Having already acquired leftfielder Rickey Henderson, first
baseman Wally Joyner and righthander Bob Tewksbury during this
off-season, the San Diego Padres announced on Feb. 6 the
addition of yet another thirtysomething veteran. And they did so
to the accompaniment of a three-piece band and a gospel choir.
The guy worthy of such fanfare is a jovial sort who was with the
Padres previously, has the look and ample silhouette of Buddy
Hackett, and swings a big bat with a mean uppercut.
No, John Kruk is not returning. San Diego is bringing back the
cartoonish mascot known as the Swinging Friar, whose association
with the team began in 1958 with the Pacific Coast League Padres
and ended, inexplicably and some would say ominously, after San
Diego's only World Series appearance, in 1984. Defrocked, the
Padres have finished within seven games of first place only once
in the 11 seasons since.
While the Padres seek divine intervention, the story of how the
Friar came back offers a glimpse into the direction of the team.
Not long after assuming operation of the club in January 1995,
new owners Larry Lucchino and John Moores organized fan focus
groups called "Tell It to the Padres." Says Lucchino: "One of
the things we heard from them is that they liked the Friar. We
like to think we're an organization that has big ears and
listens to our fans."
On the night of the Friar's announced return, Lucchino and
Moores were guests on a radio talk show at San Diego Jack Murphy
Stadium. During a commercial break a concerned fan in the
audience pulled aside one of the radio hosts and, aware that the
club switched its primary uniform color from brown to blue in
1991, said, "Tell me something: Is the Friar's robe blue or
brown?" Told the Friar would be outfitted in his traditional
brown, the relieved fan sighed, "Oh, good. Good."
The Padres owners are on a roll. Last season San Diego was 2 1/2
games out of first place as late as Labor Day weekend and, even
with a 12-15 fizzle thereafter, finished as the most-improved
team in the National League, having jumped from 47-70 in 1994 to
70-74 in '95. In 1996 the Padres have the potential to make
another leap forward, perhaps with a Cinderella ending this
time: They have a shot to be this year's feel-good, wild-card
entry in the National League playoffs (see Rockies, Colorado).
Primarily through trades and free-agent acquisitions the past
two winters, the Padres will start six players who are at least
31 years old--seven when Tewksbury, 35, is the starting pitcher.
It's a huge step in a new direction from former owner Tom
Werner's dollar-driven youth movement of 1993, which ended in
101 losses. The new owners are banking on veterans to make the
team a contender as quickly as possible while at the same time
creating a bridge to '98, when most of the team's best prospects
should be ready. San Diego opened camp with only one player,
six-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn, who was on
the roster as recently as May 1993.
"This is my sixth year here," says San Diego batting coach Merv
Rettenmund, "and it's my first time going into spring training
with the feeling that we have a team that will compete for the
Lucchino and Moores have pushed so many buttons correctly that
when they signed off from their radio gig two weeks ago, the
audience of about 200 people gave them a standing ovation. Such
warmth for a baseball owner is about as rare in San Diego as a
snow shovel. After all, this is a city that endured Werner,
whose legacy was the desecration of the national anthem (by
guest "vocalist" Roseanne in 1990) and the dismantling of a
talented team on the rise (thanks to his cost-cutting player
moves). Current Padres players refer to Werner's 1993 purge that
included National League batting champion Gary Sheffield and
home run champ Fred McGriff the way Chicago historians do Mrs.
O'Leary's cow. "The Fire Sale," says closer Trevor Hoffman, who
was obtained from the Florida Marlins in the Sheffield trade.
"People here still talk about it, and a lot of them still aren't
Now comes the Friar Sale. San Diego's marketing slogan is KEEP
THE FAITH. Lucchino likes to talk about overcoming "the triple
whammy" that awaited him in San Diego: the perception of the
Padres as penny-squeezing losers, the fallout from baseball's
ugly labor unrest and the recessionary economy of Southern
California. "Now," he says, "there's a definite upswing [with
this team], a very definite sense of optimism."
The owners began the turnaround by unofficially renaming the
club the New Padres last season, plastering the moniker all over
the Murph. There was truth in advertising. A 12-player trade
with the Houston Astros in December 1994, the biggest swap in
baseball in 37 years, provided three new starters: Centerfielder
Steve Finley, third baseman Ken Caminiti and shortstop Andujar
Cedeno. While Cedeno struggled, Finley (.297, 104 runs) and
Caminiti (.302, 26 home runs, 94 RBIs) had career years, then
both re-signed with San Diego for less than their expected
market value as free agents.
Righthanders Andy Ashby, 28, and Joey Hamilton, 25, who finished
with the third and fifth best ERAs in the league, respectively,
emerged as quality starting pitchers. The Padres fade down the
stretch, though, was largely the result of a staff depleted by
the July 31 trade of righthander Andy Benes (he was a perennial
underachiever, and San Diego got two good prospects in return)
and an injury to Scott Sanders, who made his last start on July
17 because of a strained right elbow ligament.
San Diego finished eight games behind the first-place Los
Angeles Dodgers in the National League West, the closest the
Padres have come to first place this decade. Still, only one
other major league club, the Pittsburgh Pirates, drew fewer
fans, and no other team had as measly a season-ticket base
(5,200) as San Diego. Then general manager Randy Smith resigned
last September because of Lucchino's heavy-handed stewardship.
Lucchino and his scouting director, Kevin Towers, interviewed
several candidates to succeed Smith. Then, over lunch one day in
November, Lucchino told Towers he had made a decision. "I've
found the perfect guy, the guy who has the talent-evaluation
skills we need--that's most important right now," Lucchino said.
Then he thrust a finger at Towers and said, "It's you."
Encouraged by their megadeal with Houston the previous winter,
the Padres tried for another bonanza this off-season.
Acknowledging that the lineup lacked juice, they targeted two of
the top free agents on the market, second baseman Craig Biggio
and outfielder Ron Gant. San Diego didn't get either of them.
When the Padres aimed lower they came up with Henderson, a free
agent, and Joyner, who was obtained from the Kansas City Royals
in exchange for the often-injured Bip Roberts. That still leaves
the Padres with Caminiti as their only player who had more than
14 home runs last year.
They do, however, have five regulars who hit at least .297 in
'95: Caminiti, Finley, Gwynn, Henderson and Joyner. Moreover,
all of those players, except Joyner, have won at least one Gold
Glove, and he led American League first basemen in fielding
percentage last season. "All we're looking for," says San Diego
manager Bruce Bochy, "is for guys to have their normal years."
For Henderson, who has missed 21% of his teams' games in the
past four years, that could mean a barking hamstring or two. But
when he's healthy, he's still a troublemaker on the base
paths--and possibly outside of them, as well. According to
several sources, the Internal Revenue Service is investigating
whether Henderson failed to report income gained from autograph
shows. The sources said the Padres knew nothing about the issue
in December when they signed him to a two-year, $4 million
contract, but they aren't worried that Henderson might be
jailed. Nonetheless, it might not be a good time to reissue
Henderson's 1992 autobiography, Off Base: Confessions of a Thief.
Henderson, 37, is so old that he shares the same birth year as
the Swinging Friar and is the most senior Padre. Henderson has
played 2,192 games, none in the National League. Still, he
remains a dynamic player when he is in the lineup. In the seven
seasons since he turned 30, Henderson has averaged 51 stolen
bases and has posted an on-base percentage of at least .400
But the club's shot at contending probably depends mostly on
whether Cedeno regains his form at the plate and whether the
26-year-old Sanders, who has nasty power pitches similar to
those of the Atlanta Braves' John Smoltz, continues what has
been a smooth rehab. "If he's healthy," Towers says, "that takes
a lot of weight off my shoulders."
A pennant race would spur momentum toward the organization's
long-term goal: a baseball-only downtown ballpark and a loyal
fan base that stretches into Mexico. The club recently opened a
Padres merchandise store in Mexico and plans to run shuttle
buses from south of the border to Sunday home games. "When I got
here," Lucchino says, "there was no one in the organization who
even spoke Spanish."
The owners, meanwhile, will continue collegial ventures with
their players that should be models for all of baseball.
Lucchino and Moores meet monthly during the season with small
groups of Padres in freewheeling, off-the-record dialogue. In
addition, owners and players contribute equally to the Padres
Scholars program, a charity begun last year to provide college
scholarships annually to 25 middle-schoolers. Each player serves
as mentor to a recipient.
"I don't have a lot of experience with things working out the
way you believe they will, but this thing pretty much has,"
Moores says of his team's emergence as a contender.
The owners' courtship of San Diego fans has only just begun, as
evidenced at one game last year. A Padres usher was escorting
two people to their seats when he noticed two gentlemen already
occupying them. The usher explained the situation to the
squatters and asked them to move on--not knowing that the two men
he was booting out of the seats happened to be the owners of the
team. Lucchino and Moores, who are known to cruise the stadium,
moved on obligingly, even happily. After all, the usher "was
doing his job," Moores says. "And he was very polite."
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Sanders (left, with two prospects) hopes to bale out the Padres' staff when the Murph is a diamond again. [Scott Sanders pitching baseball on field covered by dirt and bales of hay]COLOR PHOTO: KIRK SCHLEA The oft-injured Henderson could turn out to be a steal for the Padres, if he can stay healthy. [Rickey Henderson]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Caminiti is back after having a career-year, when he hit 26 homers and knocked in 94 runs. [Ken Caminiti]