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, alter 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 oil-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."
RANDY MYERS: $3.7 million*
JEREMY HERNANDEZ: $122,500
BENITO SANTIAGO: $3.6 million*
DAN WALTERS: $132,500
TONY FERNANDEZ: $2.3 million
JEFF GARDNER: $111,500
CRAIG LEFFERTS: $1.2 million
FRANK SEMINARA: $150,000
JERALD CLARK: $690,000
PHIL PLANTIER: $245,000
*Average annual compensation under a multiyear contract.