Jack McKeon hears what he wants to hear. He sees what he wants to see. He has come to realize that the secret to successful managing lies in using one's senses selectively.
"I had Dick Allen one year," the Reds manager said Friday night. "He told me, 'When I wanted to come out of the game I used to just wink at Chuck Tanner.' I said, 'OK,' and then when he'd wink at me I'd look at the lineup card or something."
Young managers tend to pick fights with their players. Experienced managers learn to pick their spots. Their greatest asset is patience. Their reflexive reaction is restraint.
The Reds extended McKeon's contract Friday for several good reasons, but mainly because he wears so well. He is the kind of character a ballclub needs at the beginning of a rebuilding process: seasoned, sound, subtle and sunny.
McKeon is an old pair of loafers compared to Ray Knight's tight-laced combat boots. So far, one size fits all.
"You always have some controversy or problems or situations of complaints or backbiting, but we haven't had any with Jack so far," said Reds General Manager Jim Bowden. "Everything has been smooth. I think people appreciate his honesty, his straightforwardness. If he says he's going to play you, he plays you. If he says he's not going to play you, he doesn't play you. He's very up-front with the players."
It sounds so simple, but managerial consistency can be harder to stick to than a diet of carrot sticks. The pressure to win - both external and self-imposed - causes some skippers to reassess their loyalties on an inning-by-inning basis. Lou Piniella is like that, and Ray Knight ruled the Reds with a waffle iron hand.
McKeon is made of more forgiving stuff. He was a young man in a hurry once upon a time, but at 66 he has stopped trying to impress people. If the Reds want to go with the likes of Jon Nunnally and Chris Stynes, Jack McKeon is happy to go along.
"When I took over the San Diego club in 1988, I felt I was a much better manager than I had been in my previous experience in Kansas City and Oakland," he said Friday. "I was more patient with players. I didn't let little petty things bother me and I was able to defuse a lot of situations."
When a player he has pulled from a game decides to blow off some steam in the dugout, McKeon gives him a wide berth and a deaf ear. When a player makes a mental mistake - which is a common affliction among young players - McKeon prefers to discuss it the next day, and privately.
"The first time you take one of these guys and chew their ass in front of people, you put fear in them," he said. "The best way to develop these guys is sugar, not vinegar."
He will perform no miracles here. In parts of nine seasons as a major-league manager, McKeon has yet to finish first. Nor is he likely to do so next season, with the Reds determined to trim payroll.
McKeon's job description is to nurture the Reds' young players so that they might be ready for some future pennant race, though his job performance suggests they might have made a run this year had a change been made sooner.
After a 43-56 start under Knight, the Reds were 28-26 under McKeon after Friday's game with Houston. In the National League Central, a team can win merely by treading water.
"We were not concerned with wins and losses," Bowden said. "We wanted to get the ship righted and headed in the right direction. We feel that Jack has stabilized our clubhouse, has done a great job of developing our young players and he even has a winning record . . . He made the decision very easy for us."
Considering the talent at his disposal, Jack McKeon's record demanded an encore performance. But it is his style and not his stats that have made McKeon such a good fit. He is old enough to know what he's gotten himself into, and wise enough not to worry.