No room to spare on the hardwood, and Toby Keith is backstage, getting ready to sing. Cowboys Bar is rockin', celebs are in the crowd, and there's enough overprocessed hair and cowboy hats to fill the Lubbock High yearbook.
There are two VIP balconies, one on either side of the stage. Texas Rangers and baseball hangers-on are on the left. Across the way, on the opposite balcony, the tables are still empty, and there is just one man.
Kevin Kennedy stands alone surveying the dance floor, looking like a cigarette ad model in the swirl of smoke and neon. And looking lonely.
Looks are deceiving. It is apparent Kennedy actually wants to be alone for a while. He has always preferred neon haze to the media spotlight; the latter has burned him a time or two.
Dallas Cowboy types and entourage begin to fill the balcony, and the manager of the Boston Red Sox becomes the center of attention, now sitting back against the wall. Kennedy slipped in and out of Texas recently on the last regular-season day off for the Red Sox, just two days after they'd clinched the American League East title.
"I don't want anyone to know I'm here," he says. "I am strictly here [in the city] to take care of some business, nothing else. I don't want anyone to know I'm here."
From the start of the conversation, it is evident that Kennedy, always sensitive to criticism, is worried about how it will look--to have left Boston on the day off, and to be in a bar. But he also conveys a sense of trying to keep his public image on a higher level, more befitting a successful big-league manager, a level we seldom saw through the neon glow of his local tenure here as manager of the Texas Rangers.
Kennedy says he does not want it to look like he's just coming into town to party for a day. And he is not. Let it be said that, on this evening, Kevin Kennedy was hardly the party animal. He acted like a major league manager ought to act in a bar--guarding his words, but not unfriendly.
That has not always been the case.
They've been working on that image, says Kennedy's agent, Billy Martin Jr., who knows well from his father's life and death what barroom images can do to a man's reputation. "He's done real well," says Martin, "staying out of hotel bars, just being aware of what can happen, knowing that's a place where he's real vulnerable to having a guy come up and try to start something or having a woman do something."
Pleasantries are exchanged, after Kennedy begins the conversation restating that he does not want it out that he is here.
"I love Boston," he says. "It's a great town."
I remark that it didn't seem as though he'd, well, fit in the city of Boston, as a rootless California boy with western affectations. "I don't think you knew me," he says. "I don't think anybody here ever knew me. I do fit in in Boston. It's a great fit. It's just that no one here knew me--I don't mean you in particular but the media in general.
"No one knew me."
Even the presence of a sportswriter at this table makes him uncomfortable.
I have not seen Kevin Kennedy in at least a year. Yet one of the first things he mentions is the first thing I wrote about him, that winter week he moved to Texas, calendars ago.
"Just don't write about the tanning salon," he says with a friendly laugh, but one that says he means it.
For gosh sakes, this is a ball manager who remembers a column note about seeing him in the tanning salon getting brown before spring training. He also remembers the column note about "the poster" from the Dixie Chicks, the country band friendly with him. Kennedy thought it too personal that a columnist would mention he had a Chicks poster in his office.
If these petty memories were so vivid, what was he thinking of, say, Jeff Huson, the former player who seldom had a bad word to say about anybody, but went on the record last winter as saying there wasn't a man outside of Jose Canseco in the Rangers' clubhouse who had respect for Kennedy?
Back in the present, a moron skulks over and attempts to steal a beer from the iced-down pile of brown bottles for the VIP table. Kennedy slowly grabs the guy's arm as a gentle suggestion that these beers have been paid for by someone else.
No one really even noticed. But Kennedy worried, though his response was hardly inappropriate. "See," he says, "it's stuff like that that gets blown up."
It is clear that if Kennedy took one thing with him from Texas, it was a feeling of having his life and career portrayed unfairly. And if he has learned anything new after a season in Boston--other than how it feels to win--it is how a manager is a role model, if only to his team.
"There were some things written [last year] that were inaccurate and blown out of proportion," he says. "I don't need a story tonight."
It is no secret that it got ugly here at the end. Kennedy had a reputation for badmouthing players behind their backs. They, in turn, criticized his clubhouse image and personal life. It would indeed be difficult to find a former player, save Canseco, who does not have something bad to say about Kevin Kennedy.
Yet here it is September, and the old skipper is taking the Red Sox to the playoffs. And the new guy in Texas, Johnny Oates, is criticizing his players to the media as the Texas Rangers choke on another chicken bone at the late-September picnic.
"I'm having a lot of fun," Kennedy says. "Everything's great. I just don't want anyone to know I'm here."
It might look bad.
If nothing else, give Kennedy credit for trying to present a different image than the one he honed in the 'kicker dance halls of North Arlington and Dallas in 1993 and '94. There he was a throwback to the ballplayer of another era, the one that became extinct from heavy amounts of testosterone, neon, and beer.
"You know we used to see him in Cutters," said an athlete's wife, observing Kennedy's behavior. "He was just wild. Just awful. Tonight he seems completely different. He is acting completely different."
The singer on stage announces that Kennedy is here as the spotlight searches for the guy with the short auburn hair and Marlboro mustache. You can just see Kennedy cringe, before waving reluctantly when the glare hits him.
Fairly or not, he was known as the manager who liked to buddy-up to the stars on the team. This night, the stars came to him.
Purposely segregating himself from the baseball players across the way, Kennedy is greeted and congratulated by Cowboys assistant coach Joe Avezanno, backup QB Wade Wilson, Troy Aikman, and other assorted and former players--football players.
After shaking hands and wishing Kennedy well, Aikman sits at the table next to him. It's a tableau of two very different but successful men. Aikman starts in on one of three hot dogs before him as the usual procession of glassy-eyed young women come to stare at him and try to talk.
A brunette in a body suit stops near Troy and begins to babble like she's choking on Jell-o. Funny thing, though: she walks to Kennedy and acts just as awestruck. Some even pass babe-meister Aikman to talk to the guy from Boston who is going to the playoffs.
Success is a great aphrodisiac, and to his credit, Kennedy handles the attention rather maturely this evening.
"You know," says a former Dallas Cowboy eyeing the situation, "winning the American League East sure has an effect on women."
It, and the criticism which came before, seem to have an effect on Kennedy. "Burn" is a word he repeats several times this evening, describing his time here in Texas. The burn is still obvious, even as the chill of fall and a potential autumn classic await in Boston.
Did we burn him? Or does he just ignite easily?
Coach Joe shakes Kennedy's hand again and gives him a big guy-hug. Someone else tells him they wondered why he was standing on this balcony all by himself earlier.
"Uh," he says, pausing, "I just didn't want to be over there with the Rangers."
On both sides, it is a disquieting reunion at best.