The first time the ad for “The Founder” ran, the first thought wasn’t about a Big Mac or McRib sandwich, it was about who would play Doug Rader taking the lineup card up to home plate in a chef’s hat, the night after Ray Kroc called his newly-owned Padres a bunch of “short order cooks.” Or who would play Bob Sykes, who after being traded from the Padres to the Cardinals told St. Louis writers, “tradition in St. Louis is Stan Musial walking through the clubhouse, tradition in San Diego is Nate Colbert coming in trying to sell you a used car.”
The Fightin’ Friars survived and stayed, which the WHA Mariners, NBA Rockets and Clippers and NFL Chargers did not. They finished first in 1996, won a pennant in 1998 that Larry Lucchino and owner John Moores turned into the elegant but not ostentatious Petco Park, and this week, when Trevor Hoffman fell five votes shorts of the Hall of Fame, requiring a year of anticipation to next January’s announcement, Padres General Manager A.J. Preller credited Hoffman as “the biggest reason we have Petco and the Padres are where they are.”
Where the San Diego Padres are now may be last in the National League West and predicted to be there again in 2017. But go back to last July. I remember walking the downtown and the waterfront on the Saturday before the All Star Game and recounting that in 40-something years of All Star Games, I had never experienced such a pregame weekend buzz as there was that weekend.
Of course, San Diego itself, the streets and restaurants and building that followed Lucchino’s vision when they moved in-town from their out of town, and out of date Qualcomm Stadium in 2004, is a place people who live in the Northeast dream of every January. The Padres had always seemed trapped in a corner surrounded by water to the west, Mexico to the south, desert to the East and the Dodgers and Angels to the North, as well as one World Series game won since they began as an expansion team in 1969.
But, now, beware the Mighty Pads with this thought: what they will be and the angle of their ascension come September. Preller and owner Ron Fowler made the splash before the 2015 season with the acquisitions of Matt Kemp, James Shields, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, et al, a splash that saw them lose more games than they had in 2014. But the splash got nearly 2.5M fans into Petco. Then came the All Star Game in the 2016 season and another 2.4M.
No one is saying that 2017 is going to see the Padres challenge the Giants and Dodgers in the National League West, likely not the Diamondbacks and Rockies, who could be the most improved and most dangerous sleepers, respectively, in the National League. Hey, no one has much of an idea who will pitch games for them this season.
If you are a Padres fan, climb into your time machine and go back in time to the 1991 Indians, fenced in a 80-something thousand seat city-state known as “The Mistake on the Lake.” They lost 105 games, and cost John McNamara his managerial job. But McNamara had let two 24-year old college players, Charles Nagy and Albert Belle, establish themselves. By September, Sandy Alomar was catching, a 20-year old named Jim Thome came out of the minors, as did 22-year old Carlos Baerga, and a creative, energetic GM named John Hart worked 24/7 to build the organization and make traded.
Three years later, they were 66-47 when The Strike hit. In 1995, they won 100 games and lost the World Series to Atlanta and Tom Glavine’s unforgettable one-hitter. Dick Jacobs built The Jake, and they sold it out every night for years.
There was a very important element here:when Hart and Jacobs were building, the Browns had snuck out of town, the Cavaliers played in the suburbs and the beloved Barons were in Minnesota, half of the North Stars.
The Indians were the only show in town. Years later, when the Browns were recreated and the Cavaliers not only moved town but won it all, it became an entirely different baseball market, one that seemed so revitalized by the Indians great run last season.
Now return to the present. The area near Petco is booming. It’s a prime convention area. The buildings and climate change have turned Petco into an offensive stadium.
And, like the Browns, the Chargers, as JD Souther says, have run like a thief in the night. “People here are ticked off about the Chargers,” says Padres General Manager A.J. Preller. He avoids building expectations, but proudly points back to a prospect game in September in which the Padres hosted the Rangers in a game of minor leaguers, this after an in-season adjustment that saw Preller trade Shields, Kemp, all-star Drew Pomeranz, Melvin Upton, Fernando Rodney and Andrew Cashner.
Quantrill, son of the former major leaguer, was a first round pick last June out of Stanford, following Tommy John Surgery; start with the genes of a man who was as tough as they come, they moved onto the rink he built in the back yard of their Ontario home so Cal could play hockey, then move forward to his being arguably the best college pitcher in the draft. Then move to the 19-year old Espinoza, one of the best prospects in the game, acquired for Pomeranz from the Red Sox.
Quantrill and Espinoza are not going to be opening the season in Petco, although Quantrill could make a September cameo. But they are elite starting pitching prospects in an era when the top ten starting pitchers average $22.5M. They will probably open the season with 22 year old Manny Margot, acquired from Boston in the Craig Kimbrel deal, in center. They should have 25-year old Hunter Renfroe, who hit 30 homers in the minors, in right. At first, Wil Myers is 26 and an all-star. The catcher will be Austin Hedges, 24, with a chance to be a premium defender. The farm system is considered one of the five best in the business, Preller has a history dating back to his Rangers days as a creative international force, and the aggressiveness in finding and trading for young talent is clearly evident up and down the system.
Watch these Padres as we watched the Indians in 1992. I remember exactly where Jim Thome first introduced himself to me that spring training, and, in September, seeing Thome, Alomar, Belle, Kenny Lofton and Baerga in the lineup and feeling what was building. A year from now, Thome likely will have been voted into the Hall of Fame.
If so, Thome probably will be going to Cooperstown with Trevor Hoffman. Two months before the ballots with their names go out in the mail, up and down the streets near the park and the water Padres fans will be watching Margot and Hedges and Quantrill and Carlos Assuaje and names to be learned later, realizing this is rapidly becoming the Padres town and what that monopoly is going to mean to the comparative payrolls of the N.L. West.
A lot of us walked those streets and that waterfront at the winter meetings of 2015 and again last July thinking, ‘come January, remind me why I don’t live here.” With the monopoly’s revenues, there are going to be a lot of players who look at the young talent and think “why wouldn’t I live there.”