Thursday, February 16, 2006

1969 Expansion, Final Part

San Diego Padres
It took a long time for the Padres to become competitive, and since then it's only come in fits and starts. The team has won two pennants and four division titles, but in between these strong showings has been some truly insufferable baseball.
The early Padres, owned by California banker, C. Arnholt Smith, had a very neo-Dodgers look to them. Not only was the city selected at the behest of Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, but the first General Manager hired was former Dodger chief Buzzie Bavasi. The team also, in its early years, hired many managers with connections to the Dodgers. Although some were suspicious, suspecting that the Padres might be run as a big-league dodger farm system along the lines of the old Yankees-Athletics connection, the front office went out of their way to avoid making deals with the Dodgers; over the first ten years of the team's existence, they only made one very minor trade with the Dodgers, involving pitcher Al McBean.
Even by expansion standards, the Padres did a very poor job of assembling a roster to open their inaugural 1969 season. The Padres were lucky to find any C-level players (3B Ed Spiezio, OF Tony Gonzalez, and washed-up P Johnny Podres, among others), let alone building blocks for the future of the franchise. This was essentially the story of the early years in San Diego; modest stars such as Nate Colbert would make a name for themselves, but the lack of any significant talent acquisitions made the team a perennial loser.
The Padres matched the Expos with a 52-110 record in 1969. Bright spots on the team were 1B Colbert's 24 HR and the development of young hurler Joe Niekro, acquired in a trade with the Cubs. None of the regulars hit better than .265 or posted an OBP above .350. It was difficult to see the potential for future success with this club, and the early 70's bore that out.
In their first 6 seasons of existence, the Padres lost 100 games 4 times and never less than 95 losses. Enthusiasm for such an awful young team was hard to come by, and the team finished last in the NL in attendance each of its first 5 seasons.
The seemingly hopeless franchise turned panicky when owner Smith announced in 1973 that he was selling the team to Washington grocery chain owner John Danzansky, who openly spoke of moving the team to D.C. The ensuing snarl of ownership issues was far more entertaining that anything that happened on the field in San Diego.
This is where the unique monopoly of baseball is exposed; in no other industry do you need the approval of your competitors before you can sell your business. But baseball is different, and the other NL owners sought high and low for a way to keep hold of the lucrative San Diego market, not feeling optimism over a move into a city that had killed off two AL teams in the past 15 years. Owner Smith's financial woes were so pressing that not only did he sell of players for cash; he arranged to let future owner Dazansky have approval over all current player transactions in exchange for a "deposit." Smith felt that the move would be sealed by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who had openly campaigned for baseball's return to the nation's capital. As the other owners froze the sale and attempted to drum up other potential buyers, Smith became increasingly paranoid, asserting at one point that he was the victim of a plot because of his ties to the Nixon Administration, then in the throes of the Watergate scandal.
The crisis seemed to be solved when Bavasi and Smith found an interested party in Marjorie Everett, main stockholder in the Hollywood Park race track. Everett matched Danzansky's offer, along with an assurance to keep the team in San Diego "for at least a couple of years." But then the other NL owners stepped in to refuse this deal. Everett had formed prickly relationships with other owners, some of whom also in the racing business, and the league was also scared by a corruption scandal in Chicago involving Everett's father. The league went so far as to reopen the possibility of Danzansky's offer, even if it meant moving the team to D.C. Smith, however, formally accepted Everett's offer. This led Danzansky to sue him for breach of contract, and it was rendered moot when the NL owners officially rejected the sale in a 9-3 vote.
The league went back to Danzansky, only to find that the Washington grocer had changed his mind; he was not interested in being jerked around like a pawn in the owner's power play; he took back his deposit and left the scene. The capper was when 1974 baseball cards showed up in stores with San Diego players wearing uniforms and caps with a "W" on them, so sure was the league that the team would go to the capital.
The whole fiasco finally ended when McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc matched the other offers, along with assurances to keep the team in San Diego.
The 1974 team was little better; it finished dead last once again with a 60-102 record. Surprisingly, attendance went up strongly on the season. After averaging barely 7500 fans per game in 1973, the 1974 squad drew over 13,000, a strong increase. The new ownership and settlement of the offseason farce may have had something to do with it; but a more likely reason could have been the presence of a couple players who actually looked good, maybe even great.
The first was pitcher Randy Jones. Jones, with an 8-22 record and 4.45 ERA, didn't look like anything special in 1974, but he turned it around in 1975. Jones posted back-to-back 20-win seasons, averaging 300 IP per year with ERAs well below the league average. His 1976 season won him the NL Cy Young Award. But either because of overwork and injury, or due to the fact that his low strikeout rate didn't bode well for the future, Jones was never able to recapture his 1975-76 glory, going to the Mets in 1981 and leaving the majors for good after 1982.
One superstar who did stick around was outfielder Dave Winfield. The only player ever to be taken in the NFL, NBA, and MLB drafts, Winfield chose baseball (a choice that would never be made today). When told he'd been drafted by the Padres, Winfield said that he was flattered, but that he'd honestly never heard of them.
After a 1973 debut, Winfield emerged as a reliable player in 1974, hitting 20 HR and posting a respectable .265 average. He took a step forward in 1975, drawing more walks and stealing more bases. He continued to develop into an all-around star, so that he was -- in my opinion -- the best player in the league in 1979. After the 1980 season, Winfield left to take a huge free agent contract with the Yankees. He went on to compile 465 career HR, over 3,000 hits, and a Hall of Fame resume. He was inducted into Cooperstown in 2001, the only player in the Hall wearing a San Diego cap.
The team continued a few modest steps forward, peaking in 1978 with an 84-78 4th-place finish, the first over-.500 season in the franchise's 10-year history. Winfield was joined in the outfield by solid players Gene Richards and Oscar Gamble, former A's catcher Gene Tenace manned first base, and a young shortstop named Ozzie Smith started to make a name for himself with fantastic defense.
The pitching staff was anchored by Jones, but the ace was Gaylord Perry, acquired from the Texas Rangers just in time to win the 1978 NL Cy Young. Perry only stayed in San Diego for two seasons of his nomadic career, but he made them count. One big-name free agent the Padres did manage to net was former A's closer Rollie Fingers. Fingers spent four seasons in San Diego, and three of them were quite good.
It turned out, though, that 1978 was just a blip on the map; the team went back to 5th place in 1979 before tumbling into last in 1980 and 1981. Ownership decided to shake things up by adding hard-nosed manager Dick Williams before the 1982 season.
Along with GM Jack McKeon, Williams succeeded in turning the team around. The Padres finished 81-81 in both 1982 and 1983 before going 92-70 in 1984 to win the NL West in surprising fashion. Some of the improvement is attributable to McKeon; although he did trade "wizard" shortstop Smith to St. Louis in exchange for the moody Garry Templeton, he managed to nab valuable starting pitcher Ed Whitson from Cleveland, 3B Graig Nettles from the Yankees, and sign veterans Steve Garvey and Goose Gossage as free agents.
Williams' martinet style in the clubhouse didn't make him Mr. Popularity, but so long as the team was winning, it was grudgingly accepted. The 1984 division winners featured a solid if nameless pitching staff, with solid contributors such as Whitson, Eric Show, Tim Lollar, and Mark Thurmond.
The previously barren farm system had finally given the Padres a lineup to be proud of. Along with trade acquisitions Garvey, Templeton and Nettles, the infield featured leadoff speedster Alan Wiggins at second and the perennially underrated Terry Kennedy behind the plate, a solid backstop. The outfield included former first-round pick and potent hitter Kevin McReynolds, the capable Camelo Martinez, and a rather squat, unlikely superstar in right field named Tony Gwynn.
Gwynn came out of San Diego State and was drafted by the Padres in the 3rd round of the 1981 draft. I'm not really sure you can really call someone a "pure hitter," but if you can, then Tony Gwynn was it. Even in the 1980's players were more and more focused on home runs, but Gwynn's cerebral approach to hitting reflected the great slap hitters of years past. Although fully capable of punching doubles and a few home runs, Gwynn's specialty was making contact; he rarely struck out, finishing his 20-year career with a total of 434, or about 3 years of Dave Kingman. Gwynn also drew his walks, finishing with a .388 career OBP. But his most enduring accomplishment would be his 8 batting titles and his .338 career average. It's the best career batting average by anyone since the expansion era began in 1961. I mentioned earlier that Dave Winfield is the only player in Cooperstown in a Padre cap; barring catastrophe, he will be joined by Tony Gwynn next year.
Having won only 92 games in a weak NL West, it was hard for anyone to take the Padres seriously. It didn't help when the Cubs pounded Show and the Padres for a 13-0 victory in Game 1 of the NLCS. It was a closer 4-2 victory for Chicago in Game 2, with the underdog Padres about to be laughed out of the playoffs. But after a close victory in Game 3, San Diego faced a nail-biter in Game 4. With the score tied 5-5 in the 9th, Steve Garvey hit a walk-off 2-run homer off of Chicago closer Lee Smith to force a decisive Game 5. The Cubs took an early 3-0 lead, but an error by Cub 1B Leon Durham opened the door, allowing the Padres to run to a 6-3 victory, and the first pennant in franchise history.
But even underdogs have to face reality at some point. It happened to the Padres when they faced the 104-win juggernaut Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Admittedly, most of the games were very close, but the Tigers still took an easy victory in 5 games.
Despite the World Series loss, the Padres looked good. Well, they didn't actually look good. When he first tried on these uniforms, Steve Garvey remarked, "I look like a taco." In all seriousness, though, the Padres were riding high. They had a group of solid young rookies, veteran leadership, and good reason for optimism. After drawing 1.9 million fans in their pennant-winning 1984, the Padres topped that with over 2.2 million the following season. The former red-headed stepchild of the NL was now 4th-best in attendance in the league.
The same core group held 1st place in the NL West as late as July 4 in 1985. After that, the team went into a tailspin that saw it finish a disappointing third. Serious cracks began to appear, with great discontent rumbling in the clubhouse. With the team no longer willing, manager Williams' drill-sergeant style came under increasing criticism. Not helping things were the presence of Show, Thurmond, and Dave Dravecky, vocal members of the uber-right wing John Birch Society. The front office was no quieter. After Kroc's death in January 1984, his wife Joan took control of the team. With GM McKeon looking to force out Williams, he fired coach Ozzie Virgil, a Williams lieutenant. Owner Kroc embarassed McKeon by overruling him and reinstating Virgil. The last straw came for Williams when he insisted on the ouster of coach Harry Dunlop, whom he considered a management spy. On the day spring training opened, the team announced that Williams was out in favor of computer-friendly manager Steve Boros.
The Padres of the late 80's veered up and down on what was almost a year-to-year basis. With the nucleus of a solid-hitting lineup in place, the club rose and fell based on the performance of whatever pitching staff it could cobble together. After a 4th-place finish in 1986, the team dropped to last in 1987. They rebounded to a 3rd-place finish in 1988 (with former GM McKeon stepping down to take over as field manager), and came in a close 2nd to the Giants in the 1989 NL West race. But then the club fell again to mediocrity, winning between 75-85 games for the next 3 seasons.
While the pitching staff survived on the arms of an eclectic assortment aging veterans (Bruce Hurst, Walt Terrell, Show and Whitson) and some promising youngsters such as Andy Benes, the lineup featured some very famous faces. Veteran catcher Kennedy was traded off to the Giants to make room for prospect Benito Santiago. Not only was Santiago a howitzer behind the plate, he was a fine hitter, taking home the 1987 NL Rookie of the Year thanks to a rookie-record consecutive games hitting streak. The other highly-touted prospects were the Alomar brothers; second baseman Roberto and catcher Sandy (son of former major-leaguer Sandy Alomar, Sr.). Sandy never panned out to be much of a superstar, but Alomar became an all-around gem at second base.
1990 saw a change in ownership as Joan Kroc sold the team to television producer Tom Werner. McKeon returned full-time to GM duties, with Greg Riddoch taking over as manager. With clubhouse tensions still rampant, the team continued its yo-yo, showing two promising 3rd-place finishes in 1991 and 1992 before tumbling to an awful 61-101 record in 1993.
With Benes the only semi-reliable pitcher on the squad, it fell to the offense to produce. Gwynn did, but his supporting cast was spotty. Having lost both Sandy Alomar and Santiago, the Padres decided to use Roberto as the chip in a major trade. The Padres traded Alomar and outfielder Joe Carter to Toronto for versatile shortstop Tony Fernandez and slugging first baseman Fred McGriff. It's difficult to say who got the better end of the deal; Carter was essentially done, his 1993 heroics notwithstanding, but Alomar was a great hitter at second base, an amazingly rare commodity. The Padres did get a very useful, underrated middle infielder in Fernandez and a big bat at first in McGriff. Hard to say who got the better of that one, although the loss of Alomar was quite tough.
Another rather risky trade saw the Padres bring in talented -- and mercurial -- slugger Gary Sheffield from the Brewers for a pittance. Sheffield did a fine job in San Diego - his 1992 season especially great -- but the Padres, too, tired of his attitude and traded him to the Marlins in 1993 for 3 unknowns, one of whom was future closer Trevor Hoffman. This was part of owner Werner's attempts to strip the roster down and cut any salary they could. Franchise player Gwynn survived, but the other big names were either allowed to leave as free agents or traded away.
It was then a great surprise when, after middling success in 1994 and 1995, the Padres won the NL West in 1996. Part of the reason was Werner's successor as owner, Jeff Moores, who loosened the purse strings. The greatest result was a blockbuster trade with the Astros that saw the Padres give up little apart from outfielder Derek Bell in exchange for Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley. It was a new-look Padre team, with Bruce Bochy installed as manager and a much more eye-friendly pinstriped uniform.
With Gwynn, Finley and MVP Caminiti supplying the offense, along with surprising veterans Wally Joyner and Rickey Henderson, it was once again a patchwork pitching staff that supported the team's division title. With Hoffman installed as closer, the starting rotation was a work in progress; 1996 saw a comeback by former Dodger Fernando Valenzuela, Ol' Stingy-Walks Bob Tewksbury, as well as solid performers Andy Ashby and Scott Sanders. The victory party was short lived, however, when the Cardinals swept them out of the NLDS.
After a disappointing last-place finish in 1997, the Padres bounced back to win another division title in 1998. Key additions included base-stealing 2B Quilvio Veras, Greg Vaughn's 50 HR, but above all the ace pitching of Kevin Brown. The Padres picked Brown off of the 1997 Marlins' scrap heap. Brown only stayed for one season, but it was an 18-7, 2.38 ERA, performance, with 257 K in 257 IP against just 49 BB an 8 HR. A good argument could be made for Brown as the '98 Cy Young Award Winner, although Tom Glavine was the actual winner.
This team proved that it was indeed better than its 1996 predecessors when it moved past Randy Johnson and the Astros with a 3-games-to-1 NLDS win, then surprised the 106-win Braves with a 6-game NLCS victory. There were only so many mountains the Padres could scale, though, and they were unceremoniously swept out of the World Series by the dynastic 114-win Yankees.
With the team getting older and the purse strings tightening, the Padres finished last or next-to-last in the next 5 seasons. The only bright spots on the team were the success of closer Hoffman and the career milestones achieved by Gwynn before his 2001 retirement.
GM Kevin Towers had plans to return the team to respectability, hoping that it would coincide with the team's move into spacious Petco Park in 2004. Not only did the Padres rebound from a 98-loss season to go 87-75 in their new home, they also topped 3 million in attendance for the first time ever. This time, the success did not appear to be illusory. The emergence of ace Jake Peavy gave the Padres an exciting young pitcher they could hang their hat on for the first time in quite a while. Veteran hitters Ryan Klesko, Mark Loretta, and trade acquisition Brian Giles were joined by rookie shortstop Khalil Greene to return the Padres to competitiveness.
2005 was a worse year; except that it was better. The Padres fared worse in the won-loss department; posting a disappointing 82-80 record. But it wasn't disappointing, because they won the NL West. The Padres became the team with the worst win-loss record ever to qualify for the postseason (the pennant-winning '73 Mets were 82-79). Much was made of the dubious honor of being the 2005 NL West Champions; not only did fans dismiss them as the best of the NL "Worst," but the Padres' poor record meant they would face the 100-win Cardinals in the NLDS. It wasn't an absolute embarassment, but the Cardinals did prevail easily with a 3-game sweep.
Whither the Padres in the future? GM Kevin Towers surrounds good trades with bad and doesn't seem to have a consistent way to find his asshole, let alone a contender. During the 2005 offseason, the Padres spent their greatest energy on resigining free agents Brian Giles and Trevor Hoffman. Successful though they were, this means that they're right back where they were last year -- 82 wins. They're also replacing catcher Ramon Hernandez with the questionable Mike Piazza, losing 2B Mark Loretta in a boneheaded trade for a backup catcher, and seeing stars like Klesko, Giles and especially Hoffman getting older. The NL West may not be an incredibly competitive division, but unless they can get some young players to support what they've got, the Padres' 2005 season will be remembered as an aberration; another jump in the yo-yo of their existence.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.

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