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Booker Is Forced to Prove Himself Despite Relation : McKeon’s Son-in-Law Battles to Regain Padre Pitching Spot

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Times Staff Writer

Not too much has been left to be decided this spring in the camp of the National League champion Padres.

Starting positions are locked up and most back-up jobs have been determined as well.

Two less-than-high profile positions are available on the pitching staff, and one of the candidates might well have an advantage of sorts.

Or does he?

His name is Greg Booker, and he happens to be general manager Jack McKeon’s son-in-law.

“When I put on the uniform,” Booker said Tuesday, “he’s a general manager to me. Away from the field, he’s my father-in-law.”

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Booker smiled.

“For the first few years,” he said, “I took a little ribbing--but it was all in fun. Some guys said they thought I went through a National League book and found a general manager’s daughter.”

In truth, Booker had known the former Kristi McKeon since they were in grade school back in Burlington, N.C. Kristi’s brother, Kelly, happened to be a teammate and friend.

“I think I started going over to her house in the third or fourth grade,” he said, “but I was over there to pal around with her brothers. I don’t think we went out on a so-called date until my third year of college.”

And McKeon actually drafted Booker for the first time before the young man had noticed that Kelly’s sister had grown up. McKeon drafted him for the Oakland organization out of high school. McKeon worked for Charlie Finley in those days.

“But,” McKeon said, “Charlie wouldn’t give him enough money to sign him.”

Thus, Booker accepted a football scholarship at Elon College, an NAIA school a few miles down the road from Burlington. After all, he was an all-state quarterback.

“We didn’t have much of a high school baseball season,” Booker said. “Maybe 18 or 19 games. Teams in California play that many games before the regular season begins. And I always wanted to play football anyway.”

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However, he played only one year of football at Elon before he decided baseball was his game. And he was a first baseman, hardly a position a strong-armed, drop-back quarterback might be expected to occupy.

“I could hit a little bit,” he said, “but I couldn’t run. They played me at first base in college, but once in a while they’d use me to get one or two hitters out. I’d just rear back and throw it hard. I didn’t know the first thing about pitching.”

McKeon, meanwhile, became aware that Booker could throw. His son Kelly told him so.

“Greg had come over to the house,” McKeon said, “and Kelly told me he had too good an arm to be playing first base.”

And McKeon, by then the Padres’ general manager, was aware that other clubs had become interested in the kid from down the street and around the corner. He used a 10th-round pick to draft him once again in 1981.

And Booker, by then, had noticed that Kelly’s sister, Kristi, was no longer a little kid. She became his draft choice.

Getting together with Kristi was not hard. After all, she had always been there--even if he hadn’t noticed.

However, getting it together on a pitching mound was a bit more difficult.

Booker was big and strong--6-foot 6-inches and 233 pounds--but pitching a baseball was just a bit different than throwing a football. And a wide receiver’s “strike zone” is probably a bit bigger than an umpire’s strike zone.

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“I was miserable my first year,” he said. “The arm was there, but I had to learn to pitch.”

Baseball became a 12-months-a-year job. He pitched in the Padres’ farm system in the summer and went to instructional leagues in the winter.

After starting out with Walla Walla in 1981, his first full season in organized baseball was at Reno the following year. He was 8-13 with a 6.35 earned-run average and 157 walks in 162 innings.

“That,” he said, “was discouraging.”

Obviously, it was a matter of harnessing his physical talent.

“He’s made good progress,” McKeon said. “You look at the background of big guys like Goose Gossage and Tim Stoddard and you’ll see that big guys take longer to get everything coordinated.”

When he signed, Booker set a timetable for his career. He wanted to make the major leagues by the time he was 25. He came up with the Padres in September of 1983 and again last May 22 for what was to be the duration of a championship season.

“That was a great thrill for me,” he said. “A lot of guys go their whole careers without an experience like that, never playing in a championship series or a World Series. I got to play in both, and I’ll always cherish the experience.”

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On that May 22, an opening had been created on the Padres’ staff because Luis DeLeon was being placed on the disabled list. McKeon was sensitive to the fact that his son-in-law was among the candidates to be promoted.

“I knew the first thing people would say was that we brought up Greg because he was my son-in-law,” McKeon said, “so I gave the manager his choice of three guys.”

Dick Williams said he would meet with his staff and make a decision.

“Fine,” McKeon said. “It’s your decision.”

Williams came back and said: “We want Booker.”

Once again, Booker is in the midst of a decision-making situation. He is among maybe three or four pitchers competing for one or two positions, depending upon whether Williams elects to start the season with nine or 10 pitchers.

Booker has not hurt his chances this spring. He pitched two shutout innings Tuesday against the Oakland A’s, giving him seven innings pitched in which he has allowed two runs and six hits.

“They’re going to take the best people out of spring training,” he said, “and that’s the way it should be. It’ll be whoever shows them the most. Hopefully, I’ve proven I could pitch, but I don’t expect to make it because I was there last year.”

And he doesn’t expect to make it because he married the boss’ daughter. He has to get it done with his arm. His ring finger won’t do it.

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Padre Notes

Alan Wiggins had a big day hitting but a bad day running in Tuesday’s 6-5 loss to the Oakland A’s. He had four hits but was thrown out twice trying to steal and a third time trying to advance from first to third on a single by Al Bumbry. Kevin McReynolds hit his first spring home run during a four-run fifth inning against Don Sutton. Andy Hawkins gave up all six Oakland runs in the fourth inning. The Padres beat Seattle, 5-3, in a morning game. James Steels had a two-run triple, and Mario Ramirez had two RBIs. Jimmy Jones pitched three shutout innings.

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