Jerry Royster strolled by San Diego Padres teammate Kevin McReynolds one day this spring and said: “What’s up, Messiah?”
Later, Royster was telling him: “C’mon, Mac! Lead us to the Promised Land!”
McReynolds answered Wednesday: “Well, I’m not saying I’m gonna lead ‘em. But I’d sure like to follow ‘em there, boy.”
But does this sound like a leader or follower? In the two Padre-Dodger games before Wednesday night, he was 5 for 9. He went 0 for 3 Wednesday night, but during batting practice he kept aiming for the Dodger Diamond Vision screen behind the left-field wall.
He came close, too--four times.
And while shagging fly balls Tuesday night, he showed hustle as he went crashing into the wall for a ball.
Not like last season.
Kevin McReynolds, the would-be San Diego superstar whose agent once compared him to Darryl Strawberry and Don Mattingly, wouldn’t do anything last year. Maybe it was Manager Dick Williams’ fault. Maybe it was McReynolds’ wrist injury from the previous season’s playoffs. Maybe he didn’t like baseball.
He hit .234. A lot of his teammates were wondering why he didn’t come out for extra hitting, why he didn’t work out in the outfield. Didn’t he hit .376 in Class A ball? Didn’t he hit .377 the next year in Triple-A? Didn’t he hit .278 his rookie year?
Royster led a task force (included was new Manager Steve Boros and General Manager Jack McKeon) determined to snap him out of it.
But it wasn’t working. This spring, Kevin McReynolds hit .205.
No one on the team understood him, except rookie John Kruk, who had been McReynolds’ roommate in Class A.
“Me, I didn’t think he wanted to play ball anymore,” Kruk said before Wednesday night’s game. “I thought, ‘Man, I don’t know what’s wrong with him.’ A few of the guys on the team came up to me and said: ‘You know him. Why don’t you talk to him?’
“But as soon as opening day came, you could look at him and see something was up. In spring training, when he was shagging fly balls, he’d take a few token steps and then jog after it. But yesterday? He ran into that wall. I said: ‘I guess he wants to play, and if he does, there’s not much you can do to stop the man. A lot of people were questioning his will to play. Well, right now, he’s got it.”
McReynolds said: “Shoot! If I didn’t like to play baseball, I wouldn’t be here. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right, does it? If it gets to the point where it’s not fun anymore, I’ll get out of the game.”
McReynolds doesn’t talk about himself, but Kruk said: “What’s he like? That’s a good question. What’s he like. Hmmmm.” Kruk went on to list some virtues, some flaws.
“There are three things you don’t do to him,” Kruk said. “Don’t yell at him, don’t mess with his food and don’t wake him up. Shoot, punch him in the face, and he don’t care, but don’t do those three things.
“One day in Reno (Class A), he cooked a bunch of chicken, and I messed it up. I poured all this salt on it. . . . He picked me up and threw me against a wall. He left.
“Also, he’s a type that if he does something wrong, you just can’t yell. You should say, ‘Kevin, think about doing it differently.’ If you start yelling and screaming, like Dick Williams did, he might go in a hole and never play for you. That’s why you’ll see a good year from him (under Boros).”
Here’s when McReynolds was first called Messiah:
“We met in spring training in Class A ball,” Kruk said. “He was a first-round draft pick, you know. He’d take two at-bats, hit a home run and leave. I asked him, ‘What’s the deal?’ He said: ‘Oh, I’ve got a bad knee.’ And then he laughed.
“But he was awesome, man. He’d hit the long ball, but he did the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. The hit-and-run was on with him at the plate, and the pitch was over his head. So he reaches up, swings like he’s chopping wood and still gets a hit. Most unbelievable thing I’ve seen.”
Here’s what he likes to do off the field:
“He’d go duck hunting,” Kruk said. “Right behind our apartment there was this lake, and this is when I thought he might be a little crazy. There were a lot of ducks, and he’d point to the biggest duck and say: ‘One of these days I’ll be eating you!’ And he also promised the team he’d shoot enough duck to give us a team duck roast.”
Here’s why he’s so shy:
“A lot of people misunderstand him,” Kruk said. “I honestly think he’s embarrassed to sign autographs. I don’t think he feels he’s special. I told him: ‘I’m going to get you out of your shell and get you talking.’ He said: ‘No, you ain’t.’ ”
Royster keeps trying, too. When the team was busing to its hotel here, he grabbed the microphone and began preaching: “Yes, we can go to the promised land!”
And the players were saying: “Amen, Amen.”
Royster, continuing: “And Kevin McReynolds will lead us!”
Kruk remembers how his buddy reacted: “He said: ‘Shut up. Shut up.’ ”