Saturday, January 31, 1997
McKeon Reds' best salesman

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jack McKeon
Jack McKeon's sky is always blue. His cup runneth over with confidence. He is the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, and so cockeyed an optimist that he ought to audition for South Pacific.

He was selling sunshine Friday at the Quality Inn in Covington because it is the one commodity that is always in surplus before a baseball season.

Two weeks before spring training, the Reds cannot presume to chase the pennant because of payroll and talent limitations. McKeon's job is to keep things light until the club can afford heavy hitters, front-line pitching and expectations. He is as perfectly cast for this role as was Bogart as Rick Blaine.

''Attitude determines your altitude,'' McKeon said. ''The attitude means so much. Just like I try to sell optimism, I have to sell a lot of things to the players. My job as a salesman is to get some points across. I think the way we played last year has convinced a lot of them in the way we're going about things.''

Absent a lineup of established sluggers, deprived of a reliable starting rotation, McKeon must seek success through baseball's subtleties. If he were to prepare a highlight video to guide his players, he would fast-forward through the home runs and diving catches and freeze those frames where someone advanced a runner with a ground out or connected with the cutoff man.

33-30 under McKeon

McKeon's sales pitch this spring will be that sweating the small details can compensate for a talent shortfall. It is, perhaps, the only sales pitch that makes any sense for this team this season. Yet it is not entirely idle talk. McKeon has numbers to back up his notion.

The Reds were 13 games below .500 when McKeon replaced Ray Knight last July 25, and they were 33-30 thereafter. They allowed more runs than they scored in his first week on the job in July, again in August and also in September, and yet went 7-3 in one-run games. They made marvelous use of meager resources.

McKeon has been exhaustively praised for easing the reins on his ballclub following Knight's errant micromanagement. What has sometimes been overlooked in Reds retrospectives is that McKeon's team was smarter, as well as happier.

He took a few simple ideas and harped on them until they were ingrained. A lot of it could be summed up as ''unselfishness.'' A lot of it is corny. Some of it actually sank in.

''I don't care what they hit,'' McKeon said. ''My philosophy is different. I teach how to win.''

Teaches winning

Winning is taking pitches in order to tire the other team's starter. Winning is backing up the bases in case of a wayward throw. Winning is tapping the ball to second base when the infield will concede a run in the early innings. Winning is a lot of things you never see on SportsCenter.

''I remember Willie Greene at the end (of the season),'' McKeon said. ''I was so proud. In Montreal, he knocked in two runs in the early part of the game by making an out.''

After Greene returned to the dugout, McKeon asked about his RBI total. Greene replied that the last one made 91. McKeon asked how many times Greene had been in position to drive in a run with a groundout, and the third baseman guessed 25.

Do the math, and see how much it matters. McKeon's goal is to make his players appreciate that a manufactured run counts the same as a homer.

''Jon Nunnally's a good example,'' McKeon said. ''His philosophy in Kansas City was home runs. I told him, 'I don't want you to hit eight home runs and strike out 60 times. I want you to put the ball in play.''

On Sept. 26 in Montreal, Nunnally came to bat in the fourth inning of a 2-1 game to find the bases loaded. The count went full, and then Nunnally smashed the ball into the seats.

''He gets back to the dugout and (Don) Gullett asks him 'Did you try to hit a home run?' '' McKeon said. ''He says 'Heck no, all I could hear was (McKeon) hollering to put it in play.''

Jack McKeon's stories almost always have happy endings. It's part of his charm. It's a big part of his job.