SAN DIEGO — Trader Jack McKeon--who blew cigar smoke for two years, but could never make a major deal--made not one, but two Wednesday.
Appearing alone at a news conference, McKeon--minus his cigar--announced he had acquired Yankee pitcher Ed Whitson, a former Padre who literally was booed out of New York, for reliever Tim Stoddard, who was booed out of San Diego.
Then he announced the acquisition of Detroit left-hander Dave LaPoint, who has struggled all season, for left-hander Mark Thurmond, who hasn't been too good this year, either.
McKeon--who had been trying to help his pitching staff since winter--said, "I almost had three trades for you. Shoot, I have a fourth I'm working on."
After the news conference, McKeon called Manager Steve Boros to tell him the news, and Boros smiled and said, "Really glad you pulled it off, babe. . . . Take a breather for a while."
But no rest is forthcoming for Whitson, who earlier was the 11th man on an 11-man Yankee pitching staff, and who will start here Saturday night against St. Louis. Whitson was an integral part of the Padre National League championship team of 1984, but signed a five-year, $4.5 million free-agent contract after the season with the Yankees. He told friends he never wanted to leave San Diego, but the Padres were much more interested in signing free agent Rick Sutcliffe and basically ignored him.
So Whitson signed with New York (speculation is that George Steinbrenner did it to get back at San Diego for signing Goose Gossage), but it perhaps was the biggest mistake of his life. First of all, Yankee fans were turned off by Whitson's big contract, because they had hardly heard of him. Secondly, he began the 1985 season with a 1-6 record, and the crowds retaliated with boos.
One night, a car full of Yankee fans followed him out of the stadium parking lot. The people threatened him. He panicked and ran a red light to escape. There were times he would come out of his home in New Jersey and find tacks underneath the tires of his car.
"His problem was that he kept repeating himself, telling these stories of what was happening, and they kept getting in the papers," said Moss Klein of the Newark Star-Ledger. "And it gave other fans ideas."
Whitson feared for his wife and daughter. He said he feared people would set fire to his house.
"He egged people on," Klein said. "The people knew they could upset him."
At the end of last season, Whitson got into a brawl with Manager Billy Martin, and this season, Manager Lou Piniella rarely showed confidence in him. One game, Whitson was supposed to start at home, but got sick and couldn't go, apparently because of nerves. The Yankees picked up another pitcher, and Whitson was last on the totem pole. Was it because he was a head case?
"That's a good assumption," Piniella said.
"In all my years I've covered the Yankees (more than 10), I've never experienced a situation like that, and I've seen a lot of characters," Klein said. "He almost had a nervous breakdown."
McKeon said Wednesday the Padres didn't re-sign Whitson after 1984 because of money. He went to owner Joan Kroc before making this deal and was given approval. Whitson has three years remaining on his contract, and the Padres are responsible.
"Yes, money was a factor why he left (in 1984)," McKeon said. "We wanted him and we tried to keep him. . . . But he's throwing the ball good now. In fact, some people are saying he's throwing better than 1984."
Whitson, after going 10-8 with a 4.88 ERA in 1985, was 5-2 with a 7.54 ERA this season. He's 31.
"I think Ed's problems were basically not being able to handle the atmosphere in the New York area, or--as Graig Nettles put it in his book--the New York zoo," McKeon said.
Whitson, who arrived in San Diego Wednesday night, agreed: "I definitely think this (the change) will help. It couldn't have gotten any worse there. . . . It's great to be back in these kind of pinstripes, that's for sure. I'm really looking forward to it. This place was like home to me and I hated to leave, but this is a business."
Tim Flannery, who played with Whitson before, was excited to hear the news.
"Whit is a gamer!" he said. "Talk about guys who won't give up. You have to kill him. If not for him in '84, we don't win. He won our first home playoff game against the Cubs. These people here will remember Whit. We had to win that first game (at home against the Cubs). I have that game on videotape. He struck out a bunch of guys, and he was yelling at 'em.
"He's just a good ol' country boy. I got my first big-league hit off him in 1979 (Whitson was with Pittsburgh), and he hit me the next two times. He said, 'Welcome to the big leagues, kid.' "
Stoddard, once he heard news of the trade, said: "I'm a (bleeping) Yankee now."