Thursday, November 11, 1999

McKeon takes view longer than contract




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        What Jack McKeon does best is wisdom. He is a 68-year-old manager with a one-year contract who operates as if he owned a lifetime deal and the life expectancy of Methuselah.

        In a baseball business replete with short-sighted, narrow-focused quick fixes, McKeon takes the long view of the big picture. If he is a lame duck with the Cincinnati Reds — if some players are politicking against him and management's support is only lukewarm — McKeon nonetheless behaves as if it were protecting a family business.

        He was named the National League's Manager of the Year Wednesday because he coaxed 96 wins out of a low-budget ballclub. He deserves another award for resisting the temptation to trade tomorrow for today, even though that might be the surest way to keep his job.

        While Reds General Manager Jim Bowden is openly infatuated with the prospect of trading for Ken Griffey Jr., McKeon's enthusiasm has been notably muted. Much as Griffey's presence in next year's lineup might enhance McKeon's unfulfilled quest for a World Series ring, the Reds manager questions the long-term cost of trading away young players and top prospects for a player one year removed from free agency.

        Though the industry imperative is to win now or else, McKeon tends to prefer patience. Other managers in his position might be inclined to splurge — to forsake top prospects in the name of self-preservation — but McKeon's natural inclination is to save. He has been around baseball long enough to know that those who go for broke often wind up that way.

        “There's no question you'd like to have a guy like (Griffey),” McKeon said Wednesday afternoon at Cinergy Field. “He could make a difference. But are you in a position to re-sign him and keep enough of the nucleus you've got? You're damned if you, damned if you don't.”

Questions about Senior
        Because Seattle General Manager Pat Gillick has set a high price on his renowned center fielder, the Reds are presently disinclined to make a deal. But as Reds Managing Executive John Allen observed Wednesday, Gillick's price is “subject to fluctuation.” If the market won't bear what the Mariners seek, they may still make a deal before losing Griffey as a free agent. On those terms, McKeon said, the trade becomes much more attractive.

        Though there has been considerable speculation to the contrary, McKeon's concerns about doing the deal are probably more competitive than personal. He is right to resist swapping Sean Casey or Pokey Reese for a one-year commitment from Griffey, and if he feels at all threatened by having Ken Griffey Sr. among his coaches, he probably shouldn't.

        Some Reds executives have wondered aloud about the propriety and potential conflicts in promoting the father to woo the son. Several have questioned the managerial aptitude of a coach who staged a one-day walkout last year over a perceived snub and returned complaining about being pinch-hit for during the 1975 World Series.

        Yet those who would like to ease McKeon toward the exits are motivated as much by his managerial style as the appeal of any prospective replacement.

On the right track
        McKeon delegates so much of his authority that some wonder what he really does. He plays favorites — both in the clubhouse and on his coaching staff — and sometimes neglects those beyond his inner circle. His relationships with Barry Larkin and Greg Vaughn were conspicuously cool. His contentious relationship with Brett Tomko is probably counterproductive.

        That said, the mellow McKeon was the right choice to replace the manic Ray Knight in 1997, and he has improved with age. He has nurtured young players like Casey and Reese by affording opportunity and rationing pressure.

        “When I came in here, the idea was to build the club up with an infusion of young players and being patient with them,” McKeon said. “I think we're on the right track and I think we ought to stay that way.”

        Smart guy.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.