This year, at last, it was supposed to be different for the San Diego Padres. After suffering for eight seasons from what appeared to be terminal expansionitis, the Padres seemed to have found a cure. Owner Ray Kroc funneled enough of his Big Mac bucks into the free-agent marketplace to sign A's Reliever Rollie Fingers and Catcher Gene Tenace. A trade brought slugger George Hendrick from Cleveland, and the previously moribund farm system suddenly presented Manager John McNamara with three rookie starters: Mike Champion at second, Bill Almon at short and Gene Richards in left.
But, as the old baseball saying goes, if the Padres are in fifth place on July 4, they are liable to have another rotten season. Indeed, the rookies have been disappointing, the manager has been fired, 1976 Cy Young winner Randy Jones is on the disabled list and the team has neither soothed nor signed its only bona fide hitting star. Dave Winfield, the huge outfielder, is batting .297, with 17 home runs and 58 RBIs, but he is unappreciated and unsettled. "Playing in San Diego means no national television exposure and no box scores in the morning papers in the East," he says. "No one notices us."
Certainly the All-Star Game voters haven't. Despite his outstanding season, Winfield is 14th among outfielders in the voting, and his only hope is that Manager Sparky Anderson chooses him to represent San Diego. "There aren't 10 better players than me in the National League," Winfield says. "People always want to know why Winfield is not winning ball games. Well, one man, two men, three men can't do it. If you took any one or two of the Reds and put them on the Padres, they wouldn't turn our situation around overnight. It's too heavy to carry by myself. If the Padres go places, I will be a main reason, but if they falter...." He pauses. "If they falter, I'll still shine."
The faltering began in earnest on April 24, when Fingers failed to protect a ninth-inning lead. The Padres fell below .500 and lost eight in a row. The pitching has been atrocious. The entire staff has produced exactly one (1) complete game, and Jones, the author of that feat, is off the roster, trying to rebuild his left bicep tendon, which was operated on. The Padres have needed 3.5 pitchers a game. Nothing has helped, not even the Sunday morning prayer meetings that have been watched over by the new manager, Alvin Dark.
Last Wednesday, in a typical Padre victory, Dark used 17 players, including five pitchers, to beat Houston 7-4 and end another eight-game losing streak. In those defeats, the right-handed-hitting Winfield clubbed three home runs, had seven RBIs and lengthened his hitting streak to 13 games. So, the Padres' 32-48 record notwithstanding, Winfield reports that he is alive, playing well and emerging as a complete ballplayer.
The San Diego management is less eager to report that Winfield, 25, is unsigned and unwilling to remain on a losing ball club in Tijuana North. In 1976 Winfield signed for $57,000 after failing to hit consistently over an entire season. But last year he led the Padres in hits (139), home runs (13), stolen bases (26) and runs scored (81), despite missing the last month with a leg injury. Although it meant taking the automatic 20% pay cut, he decided to prove his value on the field and start this season without a contract.
"There is no doubt about it," Winfield says now. "I have arrived; it's simply that no one has noticed." The muscular 6'6" 220-pounder exudes a sensitive, soft-spoken confidence. "It's a quiet, solid type of believing," he says, "but even if I did talk loudly about it, who would listen? Talk is cheap and the Padres haven't gone anywhere since I arrived."
Winfield became a Padre in June of 1973, bypassing the minors. After three years of pitching at the University of Minnesota, "Dave the Rave" was the Padres' first draft choice. When he wasn't pitching for Minnesota, he played the outfield, and when it wasn't baseball, he was a forward on the school's controversial basketball team. During the infamous Ohio State game in 1972, Winfield joined in the vicious, on-court brawl. He now says he participated "to protect my teammates." However, Winfield considered himself neither a fighter nor a hoopster. First and foremost, he thought of himself as a pitcher. Nonetheless, he was drafted by the ABA, the NBA and the NFL, as well as the Padres, who assigned him to the outfield.
"The Padres started me off pinch-hitting against lefthanders, but by the end of that year I hit better off righties," he says. "They planned to send me to the minors the next spring, but there was just no way." In 56 games Winfield hit .277, an average he failed to surpass until last year. This season he unabashedly declares, "Now I am a hitter."
Winfield stands back and away from the plate, extending his long arms into a deliberate swing. He is not primarily a wrist hitter and triggers his 33-ounce bat with a quick downward motion. He can send the ball deep to all fields. Batting Coach Bob Skinner says, "This season Dave has found a tempo. He always had great natural ability and that's why we made him an outfielder, not a pitcher."
On defense, Winfield's arm is becoming as accurate as it is strong. In April he threw out three Giants in two games. "Not as many players try to take that extra base anymore," he says. "I've embarassed them too often."
Despite their negotiations impasse, Padre President Buzzie Bavasi admits that Winfield is the perfect type of player to build a contender around. But Winfield is tiring of the Padres' perennial rebuilding in the media boondocks. Ominously, Manager Dark is already talking about the team's bright hopes for 1979. Wait till the year after next.