R.I.P. to Greg Booker, a pitcher and coach for several organizations. He died on March 30 from melanoma at the age of 58. Booker pitched for the San Diego Padres (1983-89), Minnesota Twins (1989) and San Francisco Giants (1990). He was also the son-in-law of longtime MLB manager and executive Jack McKeon.
Greg Booker was born on June 22, 1960 in Lynchburg, Va. A multi-sport athlete, he was a quarterback at Cummings High School in Burlington, N.C. as well as a baseball player. He was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 32nd Round of the 1978 Amateur Draft but elected to go to college at Elon University in Elon, N.C. He was then drafted by the Padres in the 10th Round of the 1981 draft and made his debut for the Walla Walla Padres of the Northwest League later that year. Since he was an outfielder and first baseman at Elon, the Padres tried to use him as a two-way player. He pitched in a total of 11 games, all starts, and ended with a 2-3 record and 5.26 ERA. He also hit .188 with 4 home runs, including one grand slam. After that seasons, the Padres decided to keep him as a pitcher.
Booker advanced to Reno in 1982 and struggled, leading the California League with 13 losses and 157 walks. He at least ended the season on a high note, shutting out Modesto and beating Lodi 10-2 in the last game of the year. He finished off that last game by throwing an eephus pitch, much to the delight of his teammates.
“I don’t believe he threw it. We were talking about it in the dugout, daring him to do it. It was great,” said shortstop Ozzie Guillen.
Booker pitched mostly as a reliever in 1983 for the AAA Las Vegas Stars, and his control and K rate did improve. He was called up to the Padres in September for his MLB debut and got into 5 relief appearances and 1 start. He went 0-1 with a 7.71 ERA in those 6 games.
He started 1984 in AAA but was called up in June. He was a very effective reliever during the regular season, appearing in 32 games and going 1-1 with a 3.30 ERA. He threw 2 scoreless innings against the Cubs in the NLCS but ran into control problems in the World Series. He entered Game 3 with the bases loaded and two outs in the 2nd inning and walked Larry Herndon to force in a run. He walked three more batters in the next inning before being removed.
Booker spent the next two seasons bouncing between the Padres and AAA before establishing himself as a major-league reliever in 1987. He was 1-1 with a 3.16 ERA and earned his first MLB save by throwing 3 innings against the Cubs on a May 10 14-2 win. He was 2-2 with a 3.39 ERA in 1988 and had a career-high 43 strikeouts in 63-2/3 innings. Booker was an effective reliever, but he wasn’t used very often, much to his own chagrin. He went more than two weeks between appearances on more than one occasion, which affected his mechanics when he did pitch.
Booker, who was one of the most active Padres in off-field appearances, had to deal with being booed by fans at home and asked why he didn’t pitch by children at those events.
“Lately when those kids ask me things, I tell them to think positive,” he told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times in September. “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.”
It didn’t help that his father-in-law was his manager in 1988, as Padres General Manager McKeon took over for Larry Bowa after a 16-30 start.
“Anytime they need something fixed at the house, I come over and bring the family,” Booker said. “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.”
Booker had it rough in San Diego, but any interview with him is bound to include a couple of quips that will make you laugh. He questioned critics who thought that he married his wife, Kristi, because her father was the Padres GM.
“”They really think someone would marry and have two kids and go through all the trials just because they just wanted to play major league baseball?” he asked. “Do they really think I went through the National League Green Book looking for general managers with daughters?”
They’d actually been friends since kindergarten before becoming an item in college.
The 1989 season didn’t change matters much, as Booker appeared in 11 games (0-1 record, 4.26 ERA) before he was traded to the Twins on June 29 for pitcher Freddie Toliver. He spent most of the rest of the year in the Twins’ AAA team in Portland, making just 6 appearances with the big league club. In the offseason, he signed a minor-league contract with the Cubs, was released, and then signed with the Giants. He made 2 appearances for San Francisco in 1990 to close out his MLB career.
In 8 seasons, Booker had a 5-7 record with a 3.89 ERA in 161 games, including 4 starts. He struck out 119 batters in 264 innings and walked 118. His coaching career began in 1992 with the Cleveland organization, and he served as a bullpen coach and a pitching coach for the padres from 1997 through 2003. He was most recently a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Booker is survived by his wife, four children and four grandchildren.