But Will He Be the RBI Guy Again?

Times Staff Writer

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.

"The chemistry is certainly better for him now, and he's happy and comfortable in a pivotal spot in the attack. With a player like Kevin, you measure his effectiveness by his aggressiveness in going after a fly ball or taking the extra base. That's where his personality comes through."

McReynolds wants to come through for the Padres this year, but he takes exception to being cast as a figure of central importance.

"I don't think of myself as the key guy at all," he said. "We have six or seven key guys on this team. I'm not the main person.

"I do feel like I'll do better than last year and maybe I can improve on 1984. This is basically the same team we had in '84, but our whole outlook is so much brighter, and we think we can repeat what we did that year."

McReynolds doesn't mind the pressure of great expectations. He has them himself.

"I think I do better in a tight situation," he said. "For the most part, I'll come through. Hitting third this year will help my confidence and should help my numbers.

"I have something to prove to myself this year. I know I'm better than I showed last season. There was a lot of criticism, but I don't think I was as pitiful as all that. I just want to show what I can really do this year."

Beyond the problems he had with Williams, McReynolds blamed his decline on a wrist injury he suffered in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series in 1984. Even after a winter of rehabilitation, the wrist affected him well into the regular season.

"After I had knee surgery in 1981, I learned that the body needs time to heal, regardless of how much conditioning and weightlifting you do," McReynolds said. "I hit a lot of balls to the warning track last year that would have been out of the park if my wrist was stronger."

Boros, based on his talks with Padre staff members, said McReynolds' bad wrist produced bad hitting habits. Efforts have been made to rectify those habits this spring. McReynolds' swing has been adjusted, so that he is now moving into the ball instead of pulling away from it.

Boros has encouraged McReynolds to show up early each day for extra batting practice, something he rarely did in 1985 as he brooded and chafed under Williams.

"Quite frankly," said a member of the front office who requested anonymity, "you wondered if Kevin wanted to play for Dick, or if he cared about getting any better. Now he's different. He's coming out early and working on his swing."

Right fielder Tony Gwynn said the improved work habits are the biggest difference he sees in McReynolds.

"You get in a rut when you're not going well, and your work habits are not what they should be," Gwynn said. "It's not just Mac who's changed. A lot of guys are working harder because under our new manager, that's the atmosphere that has come about."

McKeon noticed the difference, too. He said he watched McReynolds come alive, smile often and request extra defensive help this spring.

"I certainly don't think Kevin laid down last year because he didn't like Dick," McKeon said. "I'd hate to believe that. Maybe he was mentally distracted and got in a rut he couldn't get out of.

"I think he will see the light, but in spite of him being in a better frame of mind this spring, there were some areas that were the same as last year, when he was waving at too many balls with the bat. I haven't seen it all fall back into the groove he had in 1984, when he was really aggressive with that bat."

The Padres have assured McReynolds of their long-term belief in him, according to Selakovich. The night before the arbitration hearing this winter, agent and player huddled with McKeon and team president Ballard Smith.

"Ballard said they were committed to staying with Kevin, and since that day, we have never felt closer to the Padres," Selakovich said. "Everything has turned around for Kevin. He has a reborn spirit. The one thing he has to have in life is an equal relationship with people, and he has that with the new manager.

"Kevin is going to have a good year for one very simple reason: He's happy. He can love Jack McKeon and respect Joan Kroc, but they're not with him every day like the manager is. I'd just like to have a quarter for every fan who is going to change his mind about Kevin this year."

Selakovich suggested that McReynolds might enhance his standing with the fans if he dared tip his cap or raise his fist in triumph.

Garvey thinks that's a grand idea, too.

"I never showed much emotion early in my career," Garvey said, "but as time goes on, you learn we're basically in the entertainment business. If you can communicate with a gesture, it's a plus and helps get the fans behind you. If you have 30,000 fans in the stands, why not have 'em on your side?"

McReynolds cares more than he lets on, according to Boros. But it wouldn't be proper to show it if he couldn't do it honestly.

"Some people may be put off by Kevin's laid-back style," Boros said, "but I have seen some fire in him. Kevin doesn't want to be a phony. He has a sense of what he stands for, and if a gesture doesn't come from his heart, then it's not right for him."

Precisely, the outfielder said.

"The bottom line is if I feel comfortable," McReynolds said. "Let's face it, I'm not ever going to be the team's rah-rah man."

He may never go into the manager's office and pour out his heart, either, but at least he doesn't dread going to the ballpark anymore.

"Baseball is fun for me again," he said. "I always liked a looser atmosphere, like I had in school. I like it when you're allowed to have your bad times because they recognize the better part of you will come out eventually."

Boros is waging a subtle little mind game in which McReynolds is urged to seek help, but to think it's of his own choosing.

"What we're doing," Boros said, "is to give him a work program. We'll push him and guide him, but it won't really seem like we're trying to prod him. We just want to help Kevin get the most out of himself, so he can earn the money he deserves to get out of this game."

Those are words that just might drive player and agent to have another beer in celebration.

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