SAN DIEGO — For some of his friskier colleagues, 4:30 a.m. is a good time to end the day, but for Kevin McReynolds, it's the hour to begin. Last winter, he observed 34 straight dawns from within the friendly confines of a duck blind.
It doesn't get much better than that if you're a country boy from Arkansas who basically would rather hear a blast from a .12 gauge than the cheers of 30,000 baseball fans.
Another sweet moment arrived shortly after 9 a.m., on Monday, Feb. 24, when Dick Williams announced the end of his reign as manager of the Padres. To McReynolds, the team's tormented and introverted young center fielder, Williams' parting words were like a symphony of honking geese.
Several weeks later in a Scottsdale, Ariz., restaurant, McReynolds shared a celebratory dinner with his agent, Tom Selakovich.
"Kevin ordered five dozen steamed clams and a beer," Selakovich said. "I've been close to him for a long time, but that was the first time he ever had a drink in my company.
"And he was talking about baseball, like the competition between Bip Roberts and Tim Flannery, and how good Terry Kennedy looked. Last year, Kevin wanted to talk anything but baseball. He was even able to laugh about losing his contract case in arbitration--we both thought it was funny that Jack McKeon had to sit through the hearing without smoking a cigar for four-and-a-half hours."
McKeon, the Padres' general manager, didn't gloat after an arbitrator upheld the team's offer of $275,000, rejecting McReynolds' bid for a 1986 salary of $450,000.
McKeon hopes that McReynolds will deserve a fat raise next winter--the sort of raise that might ensue if he hit .300 with 30 home runs, 100 runs batted in and 30 stolen bases. McKeon and Selakovich both believe McReynolds is capable of such a season.
"He can do anything he wants if he puts his mind to it," McKeon said. "I don't think he realizes that all the time. He can do whatever he wants, but the crux of the matter is, he has to do it on the field.
"Kevin can't blame the manager for his problems this season. Whether you like a manager or not, you have to produce. The ballplayer is the guy who's on stage. . . . You could blame Dick Williams for a lot of things, but he wasn't swinging the bat for Kevin or anyone else."
McReynolds' most memorable swing last year was the verbal rip he took at Williams after a game. In a statement that was shockingly out of character for its depth of feeling, McReynolds said:
"He'll play the power game to show who's boss. . . . He's tried to play Mr. Macho. You know, 'I-run-the-team' stuff. It's a little game with him.
"It's a big deal, but it won't get to me. If you've ever heard the word 'front-runner,' that's where he sits. If you look at his past, that's the way it's been."
Selakovich, who can rattle off about 10,000 words for every monosyllable uttered by his client, said he doesn't think the departed manager inflicted lasting damage to McReynolds' psyche.
"The $4.5-million contract we turned down (last year) wouldn't have been good money if Dick had been there six more years," Selakovich said. "Besides, money can not buy the soul of Kevin McReynolds. We're talking about a guy who could be happy on $12,000 a year and time to hunt and fish.
"Clearly, Dick's intimidation didn't work on Kevin. You can't fight him or force him to do things. He doesn't want to be slapped on the back or kicked in the ass excessively. Dick went overboard to pressure him, and Kevin wouldn't cow tow to him. I just hope and pray the fans will be understanding this year. The ones who booed last season just don't know baseball."
The Padres are hoping that the boos, the .234 batting average and the defensive lapses will disappear under the gentle prodding of new Manager Steve Boros, a man whose characters seems cut from the same cloth as McReynolds.
There is no question that the Padres view McReynolds as a pivotal figure in their bid to recapture the National League pennant they won in 1984, when their center fielder batted .278 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs.
"Sure, he is a key guy," Boros said. "He has tremendous gifts. Look at his numbers at Las Vegas in 1983 (.377 average, 32 homers, 116 RBIs). There's no telling what he can accomplish. He's a guy who can carry a team.
"But we don't have to get astronomical numbers from Kevin. We'd be OK if he could match, or maybe exceed, his 1984 season, because we have several young players whose best years are still ahead of them."
First baseman Steve Garvey called McReynolds a focal point for the Padres, and predicted that his elevation to the third spot in the batting order will help him.
"Kevin has tremendous talent, and I hated to see it wasted last year," Garvey said. "It was definitely a season when he stagnated--and probably learned a lot, as well.