Nowhere outside a McDonald's hamburger stand is the work ethic so fiercely extolled as in the clubhouse of the San Diego Padres baseball team. Even the most industrious visitor to this sanctuary can be made to feel slothful when assailed by such stern admonitions as the one posted nearest the entrance: "Press on—nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.... Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
The message was read with more than passing interest by Padre players last week as they fought gamely to retain the respectability they had earned in the first weeks of the 1975 season. The game's biggest losers over the past six seasons, the Padres actually led the National League West for 12 days in April, easily a club record, and they were happily showing their heels to such dignitaries as the Dodgers and the Reds when they slouched into a five-game losing streak that was all too reminiscent of last year, when they lost 102 games, or, for that matter, of any year they have been in the league. But unlike last year or any other year, they snapped out of it this time with a 4-2 midweek win over Houston that was a monument to omnipotent determination and persistence.
"This was our first real test of the season," said Manager John McNamara of the streak-breaker. "Last year we didn't have the talent to stop a losing streak. This year we do. There was no panic. We have made tremendous progress."
Enough progress that for the first 15 games of the season, 10 of which the Padres won, they were not so much surprising as shocking. The young pitchers who suffered through on-the-job training a year ago seemed to be realizing their considerable promise, and the young hitters, notably Dave Winfield, John Grubb and Mike Ivie, were demolishing the opposition. And when the team finished its home stand last Thursday, out of first place but with heads held high, it had drawn more than a quarter of a million fans, an average of nearly 20,000 per game. Then the Padres went to L.A. and took two of three from the Dodgers.
Credit the work ethic with this astonishing turnaround. The Padres are not likely to win a pennant this year, but they will surely do better than last year, and if their fans continue to abandon their patios, sun decks and sailboats to see them play, they will easily exceed the 1974 record attendance of 1,075,399.
Manager McNamara and Vice-President/General Manager Peter Bavasi are quick to laud that master homilist, Team Owner Ray A. Kroc, for creating a more positive atmosphere. Kroc is the high school dropout who, through determination and persistence, rose from poverty to riches by selling McDonald's hamburgers. "We use many of the McDonald's ideas about marketing with the team," says Bavasi loyally.
Kroc is a congenital promoter, so 61 of the 78 Padre home dates are "specials" of some sort or another, ranging from "Big Mac Sundays" to "The Great Wallenda Night," on which the daring Karl Wallenda will tightrope-walk from the left-field grandstand to the right. Kroc, who posts his "persistence" messages throughout the clubhouse and team offices, has even made sloganeers of such normally articulate fellows as McNamara and Bavasi.
"To handle yourself, use your head," the sign above McNamara's desk reads, "to handle others, use your heart."
"When you're green you're growing," the 32-year-old Bavasi will say. "When you ripen you rot. And if you were a bum when you were poor, you'll be a bum when you're rich. Mr. Kroc says that all the time."
Bavasi and his father, Team President E.J. (Buzzy) Bavasi, deserve considerable credit themselves for assembling an exciting young team and McNamara merits praise for having the courage to play youngsters last season when he might have won some battles with veterans but lost the war. "We decided to give the ball to the kids," he has said. "Now they have a year's experience."
In starting pitchers Dave Freisleben, Dan Spillner and Joe McIntosh, all 23, and in Randy Jones, 25, McNamara has the makings of a staff that could plague the league for years. And in sluggers Win-field, 23, Grubb, 26, and Ivie, 22, he may have the offense of the future.
Winfield, who stands 6'6" and weighs 215, is, in McNamara's opinion, a potential superstar. Last year, his first full season in the major leagues, he hit 20 home runs and drove in 75 runs. He got off to a quick start this season and by week's end was among the league leaders in batting average, homers and RBIs.
"I can't say enough about Winfield," says McNamara. "He's got everything you look for in a superstar. And he has leadership ability. He's not afraid to work."
Winfield, a former baseball and basketball player at the University of Minnesota, is not lacking in yet another essential for success—self-confidence. "People tell you you're a superstar," he said last week, "so what do you say? You can't say no. I just tell them to come out and watch me play."
Those who watched him play last week in the game that broke the losing streak would surely have been impressed. The Padres were trailing Houston 1-0 when they rallied for all four of their runs in the fifth inning. The rally represented a fine amalgam of young and old talent. Veteran Bobby Tolan drove in one run, Grubb drove in two with his ninth double of the season and after Willie McCovey—at 37, still one of the most feared batsmen alive—was intentionally walked, Winfield hit a bullet to left field. Actually, it should have been a mere single, but the ball was struck with such force that it was too hot for Astro Outfielder Greg Gross to handle and was scored as a double. Grubb crossed the plate while Gross searched for the ball.
But even with their newly refined skills, the Padres do not win games easily, and in the ninth, with one out and a runner on first, Reliever Bill Greif walked one Astro and hit another to load the bases. Having thus inconvenienced himself, he struck out two men to end the game.
"I figured that if I was throwing so hard they couldn't get out of the way of the ball, I might as well keep giving them fastballs," said Grief, who got his fourth save of the season. Greif was a starter last year, and he admittedly "resisted" efforts to convert him to a reliever. "There remains a stigma to relief pitching for a starter," he said. "It's like accepting a demotion." That he eventually succumbed to the entreaties of McNamara and Pitching Coach Tom Morgan is a measure of the team's new spirit.
"Last year, a five-game losing streak might just have been accepted," said McCovey of the changed attitude. "This year the guys just think they're better than that. It means a lot, thinking you're supposed to win."
"We have a lot of young players who have been winners in college and in the minors," said Ivie, a burly, blond Georgian. "I think we're a little like the A's were a few years ago. Once we've learned to play together, we'll be hard to hold. Right now it feels good to come into a locker room knowing everybody is in a winning frame of mind. Last year, I guess it was more like, 'Oh, well, we lost. Let's have the paycheck.' "
Ivie was drafted by the Padres as a catcher five years ago, when he was 17. He became convinced somehow that this was not his position and he nearly quit the game in despair. He was finally shifted to first base, where he is more comfortable. It is a mark of his advancing maturity that when McNamara asked him in an emergency last month to play third base, an unfamiliar position, Ivie replied, "I'll give it my best shot, but don't expect a Brooks Robinson out there."
On opening day a year ago, the Padres must have thought they were playing for a new Charlie Finley when Kroc snatched the public-address microphone and, before 38,000 fans, berated his team for "some of the stupidest ballplaying I've ever seen in my life." Understandably, there was employer-employee tension after that fulmination. But that too has passed.
During one of the Padres' next home stands San Diego sportswriters will present Kroc with a gold megaphone. The better to call the players stupid? No, it is unlikely that he will feel called upon to use it this brave new season.