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Booker Seems Bound to Draw Criticism for Padre Family Ties

March 15, 1989|BILL PLASCHKE | Times Staff Writer

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — They lived just around the corner from one another in Burlington, N.C. They attended kindergarten together, played together as children, grew up together.

He pitched baseballs with her brothers, ransacked her kitchen cabinets for junk food, hung around her house late at night and bugged her when she returned home from dates.

One day, just before his junior year in college, he visited her while she was working at a Burger King and suddenly, it was different.

"It was like, she even looked good in a Burger King suit," Greg Booker recalled of Kristi McKeon. "I had to say it: 'So when are we going out?' "

Fifteen months later, the lifetime friends became husband and wife. He was a marginal first base prospect who had just joined the San Diego Padres organization. She came from a baseball family, and understood about the trips and late nights and the pressure. Together, it was going to be fine.

"Just like any two kids in love," Booker recalled.

Only, you know what they say about love. Blind to the fact that Kristi's father was a baseball executive, blind to the fact that Booker happened to be in that same organization and might one day . . . Well, Greg Booker and Kristi McKeon never dreamed about what a fine mess this marriage would make.

For the last six years, since he joined the Padres at the end of the 1983 season, Booker has had to cope with one of the most precarious and unusual and sometimes cruel positions in baseball. Not as a long relief pitcher but as a son-in-law of the Padres' former general manager and now manager, Jack McKeon.

Because he is no superstar--he has a 5-6 career record with a 3.76 earned-run average--it is a relationship that fans and players never let him forget.

"(The fans) are always on him, always about the same stuff, about how he wouldn't be here if his father didn't run the club," said Tony Gwynn, Booker's teammate and close friend.

Then there are the whispers from the Padre clubhouse.

"Even people in this room have said some things," Gwynn said. "Sure as I'm standing here, I've heard some things.

"Players say, 'Booker is here because Jack won't let his daughter starve.' You hear that time and again."

Booker, 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, is as sensitive as he is big but says he has learned to deal with most of it.

"I know I'm under a microscope, and that every thing I do will be judged by my relationship with Jack, and I can handle it," he said. "But what I don't get is, they really think someone would marry and have two kids and go through all trials just because they just wanted to play major league baseball? Do they really think I went through the National League Green Book looking for general managers with daughters?"

Booker had his best year last summer, going 2-2 with a 3.39 ERA and 43 strikeouts with just 19 walks. He even made a pair of impressive starts at the end, and will be counted upon this season as perhaps a right-handed stopper and emergency starter.

Yet he is still without peace.

"It's because it doesn't go away, the talk and bad remarks don't go away," Booker said softly. "I thought if I pitched well, that would be it, I would never hear about it again. I was wrong. It seems like it will never go away."

Three reasons Booker and McKeon have been accused of nepotism:

--Booker was signed to his first pro contract in 1981 by McKeon's son Kelly.

--After just two full seasons in the minor leagues, with a record of 15-22, and an ERA of 5.87, Booker was recalled by the Padres in 1983.

--From 1984-86, Booker was recalled each year after racking up ERAs of 5.25 or more at triple-A Las Vegas.

Three reasons nepotism seems like a silly charge:

--When Booker was signed by the Padres, he was not yet engaged to Kristi, they were just dating. And although he was signed as a first baseman, McKeon insisted that he pitch, which he had never done before, leading to his early struggles.

--McKeon has never negotiated Booker's contract, ordering it to be handled by another club official. When that other official was then-president Chub Feeney in the spring of 1988, Booker was offered a 20% pay cut and eventually settled for a $5,000 raise.

--Shortly after McKeon took over as manager in the middle of last season, Booker became a bullpen non-person. He made 23 relief appearances in the season's first 74 games, and just eight in the next 72.

"The bottom line with Book is, it's hard to verify that he hasn't had special treatment, or that he has had special treatment," Gwynn said.

Booker, ever honest, doesn't know whether he has been given special treatment. He says he's never asked.

"It has never crossed my mind to ask Jack, I've always had too much respect for him," Booker said.

Such ado about something so simple. Booker dated only one other girl before Kristi, who, after their first date, had Booker hooked.

"I took Kristi to see the horror movie 'Prom Night' so maybe she would get scared and sit closer to me," he recalled.

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