possible, for at least one year.’
“In all seriousness, though. Jack is pretty fair. ... I remember once when I was in the minor leagues I approached him about the fact that I didn’t think I was making enough money. He thanked me for coming in, said he appreciated me talking with him. I didn’t get the raise I wanted, but I got a raise.”
Not surprisingly for a man who came to his present job having spent countless hours on a baseball field but few in an office, McKeon says negotiating contracts with players’ agents is the least enjoyable part of his job. From November to February he spends much of his time, as he puts it, “fightin’ with agents” — time-consuming work that he often finds frustrating. “Agents are negotiators, they don't know too much about baseball. The majority of ’em are stat-conscious. If their client has had a good year, they talk stats; if he’s had a bad year they say, well, he's played in the big leagues for so many years, just like so-and-so, and so-and-so is makin’ such-and-such. . . . They've got everything to gain and nothin’ to lose.” Adds Padres' manager Dick Williams, explaining why he would never want to become a general manager himself: “The majority of the modem players have agents, so [the general manager] is not talking to the player, he's talking to a middleman who’s trying to get his client the best buck possible. Which he should do. But [frequently] agents know nothing about the game of baseball. . . .It can be frustrating as hell. Jack's blown up a few tinfes talking to those people.”
Although it has become commonplace for players and their agents to ask for special incentives in contracts, such as low-interest loans, business franchises, expensive cars, and first-class seats on every airline flight the players make with the team, McKeon claims the Padres refuse to put any special incentives in their players’contracts (with the exception of the contracts for free agents Steve Garvey and Goose Gossage, who have incentives for winning awards such as Most Valuable Player or Relief Pitcher of the Year). Yet only two players in the last three years felt they had been offered unacceptable amounts of money, and took their contract disputes to an arbitrator whose decision is binding: Tim Lollar after the 1982 season, and Juan Bonilla after the 1983 season.
Standing in a corridor outside the Padres' clubhouse deep beneath the stadium, an ice pack strapped to his shoulder after having warmed up and hit during batting practice, Lollar said the arbitration hearing that he attended to present his arguments had a “businesslike atmosphere.” (Also present at the hearing were Lollar's agent, the arbitrator, McKeon, and a specialist who represents the Padres in arbitration cases). “You hear stories about how ball clubs try to downgrade the players who take them to arbitration, try to make them look really bad," Lollarcontinued. “But Jack was never like that. He's a negotiator; he's shrewd. But he's not out to screw you. ... It was like a well-pitched ball game. Someone had to lose.'' The arbitrator decided in Lollar 's favor, but Lollar insisted that “had I lost, I would have accepted it.”
Lollar is still a starting pitcher for the Padres, and last year signed a multiyear contract without having to go to arbitration again. Juan Bonilla was not so lucky. Earlier this year he, too, won his arbitration case, but it is perhaps a measure of how tough McKeon can be that Bonilla was soon released from the team (he was never acquired by any other team). “It’s interesting to see where there’s justice in this arbitration system,” McKeon commented recently, noting Bonilla’s current lack of employment in baseball.
Another thing McKeon has little patience with is the promotional hoopla that accompanies modern major-league baseball. Earlier this year he rather bluntly took command when he felt the San Diego Chicken’s antics on the field were beginning to interfere with Padres players and the game. During a home game against the St. Louis Cardinals in late June, Ted Giannoulas, who plays the diminutive mascot, decided to celebrate his anniversary as a professional cheerleader by riding a horse across the field between innings. Unfortunately, the horse balked as Giannoulas attempted to ride off the field, and the game was delayed while stadium attendants rushed to Giannoulas s aid and tried to coax the horse off the grass. McKeon is reported to have said, “What is this, Disneyland?” as he watched the fiasco unfold, and since then, according to McKeon, the Chicken has been asked to clear his proposed skits in advance with the Padres front office any time he plans to perform on the field during home games. (However, when Giannoulas does show up at Padres games in his bird suit these days, he usually only lounges in the right field stands.)
The decision to curtail the Chicken’s activities on the field ‘ ‘was a club decision,” McKeon insisted. But he added, “You’re not dissatisfied with the Chicken’s performance, occasionally, on the field, but when it gets to the point where it holds the game up and distracts, then it becomes a liability. This whole thing came about because there was no clearance whatsoever about [what the Chicken’s activities during the anniversary party were going to be]. I mean, are we playin’ major-league baseball here, or have we got a circus? Before, when we didn't have a good ball club, no one gave a damn. Now, I'm interested in putting a championship ball club in the field . . . and I get upset when people block or hinder what I'm try in' to do, even if it’s unintentionally. The ultimate goal is to win here, and I don’t want anyone blocking the path of progress.”
Thomas Boswell recently observed that “McKeon is like a 1950s Marine, but he's a Marine who wouldn't sacrifice his troops to win. He's old school but with a brain, not old school and dumb, like a lot of people in baseball. He works almost twenty-four hours a day, but he seems to enjoy it. ... He certainly watches more baseball than any other general manager, and maybe more than anyone else on earth.” It is not surprising that such a man does not cotton to people who dress up in feathered or furry outfits and ham it up for the crowd, especially during a game; as a local sportswriter once remarked, to people like Jack McKeon, baseball is practically a religion.
Baseball is a complicated game, and one that continually surprises. There are nine ways to score from third base, and sixteen ways for a runner on the base paths to make an out. For reasons no one has ever been able to fathom, every year there are gifted college players who are scouted intensely, drafted, given thousands of dollars and the best training available, and yet never become quite good enough to play in the major leagues. If you stop to think about anything in baseball for very long, you'll either be crazy, or out, or both.
Jack McKeon approaches the game with simple concepts — get the player with the stable mind and the good ami — and perhaps that is why he has been so successful. Peering at the lofty peaks of baseball and the men who play it, he sees the bedrock below. Two of his simple goals — to become a manager, then a general manager — have been accomplished, and now only three remain. Two of them are to have the Padres win the league championship and then the World Series.
The other is to keep the Padres a winning team, and to McKeon, that means building up the team's system of minor-league teams in order to provide the club with a steady supply of young, fresh, talented ballplayers. Since coming to the Padres he has markedly increased the number of personnel the team has at the minor-league level, most of them coaches who train the players in the complex fundamentals of the game. The Padres have also increased their scouting staff, including adding three scouts to cover Latin America, where so many of the current players in the major leagues grew up. However, as he sat in his office at the stadium not long ago, McKeon gruffly denied that he wants to place special emphasis on scouting in Latin America, even though teams such as the Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates have enjoyed considerable success by scouting and signing a relatively large number of Latino players. “You sign one hundred guys, you might get one or two good ones,” he said, dismissing the Dodgers' front-office strategy with a wave of his hand. “The main idea is to get good scouts.” George Bamberger once observed that being a general manager “takes good judgment and a little bit of guts. You can't be afraid to take a chance on somebody, or afraid that a deal will backfire and make you look bad. You 've got to make a decision and then stick with it. We're all going to be wrong in this game, but the key is not to be wrong too many times. And Jack is not going to be wrong too many times. His best asset is knowledge of players, and he's not scared to take a chance.” The position of general manager, Bamberger summed up, “is the perfect job for Jack McKeon.” McKeon seemed to confirm as much as he sat behind his desk. Looking very much like the perfectly typecast general manager, he leaned back in his chair, lit yet another cigar, and said. “My life is baseball. My wife sometimes chases me out of the house, tellin’ me. Go on, get out of here, you're a pain in the neck. Go on down to the ball park where you’re happy.’ So I go to the ball park, sit in an office like this one, smoke a cigar, chew some tobacco, and relax. I'm in heaven. I'm happy. I'm right where I wanna be.”