UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
The Vault

Penny Pinchin' Padres Parsimony is the plan in San Diego, where cheap players are replacing proven ones

RAGGERS RAIL. THAT'S WHAT SAN DIEGO PADRE RIGHTfielder Tony Gwynn
calls the loud, caustic fans who congregate in the seats along the
rightfield line at Desert Sun Stadium in Yuma, Ariz. When Padre
rookie infielder Ricky Gutierrez made a fabulous diving stop in the
second game of the exhibition season, the Raggers went to work.
''Hey, Tony,'' yelled one member of the Rail. ''If he makes the team,
they'll have to pay him $109,000 ((the major league minimum salary)).
That's too much. They'll have to send him to Triple A.''
This spring the Raggers Rail crowd has had plenty to holler about.
And their protests seem to have carried 180 miles west across the
Sonoran Desert to San Diego, where fans and media have been ragging
on Padre managing partner Tom Werner. As Gwynn says, ''I can't tell
you the number of calls I've gotten from people asking, 'What are you
guys doing?' ''
Good question. Last year San Diego was a contender for the
National League West title until late August, an exciting team with a
bright future. Seven months later the outlook for the Padres is
bleak. Extensive cost cutting ordered by San Diego's 15-man ownership
group has crippled the roster and lowered morale throughout the
organization.
In the off-season, closer Randy Myers (38 saves in 1992) and
All-Star catcher Benito Santiago were free agents who left the team
without even getting an offer from the Padres. Standout shortstop
Tony Fernandez was traded -- practically given away -- to the New
York Mets after San Diego decided not to fork over the $2.3 million
needed to pick up the option year on his contract. Leftfielder Jerald
Clark, who was eligible for arbitration, was left | unprotected in
the expansion draft and became the fourth player chosen by the
Colorado Rockies. Reliable relievers Mike Maddux and Jose Melendez
were also traded for lower-priced talent. No player acquired by the
Padres in any of these moves will make more than $500,000, half the
average major league salary, in 1993.
In fact, while the average annual compensation of the departed
Myers, Santiago, Fernandez, pitcher Craig Lefferts (whose trade to
the Baltimore Orioles seven months ago started the purge) and Clark
adds up to $11.5 million in 1993, the income of the players who will
fill those vacancies in the Padre lineup -- Jeremy Hernandez, Dan
Walters, Jeff Gardner, Frank Seminara and Phil Plantier, respectively
-- totals only $761,500 this season.
What's more, no current San Diego player, including third baseman
Gary Sheffield, who chased the Triple Crown in 1992, was offered a
multiyear contract in the off-season. ''Gary is gone once he's up for
free agency ((after the '94 season)),'' says one Padre. ''They'll
trade him after this season. They made a mistake not signing him to a
multiyear deal during last season.''
The off-season moves have left San Diego without a proven
shortstop or much of a bullpen, and its best pitching and outfield
prospects are both still at least two years away from being ready to
play in the National League. By Opening Day the Padres are expected
to lose centerfielder Darrin Jackson and their best starting pitcher,
Bruce Hurst, in trades that will no doubt bring less expensive -- and
less talented -- players to San Diego. The man running the auction is
Padre general manager Joe McIlvaine, and it's killing him. ''I have
to do what the owners want. They want a $21 million payroll, but they
also want us to be competitive,'' says McIlvaine, whose current
payroll is $26 million, $11 million less than it would have been had
he kept everyone from last year. ''One of our owners told me, 'Joe,
we're expecting you to perform a miracle.' ''
It will be a miracle if San Diego is a contender in the stacked
National League West. In fact, if Jackson and Hurst are traded, it
will be a miracle if the Padres finish less than 25 games out of
first place. ''I'm frustrated, upset, mad, like everyone else,'' says
Gwynn, who is in the third year of a five-year, $16.25 million
contract. ''What we're doing isn't right, but there's nothing I can
do about it. I'm not bad-mouthing anyone. But when you make moves to
save money, you don't send the right signals to the team or the
fans. Then you're in scary territory.
''Everyone in baseball knows what's going on. The baseball
vultures are flying above the Padres. They know we're not going to
pay everyone, they know we don't have much leverage, so they're
playing Pluck the Padres.''
San Diego's players aren't the only ones feeling the pinch. One of
the Padres' Class A farm teams was dropped, as were a number of minor
league coaches. Nineteen employees in the front office were let go;
some of those people have been rehired on a contract basis to do the
same jobs. There were no raises for front-office employees last year,
and they were told to cut down on calls to 411. For the first time in
10 years there was no Christmas tree in the lobby of the Padres'
offices; instead, lights were strung on potted plants.
''We have a very serious financial problem here, and in
baseball,'' Werner says. ''We lost more money last year -- $7 million
-- than in the first 23 years of this franchise combined. We're
facing what other teams are facing, and others are going to face.
Last year we lost an unconscionable amount of money. If we had kept
the same team as last year and finished third again this year, we
would lose $15 million. When you lose the money we lost, it's a
prescription for long-range disaster.''
Season-ticket-plan sales in San Diego for 1993 are down compared
with 1992's, from 16,000 to around 11,500, and they could drop
further if there are cancellations because Jackson is traded. In
December the Padres sent a letter to '92 season-ticket holders
assuring them that everything possible would be done to keep Jackson.
Instead, after Jackson won a $2.1 million arbitration award (San
Diego offered $1.5 million) last month, the Padres have worked hard
to deal him. Attendance is San Diego's main revenue source, because
it makes only about $7 million on local radio and TV rights. The
Padres drew 1.7 million fans to Jack Murphy Stadium in '92, a bit
below average for the past 10 years. They will have a hard time
matching that in '93.
More than most major league teams, the Padres have to win to be a
big hit at the gate. That's just the way it is in San Diego, where
there are many diversions and a comparatively small geographic region
to draw from. Tucked into the southwest corner of California, San
Diego is bordered mostly by desert to the east, Mexico to the south
and the Pacific Ocean to the west. ''Right now there's zero interest
in us,'' says a Padre who lives in the San Diego area in the
off-season.
In the middle of this mess is Werner, a soft-spoken, engaging
native of New York City who drives a 1988 station wagon and often
sits in the stands while watching the Padres. Werner, 42, is a
television producer whose shows include hits The Cosby Show, Roseanne
and A Different World. As chairman of the San Diego ownership group
and its managing partner, he serves as spokesman for the Padres'
other owners and also as the target for fan outrage and media blasts.

Werner is sincere in his belief that what the ownership group is
trying to accomplish is in the best interest of the Padres, their
fans and major league baseball, which he fears is on the verge of
financial ruin. He is a leader of baseball's small-market owners in
their fight with large-market owners over whether or not baseball
should establish a revenue-sharing system. Rumors persist that
Werner's group might sell the Padres if the financial structure of
the game isn't changed significantly in the next year.
''It's frustrating,'' Werner says of the criticism he and his
partners have received. ''And on a personal level, it isn't fun. But
I think the team will be competitive. We're not dismantling the team.
We're not doing this to make a profit. If we wanted to make a profit,
we would have really cut the payroll, like the Astros did a few years
ago.''
But why is San Diego cutting the payroll as much as it is?
Although Werner says the Padres lost $7 million in 1992, San Diego
actually finished in the black when its $12 million share of the
expansion fees paid by the new Colorado Rockies and the Florida
Marlins is factored in. (A club source says the expansion money went
toward paying off a $20 million loan that the ownership group took
out four years ago, when it bought the Padres for $75 million.) The
combined wealth of the ownership group, which consists mainly of
Southern California businessmen, is believed to be among the highest
in the league.
''Here's Tom Werner, a guru of the entertainment business, who,
more than anyone, should realize that people don't come to watch you
if you don't have the talent,'' says a business associate of
Werner's. ''What's happening with the Padres is like having The Cosby
Show . . . without Cosby.''
Apparently Werner has found that baseball is a much different
world than anything he has encountered in television. According to
one player agent, soon after the current owners bought the Padres,
Werner said to him, ''Do you know how much it costs to run a major
league team?'' The agent says now, incredulously, ''What? He didn't
know that when he bought in?''
Werner has the largest financial stake in the Padres, but
according to one former employee, he runs the team ''like a
democracy'' -- all of the partners have a say in decisions. The
result is a cumbersome, 15-headed monster that, the ex-employee says,
''fights like cats and dogs.'' Yet Werner refuses to step forward and
exert more authority.
Last month, when Jackson and Andy Benes, one of the best young
pitchers in the league, won their arbitration cases, one of the
owners suggested that the Padres release them. What!
This line of thinking goes back at least as far as last May, when
San Diego was beginning to look like a contender for the division
title. At the time, one worried owner was heard to say, ''What if we
win? What will happen to the payroll?'' Then in August, when the
Padres needed another starting pitcher to make a run at the Atlanta
Braves, the owners wouldn't provide the money to get one.
''If we had gotten that pitcher and kept everyone else,'' says
Werner, ''we would have lost $20 million this year.'' Instead, on
Aug. 31 the Padres traded Lefferts, a 13-game winner, to the Orioles
for Gutierrez and Triple A pitcher Erik Shullstrom.
''The owners were telling me all year to get rid of Lefferts's and
Santiago's salaries,'' says McIlvaine. ''But no team was interested
in Benny. ((In addition to having his big salary, Santiago was
perceived by some teams as needing an attitude adjustment; the
Marlins signed him to a two-year, $7.2 million contract.)) I couldn't
trade him. We were going to lose Lefferts after the season to free
agency and get nothing back.''
By not picking up Fernandez's option, the Padres had until two
days after the World Series to trade him, or they would lose him
outright. He was dealt to the Mets for Wally Whitehurst, a potential
fifth starter; minor league outfielder/sometime NFL running back D.J.
Dozier; and a minor league catcher. Losing Jackson, Hurst or both
would be as devastating to the San Diego lineup as losing Fernandez
was.
Jackson, 29, is one of the game's most underrated and dedicated
players. He's solid defensively and has power. Hurst, who will make
$2.75 million this year, is expected to be moved as soon as his left
shoulder is fit. He had arthroscopic surgery in the off-season, but
he may not be fully recovered until early May.
San Diego and the Boston Red Sox had worked out a trade involving
Jackson, but it fell apart. The Detroit Tigers have also shown
interest in Jackson, who is resigned to the fact that he will be
changing teams sometime soon. ''I get handshakes every day from
teammates who say, 'Well, if I don't see you again. . . ,' '' says
Jackson, smiling. ''My wife now just says, 'Call me if something
happens.' ''
The way Werner sees it, as long as he has Gwynn, Sheffield and
slugging first baseman Fred McGriff, ''how bad can we be?'' But as a
former owner of a Rotisserie League team, Werner should know that
three players can't win anything -- this is major league baseball,
not a four-man scramble in golf.
''It takes 25 players to win, and our 25 last year were as good as
any I've seen here,'' says Gwynn, who replaces Fernandez as the Padre
leadoff hitter. ''There's no way three guys can carry the load. I'm
no leadoff hitter, but I'm working at it. You can't tell Fred, 'You
hit 35 homers last year; this year you've got to hit 45.' You can't
tell Gary, 'You almost won the Triple Crown last year; you've got to
win it this year.' You can't put that pressure on them, but that's
what these trades are doing. There's an uncertainty in the air. We
know it's a business, but it still sucks from a player's viewpoint.''

And from McIlvaine's. His job as San Diego's general manager may
be in peril. ''I don't want pity,'' he says. ''This is a roadblock.
We hope it's temporary.'' McIlvaine isn't blameless in the Padres'
decline either. Since taking over after the 1990 season, he has made
some bad signings, including pitcher Larry Andersen, infielder Kurt
Stillwell and third baseman Jim Presley, who together cost
approximately $9 million. All have been busts. McIlvaine also traded
outfielder Bip Roberts to the Cincinnati Reds for Myers; Roberts now
is one of the game's top leadoff men, while Myers pitches for the
Chicago Cubs.
Next July, when McIlvaine reaches the midway point of his
five-year contract, his status will be evaluated by the ownership
group, which holds an option to buy out the last two years of his
contract. It will probably exercise that option, ending what has been
a tense relationship between McIlvaine and Werner.
The man caught in the middle of all this is Jim Riggleman, who is
in his first spring as a major league manager. He has been roundly
praised in camp, especially by Hurst, for his professional approach
to what is obviously a | difficult situation. Riggleman has been able
to keep the players upbeat in the face of the upheaval. ''No sense
whining,'' says Sheffield. ''All we can do is entertain the fans the
best we can.''
The fans who follow the Padres have been anything but upbeat. In
the March 7 edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune, a letter to the
editor read, ''If the Werner Wrecking Crew keeps going, they won't
have enough fans to raise the flag on Iwo Jima. . . . And someone
should tell Tom there are two things that need cleaning up in San
Diego: the Tijuana River, and his act. They're both full of the same
thing.''
After a recent game at Desert Sun Stadium, McIlvaine participated
in a question-and-answer session with fans gathered behind home
plate. Some of them must have been from Raggers Rail, given the
negative, even nasty, tone of the questions, which included, ''How
are we going to win when we trade our stars for nobody?'' and ''Is
Werner going to sell?'' and ''How can you stand up there and tell us
to our faces that we can win the West?''
Tough crowd. One of the last queries came from a seven-year-old
named Travis, whom the moderator introduced as ''the Padres'
shortstop in the year 2005.'' Before Travis could speak, a fan, no
doubt a Railbird, said with disgust, ''Sign the kid. He won't cost
much.''

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.