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For Padres’ Greg Booker, 1988 ‘Has Been the Worst’

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Times Staff Writer

You’d think it would be the other way around. You’d think the words that climb up under Greg Booker’s shirt and make his skin clammy would come from adults. They are the ones who should know better. They are the ones who have lived long enough to understand failure.

But adults don’t bother him. When an adult is calling him names and accusing him of being the manager’s pet, he becomes an adult himself, a strongman from rural North Carolina who can handle anything out of the stands that doesn’t draw blood.

The problem is the kids. What has made this the longest summer in Booker’s life is the kids. At schools, at clinics, various charities--everywhere he goes in spreading this Padre good will.

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Everywhere there are kids, and there are questions,

“Little kids come up and ask me how come I don’t play,” Booker says softly. “They ask, am I still on the club? Am I a coach? The biggest one this year is: Am I the bullpen coach?”

They ask, and Booker can’t answer. Booker looks down at them and becomes just like them, just another kid.

“I’m thinking, what can I tell them, that I’m terrible?” he says. “What can I possibly say that would be the truth?

“What scares me is my own boy, Zachary (age 3). What do I tell him when he’s old enough to ask, how come I leave home for two weeks but never work? How come daddy never pitches?”

There are bad seasons, and then there are rotten seasons, and then there are seasons when you drive to work at 2 p.m, and your day is already ruined.

You can guess which kind of season Greg Booker is having just by looking at him. He still smiles; he says as long as he has work, he will smile. But you can see in the tight corners of his mouth that this smile hurts. In what will go down as the grand irony of the 1988 season, Booker has had little reason to join in the celebration since his father-in-law, Jack McKeon, took over as manager.

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“I’m not complaining, I’m just making a statement,” said Booker, finishing his second full summer here. “Personally, this season has been the worst.”

In looking for reasons why, start with this: By the time the season ends, all 162 games covering 180 days, Booker will have worked about nine hours.

He will have appeared in probably 33 games, pitching about 55 innings at, what, about 10 minutes per half-inning? Yeah, nine hours.

When he appeared in Sunday afternoon’s game against San Francisco, it was his first home appearance in nearly two months . Twice this year he has gone 17 days without pitching. Another time, 15 days.

When he has pitched, he has not made the most of it, at least partially because he doesn’t pitch enough to know what the most of it is. Entering the first game of an eight-game Padre trip here today, Booker had allowed 61 hits in 51. He had allowed 22 runs for a 3.86 ERA, the second highest on the team.

For this he will receive around $100,000 this year, which at age 28 makes him one of the most fortunate men in the United States.

But he has received more. He has received more boos and catcalls and references to making a career out of being McKeon’s son-in-law than ever before. He’s had people scream at him about being the worst player in the bullpen, on the team, in the leagues. One woman was heard telling him he was the worst player in the 20-year history of the San Diego Padres.

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“They yell when I’m down in the bullpen, where it’s real quiet and everybody can hear them,” Booker said. “People will actually stop watching the game just so they can mess with me.”

How bad has it gotten? Booker is being booed even worse than Chris Brown.

Sunday against San Francisco, when he pitched for the first time in 15 days and couldn’t find his mechanics and allowed two runs in two innings, he was booed so badly he wanted to leave the mound and go into the stands to chase those boos. Booker is one of the mildest-mannered people in the clubhouse. That’s how bad it has gotten.

Tim Flannery, who constantly sees things others on the Padres never see, recognized it in Booker’s eyes and hustled to the mound to calm him down.

“He told me, ‘Book, it ain’t worth it,’ ” Booker said. “And I know, it ain’t. You’ve got to suck it up. You’ve got to be a man about it.”

Booker knows a little bit about that. He is one of the team leaders in off-field appearances. The word is that Booker will do anything involving kids. He does hospitals, clinics, pep rallies.

“And I get off the bus and all any of the kids wants to know is, where is Tony Gwynn? Why can’t John Kruk be here?” he said. “Then I get back to the ballpark that night, and they are booing me again.

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“I’m sorry, but I just don’t deserve that treatment. I know I haven’t pitched well, but it’s been under tough circumstances, and I’ve done everything else I can for this club.”

He paused and lowered his voice. “You know something? I’m slowly starting to believe that nice guys really do finish last.”

Maybe not. Although McKeon is reluctant to comment on Booker’s future, sources say the Padres will work this winter to trade Booker and take away of stigma of his being related to the manager and lost in the bullpen.

“I take full responsibility for what he’s done this year, we made a commitment to go longer with our starting pitchers, and that has kept him from being sharp,” McKeon said. “I wish the fans would stop putting all the blame on him.”

Yes, McKeon and his son-in-law talk all the time. About garage doors. About ceilings.

“I’m his repair man,” Booker said. “Anytime they need something fixed at the house, I come over and bring the family, and after I fix it, we all sit around and visit.

“But we don’t talk baseball. We never talk baseball. I respect Jack too much for that. He has his job, I’ve got mine.”

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And Booker said if nothing else, his job this year has taught him something.

“Lately when those kids ask me things, I tell them to think positive,” Booker said. “Think that there is always going to be somebody better than you, and that the sign of a man is how you handle it. You sit back, you wait and you hope. And maybe one day it will turn for you.

“That’s what I tell them. I hope they listen. I hope I listen.”

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