Sunday, October 24, 1999

McKeon deserves better but lacks leverage

Can save face, or save his job

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ATLANTA — Jack McKeon deserves better. Of course he does. We all deserve better. But contract negotiations are never about justice. They are always about juice. Leverage. Pull. What McKeon deserves should not be confused with what he can demand.

        The Cincinnati Reds have offered their 68-year-old manager a take-it-or-leave-it, one-year contract with a relatively token raise. (Saturday story).The money is pretty good if you're the man in the street — close to $500,000 — but by industry standards, it is a slap in the face. Whether McKeon will take it, however, is not altogether clear.

        “The way things have transpired right now, it would be tough (to accept),” McKeon said Saturday from his home in North Carolina. “I've still got another day to think about it. I'll probably call Monday or Tuesday.”

        You'd like to think a guy who can get 96 victories out of a low-budget ballclub would be rewarded for his ingenuity. You'd like to think McKeon's efforts were worth at least a two-year deal at a significant boost in salary.

        Yet the reality of the marketplace is that the demand for McKeon's managerial services no longer outstrips the supply. Some years ago, when Cleveland General Manager John Hart was in a mood to fire Mike Hargrove, he asked some of his players about McKeon. But McKeon's name no longer appears on Hart's short list. If he doesn't take John Allen's offer, McKeon can not expect to find a comparable position with an other ballclub.

        The reality of the Reds new ownership is that Carl Lindner did not get to be a billionaire by bidding against himself.

        Lindner is known for paying his key employees handsomely, but he's also capable of playing hardball. That he would choose to play hardball with McKeon is both curious and suspicious. It suggests both ingratitude and a hidden agenda. Usually, you don't lowball a manager who has just won 96 games unless you want him to leave.

        “John (Allen) told me, "We're not budging one bit,'” McKeon said. “I asked him, "What if you bring someone else in? Is he going to get one year?' John said, "That's up to Jim (Bowden). I said, "Are you going to pay them this salary or more?' I got double talk ...

        “They're in charge. I respect whatever they want to do. (But) I'm above begging. If you want me, fine. If you don't want me, tell me that. If they had done that on the fourth of October, great. I understand. What I don't understand is the drag-out.”

        Bowden declined to comment on McKeon's status Saturday. With Ken Griffey Jr. one year from free agency, and perhaps only weeks away from the trade market, speculation has centered on a package deal that would promote his dad from bench coach to manager as a means of luring the son back to Cincinnati. Bowden practically salivates at the thought of the Seattle center fielder — named Saturday to baseball's All-Century Team — and he has seen to it that the dimensions of the Reds' new ballpark would be an inducement to left-handed power hitters.

        Some Reds insiders insist this scenario is implausible — that the organization would have to strip-mine itself to get Griffey, and would be hard-pressed to swallow his salary even if he agreed to play for less than market price. Still, if Lindner & Associates want to jump-start the franchise, and win back some of their disaffected fans, Ken Griffey Jr. is a pretty good place to start.

        If Griffey is not the grand design, however, hastening McKeon's exit comes off simply as clumsiness. It comes too late to keep Buddy Bell, the best internal candidate, and it prevents the Reds from competing for such worthy outsiders as Don Baylor and Phil Garner.

        The Reds rarely make managerial changes smoothly, but up till now the blame has usually belonged to Marge Schott's chaotic management style. While the Oct. 1 transfer of power between Schott and Lindner may have contributed to the delay in the McKeon negotiations, it does not account for the club's lack of compromise or the double standard implicit in keeping a manager on a series of one-year contracts after some of his coaches have signed multi-year deals.

        Did someone say age discrimination?

        “I don't think age is a factor,” McKeon said. “They ought to know me better than that. I feel like I'm 45. And I don't think it's a matter of whether the players liked you or didn't like you. What are the results?

        “I understood the fact that I took three one-year deals. I knew damn well if we didn't do the job, I'd get fired. But if there was ever a time to get a two-year deal from anybody, it's now. When we came in here, this place was in shambles. We straightened it out.”

        Asked if he would be willing to accept a one-year deal if there was more money in it, McKeon said, “It never got that far. Negotiations are give-and-take and see if you can work it out. It's not, "We're firm. We're not moving. That's it.' ”

        McKeon has been in baseball too long to misread the signals he's been sent. His choice is to save face or save his job.

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