By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
And that is all it takes to be the man when you are Jack McKeon, at least when you are on top. "I look at it this way," he says of autographs. "The day they don't want it, then I'm in trouble."
McKeon's quasi-exile in Denver turned out to be brief. San Diego called in 1979. Then, as now, the Padres were not a free-spending club and thus relied on shrewd trades and drafting. McKeon joined as a scout, overseeing some of the club's farm system. Soon, he worked his way up to general manager. Perks included puffing stogies during games with team owner and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc.
McKeon didn't necessarily make more trades than the next guy, but he developed a reputation as "Trader Jack," a persona that wound up on T-shirts, hats, mugs, and key chains and in commercials, with the GM gnawing a huge cigar and dealing bubble-gum cards of his players. It's rare in the history of baseball that a general manager garners such a cult of personality.
"I would say he was the central figure of our ballclub in the '80s," says Dick Freeman, the Padres president. "To people who weren't here then, it's hard to understand. I try and describe to them the days of Trader Jack. It was a different world."
With McKeon at the helm, the Padres drafted future stars Kevin McReynolds, Tony Gwynn, and John Kruk -- in 1981 alone. The Padres had finished above .500 only once in their 12 seasons before McKeon arrived. In 1984, his players finished first in their division and lost the World Series to a Detroit Tigers team considered among the finest ever. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had dealt with McKeon, wrote in congratulations: "You made some great moves. You took me to the cleaners."
In 1988, with the Padres at 16 and 30, McKeon ejected Larry Bowa, took over the manager position, and finished the season on a 67-48 tear.
"His meetings were always the same: 'You guys are playing like a bunch of drunken sailors,'" says Tim Flannery, who pitched for the Padres from 1979 to 1989. McKeon's bluntness back then was the stuff of legend. The manager told Flannery that the Padres probably wouldn't extend the pitcher's contract while the two men were in a sauna. "Not many people in baseball are like that," Flannery says. "That's the great thing about Jack. You go away thinking, 'I can't believe what he just told me, but it's the truth. '"
The Padres canned him after the 1990 season, and a couple of years later, McKeon, who always prided himself on his eye for talent, accepted a job scouting for the Cincinnati Reds. When the Reds bumbled in 1997, famed anti-Semitic owner Marge "Money-Grubbing Jews" Schott installed McKeon for the final 63 games of the season. In 1999, the Reds finished 96-67, earning McKeon his first Manager of the Year award -- 50 years after his first season in professional baseball. In 2000, when General Manager Jim Bowden acquired Ken Griffey Jr., the Reds finished 85-77, and that was the end of McKeon in Cincinnati. The Reds haven't finished even .500 since.
Marlins bench coach Harry Dunlop, who has worked for four big league teams with McKeon and who was also ousted from the Reds in 2000, considers himself one of McKeon's closest friends. The lanky septuagenarian has spent so much time with McKeon that Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote recently compared them to "an old married couple." The two attend Mass every day together on the road; it was McKeon, in fact, who introduced Dunlop to Catholicism decades ago, when Dunlop needed a ride to the stadium and McKeon stopped at a church along the way. To Dunlop, the idea of McKeon fired by the Reds at age 70 is grim indeed.
"I've never talked with him about it," he says. "But I suspect those two years he spent out of baseball were some of the hardest of his life."
McKeon describes his retirement thusly: "Now I'm out of baseball in 2000. I get fired with the Reds. I was enjoying doing nothing, seeing my grandkids, working with them. And I'd go to church every morning. I'd pray. 'Course, Saint Theresa's one of my favorite saints, the Little Flower, and she's the prodigy of miracles in the Catholic Church. I kept praying to her, 'Can you intercede with the good Lord and see if there's any way... I don't know what his plans are with me, but I'd like to have one more chance. I don't think my career's been fulfilled. I'd like to have one more chance. '"
In other words, McKeon in 2000 was a great deal like McKeon in 1948.
In a buoyant postgame reporters mob in the manager's office on April 13, with his papal blessing from John Paul II on the wall and the stench of victory cigar blocking the usual bacteria-stink of the post-game locker room, McKeon holds court: "You know why Wrigley made his fortune?"
Someone mumbles: "I think you gave us this one already."
McKeon, undeterred: "By sticking to his gums. Ha ha haaa heh heh!"
Then there's the time, some weeks ago, that the radio guy flubs a question: "Was that a missed sign with [third-baseman Mike] Lowell? On the stolen base? Did he miss the sign?"