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FOR PADRE McKEON, TONIGHT THERE’S A CATCH : Don’t Be Upset If You See Him Rooting for the Aztecs--That’s Son Kasey at the Bat

Look into the home dugout tonight when the Padres play San Diego State in their annual exhibition game at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, and you might see Manager Jack McKeon showing delight in a hit off Bruce Hurst.

There might be a similar reaction if Tony Gwynn is thrown out trying to steal, or if Jack Clark is set up and set down on a mediocre pitch.

Before you doubt McKeon’s loyalty to his team, look first to see who is rounding first base or picking up his face mask after a perfect throw to second or tossing the ball around the horn after a strikeout.

It could be Jack’s son, Kasey McKeon, a senior catcher enjoying his last and finest season for the Aztecs.

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“I’m looking forward to it,” Kasey said. “It’s going to be great because he’s on the field this year. He’s going to be in uniform with me, I mean, against me.”

As a youngster, Kasey remembers his father moving from Omaha to Kansas City to Richmond to Oakland to Denver, plus every winter in Puerto Rico. While Jack moved where work took him, the McKeon family lived in Burlington, N.C. Jack didn’t get to see Kasey play baseball very often.

Even after the family moved to San Diego in 1981, and Kasey became an all-league player at Patrick Henry, Jack usually was too busy to watch more than a few games a season.

Tonight, Jack McKeon can be both a Padre and a padre.

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“It should be fun,” he said. “I don’t get a chance to see him play that much.”

As a player in the 1950s, Jack was a minor league catcher, as was his brother, Bill. Is it any wonder then that Kasey wears “the tools?”

Yes.

Kasey, 21, grew up playing infield and was a second baseman for three seasons at SDSU until last year. Before a summer tour of the Northwest, SDSU Coach Jim Dietz out of necessity asked team members who could catch. Kasey volunteered, and he might as well have thrown away his infielder’s glove then. He has been a catcher since.

And “he’s more than just adequate,” Dietz said. “He’s pretty darn good.

“I really think he’s one of the best catchers I’ve seen this year. Other teams come in, and they remember him as a second baseman with an average arm, and they always try to run on him. He throws out most of them.

"(The change has) really helped us as a team. It’s given us something we didn’t expect. It’s really given him a chance to excel.”

He has excelled, but not without Jack’s help at home in the back yard, the den--and the kitchen. The kitchen?

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“Right during dinner,” Kasey said. “He’d sit me down and tell me my butt’s too high. He got me to slow down a little. I was trying to be too quick.”

Said Jack, “He caught on real fast. At first, I didn’t like some of his mechanics, so I worked with him a little.

“When I watched him play against Florida International, I couldn’t believe it was Kasey. He looked like he’d been catching all his life. I was very impressed with him, and not because he’s my son.

“When he got home that night, my wife told him, ‘You don’t get too many compliments around here. You better sit down and enjoy this one.’ ”

Kasey has enjoyed the move behind the plate.

“It’s given me a different angle, a different view of the game,” he said. “You keep in the game more. You get to keep the pitchers in the game more. You keep everybody in the game.”

It might keep Kasey in the game, in a professional career.

As a second baseman, Kasey was a good fielder with average range who hit .283 in three seasons. According to Dietz and professional scouts, he was not a prospect.

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But as a catcher, Dietz said, “I’m positive Kasey’s going to play the game professionally. And some day when he isn’t playing, he’ll make an outstanding coach or front-office guy. He has a fair idea of what’s going on because he’s been around the game so much.”

Jack agrees. “I think he’ll do well. I think he’s got enough on the ball to be successful in those areas. He’s a very intelligent kid as far as baseball goes.”

Said Kasey, “I know some way I’ll work my way up. It’s in my blood. If I don’t succeed in the minors, I’ll know I’ll have given it my best shot.”

When Kasey left high school, it was that attitude and a hustle-to-the-end style that prompted Dietz to recruit him.

“I knew he was going to be a plus. He was a hustler,” Dietz said. “He was one of the best recruits I’ve ever made just because of the kind of person he is. It’s been a joy to see a kid through hard work and determination do well and really turn it around.”

Another plus is that he is a switch-hitter with a .280 average (fourth on the team) and has decent speed. He has stolen four bases out of six attempts this season and 24 of 32 in his career at SDSU.

“When I played,” Jack said, “I was a good catcher, but I hit three ways; right, left and seldom. He’s a better hitter than I was.”

A natural right-hander, Kasey probably is a better hitter from the left side, and Dietz uses him more against right-handed pitchers.

Which brings us to a certain right-hander on the Padre staff--Greg Booker, Kasey’s brother-in-law.

“I really want to face Book,” Kasey said. “I told him if it happened, I’m sending a line drive right back at him.”

Kasey gave Goose Gossage the same message in 1987 but never got the chance to deliver. The game was called in the second inning because of rain. But before it was cancelled, Kasey managed a single off Jimmy Jones. He then stole second, went to third on a fielder’s choice and was thrown out at the plate trying to complete a double steal.

In 1986, an 8-0 Padre victory, Kasey said, "(Craig) Lefferts punched me out on a couple of screwgies.”

Last year, Andy Hawkins got Kasey to pop to short in a 9-1 Padre victory.

This will be the seventh meeting between the teams, and the McKeons are not the only family to have been represented on both sides. The Gwynn brothers, Tony and Chris, played against each other in 1984 and ’85.

In ’84, the Padres won, 6-1, with Chris’ homer accounting for the Aztecs’ only run. The next year, Tony defeated Chris in a home-run hitting contest before the game.

Notes

Tonight’s game at 7:05 is free for those who pick up tickets at area Jack-in-the-Box restaurants. Admission at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium is otherwise $1.50, with proceeds going to the San Diego Leukemia Society and SDSU’s baseball program. . . . Bruce Hurst will be making his San Diego debut as a starting pitcher for the Padres. SDSU will counter with left-hander Rick Navarro, a 1988 graduate of Helix High. SDSU is 17-12, 2-2 in the Western Athletic Conference, and plays doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday against Wyoming (13-7, 3-1) at Smith Field.


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