Ray Kroc set down his glass of Tab, fingered the plastic rims of his glasses and shrugged helplessly, grimacing. "I talk to myself in front of a mirror and I say, 'Are you glad you got into this baseball business?' Goddamn! I don't know. If my accountant is with me, he tells me, 'Yeah, it's good.' If he's not around, I say, 'It's the damndest exasperating business I've ever been into.' " As of last Sunday, with his San Diego Padres in fifth place in the National League West, 10½ games out, and 10 games below .500—and that's after an eight-game winning streak—the most exasperating business of all is this Dave Winfield business. Winfield is in the final year of a four-year, $1.3 million contract and is threatening to enter the free agent re-entry draft in the fall. He's seeking a 10-year, $13 million contract that would include, among other things, an annual cost-of-living increase tied to the consumer price index, and the right to approve any sale of the club. Negotiations continue, but the parties might as well be talking into mirrors.
"Cost of living?" the 77-year-old owner asks indignantly. "He wants a million three plus a cost of living? Plus a Cadillac, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus.... I don't want him here at any price. Not even at the price we're paying him. He can't hit with men on base. There have been a dozen times this year he's come up with men on base and he hasn't done a damn thing. A million three! Who's going to pay him? I'm not going to pay him. The customers aren't going to pay him. We had 11,000 here last night. I'm going to lose between $2 and $3 million this year. Let somebody else have him. I don't want him."
But the franchise, Ray, doesn't he mean anything to the franchise? "He doesn't mean a damn thing. No sir!"
Good grief! The Padres are in their 12th season, and if Winfield does opt for the re-entry draft—he's not saying—they will have returned about as close to square one as they can get. Winfield is not having as good a year as he had last season, when he finished with a .308 average, 34 homers, 118 RBIs—his current marks are .285, 11 and 61—but the pressure has undoubtedly affected him. "If we lose Winfield, it's like an expansion club again," Catcher Gene Tenace says. "We've gone backward. Two years ago we won 84 games and finished fourth. Last year we finished in fifth. This year we're in last."
And going no place. Treadmills are for mice, not men, and Winfield feels he's been on one for most of his playing days in San Diego. "I've been here eight years and we've had eight different face-lifts of the team," he says. "I've had two different owners, three different general managers, five different managers. We're still trying to decide whether we want to go with youth, experience, free agents, a farm system or what. We've no identity or tradition. We've even had a different uniform every year."
After nearly 12 years of floundering and drift, the Padres are where they are today because they've never had a sensible plan to get them anyplace but. They've had as many rings as Barnum & Bailey, with sometimes three people cracking whips at the same time. For example, just a few weeks ago, G.M. Bob Fontaine was fired, not by Kroc himself, nor by his son-in-law, Padre President Ballard Smith, but by Joan Kroc, Ray's wife and a director of the club. She insisted on it. So who's in charge? Lord knows. Kroc rescued the franchise for San Diego in 1974, but his efforts to turn it into a winner have frequently led to chaos. He has spent $10 million on free agents. Except for Relief Pitcher Rollie Fingers, though, most of it has been invested so dubiously that the Padres' mascot might serve the franchise better if it were an albatross instead of a chicken. One problem is that Kroc has ruled the franchise on impulse, making it a creature of his personal whim.
For instance, Dave Kingman wanted to sign a five-year contract in 1977. He not only liked it in San Diego, but he also had gate appeal: 11 home runs and 39 runs batted in through 56 games. But Kroc didn't want him around because he regarded Kingman's appearance as unkempt—"He was a slob"—and didn't like it that he walked, not ran, to and from leftfield and the dugout. "I wanted somebody with spunk," Kroc says now. So Kong was gonged at the waiver price of $20,000. Kroc's reasons for trading Centerfielder George Hendrick, now of St. Louis and the leading hitter in the National League, were equally whimsical. While Kroc never could abide Hendrick's refusals to talk to the press, he lost all patience when Hendrick failed to show up at a dinner honoring him. "Get rid of him," Kroc growled. Hendrick went to St. Louis for Pitcher Eric Rasmussen, who is 2-8 so far this season, with an ERA of 5.15.
But not all the Padres' problems trace to Kroc. In the years before he bought the team, the Padres worked on a skimpy player development budget. Buzzie Bavasi, the G.M. in those formative years, once recalled that he could afford only $4,000 to sign one young infielder who wanted $6,000. Sorry. Name: Doug DeCinces. The Padres could have drafted George Brett, but didn't because they couldn't afford him. And they drafted, but couldn't sign, Warren Cromartie and Bump Wills.
If the Padres began with too little money to do what they wanted, under Kroc they have had more than enough but haven't seemed to know what to do with it. Nowhere was their folly more evident than in the case of free-agent Oscar Gamble. With the White Sox in 1977, Gamble hit 31 homers and had 83 RBIs. Kroc signed him for a staggering $2.85 million: a $150,000 bonus, $200,000 a year for six years, then $100,000 a year for 15 years, to 1998. The first problem they faced was what to do with him. Their outfield was set: Gene Richards in left, Hendrick in center, Winfield in right. They finally decided to put him in left, but that meant moving Richards to first, which created a second problem. Of Richards, Pitcher Bob Owchinko once moaned, "He can't pick up a ball until it stops rolling." The third problem, as it turned out, was poor Oscar. In a new role and a new league and in a ball park with 17-foot walls, he had only seven home runs and 47 RBIs in 1978. The Padres finally traded him to Texas for Mike Hargrove, a lifetime .293 hitter who also fizzled in San Diego.
Last year the Padres indulged themselves again in the re-entry draft when they signed former Giant John Curtis (10-9, 4.17 ERA) to a five-year, $1.75 million contract. He is 4-7 this year, with an ERA of 3.97. They also gave a five-year, $2.1 million contract to Rick Wise, whose arm is 34 years old, following his 15-10 season (3.73 ERA) with Cleveland. Coming off an injury, he is 3-5 (ERA 3.52). To help close the wind tunnels at second and third, the Padres also picked up veterans Dave Cash and Aurelio Rodriguez. But Cash is playing as if in another world, making costly mental errors and hitting only .212. Third Baseman Rodriguez is hitting .200 with 26 strikeouts and 13 RBIs.
Presiding over this patchwork is former Yankee Second Baseman Jerry Coleman, who left the Padres' broadcast booth to manage for the first time in his life. Coleman didn't broadcast by the book. Some Colemanisms, in fact, are legend. For example, "Rollie Fingers is throwing up in the bullpen." This spring, on a cold day in Arizona, Coleman told his players, "O.K., gang, I want you to warm up real good because it's stiff out there."
Coleman isn't in an enviable place for a rookie manager. He is leading a 12-year-old franchise with no one in the minors who can help right now and with troubles on the field and at the plate. (The team batting average of .248 is 11th in the league.) With Winfield apparently on his way out, the situation doesn't promise to get easier. And Coleman's not the only rookie. Ballard Smith, 34, took over as club president last year, bringing to the job all his experience as a district attorney in Pennsylvania. "I'm just asking for a chance," he says. "I've got a handle on the direction we should be going in. Player development's the way to do it. I don't think we're going into the re-entry draft this fall. I think we're smarter to spend that money in other areas."
Kroc, too, is looking to the future with optimism. He has this dream. "We'll get a new general manager," the former free-spender says. "And he'll fill up the farm clubs. And we'll be like...the Baltimore Orioles!"