It was, to put it succinctly, an unusual scene for the San Diego Padres. There they were last Friday, 22 games over .500 and leading the National League West by a commanding 9½ games, and yet there was their manager, Dick Williams, his ordinarily gruff countenance suffused with forlorn dignity, circulating among his players, imploring them to carry on without him. It was a scene reminiscent of the brave Captain Lawrence issuing his final command as he expired on the deck of the Chesapeake. "Don't give up the ship," Williams was telling his men just before he, in effect, walked the plank. The manager had just been socked with a whopping $10,000 fine and a 10-day suspension by league president Chub Feeney for his part in the lamentable "beanbrawl" with Atlanta the previous Sunday, and, complying with his sentence, he was clearing out of the clubhouse before that night's game with Montreal at Jack Murphy San Diego Stadium. That very morning he had beseeched Feeney by telephone for clemency, but Feeney, unmoved by Williams's argument that he was merely protecting his team's honor by having his pitchers throw baseballs at the Braves' Pascual Perez, had turned a deaf ear. Williams would watch his first-place team from a box seat for the next week and a half.
The manager wasn't the only Padre penalized for the free-for-all in Atlanta. Nine of Williams's players, including three pitchers—Ed Whitson, Greg Booker and Craig Lefferts—who threw at Perez, were fined, along with six Braves and two Padre coaches. Four Braves, including manager Joe Torre, received three-day suspensions, as did Padre pinch hitter Champ Summers. Williams had insisted that there would have been no brawl at all if Perez hadn't plunked the first pitch of the game into San Diego second baseman Alan Wiggins's side. Feeney maintained that Williams was even more culpable because he had his pitchers aim at Perez the four times he came to bat, provoking a mass slugfest in the eighth inning, the first of the game's two brawls, when Lefferts finally did hit him. During the fight Perez hid in the dugout, protected by teammate Bob Horner, who (with his arm in a cast) had just come down from the press box and put on his uniform to be ready for hostilities. "It would've been a lot simpler if we'd hit Perez his first time up," Padres catcher Terry Kennedy said. "We missed him three times at bat. The whole thing got pretty ridiculous. It's bad to have kids watch something like this."
There was another donnybrook in the ninth when Braves reliever Donnie Moore hit San Diego's first batter, third baseman Graig Nettles. Umpire-in-chief John McSherry, who ejected 13 players altogether and cleared both dugouts after the ninth-inning fracas, said afterward that this game was "the worst thing I've seen in my life" and that it had "set baseball back 50 years." Williams, who is 55, hasn't been in the game that long, but he's definitely a baseball man of the old school. "We had some honor to defend," he said at a press conference Friday. "Perez is a headhunter. There's no question we went after him. I'm responsible for it. I'll accept the penalty, but I think it's pretty steep." Perez, who had hit only two batters in his previous 135 innings, denied he had been throwing at Wiggins, but was fined $300.
Although the Padres weren't as carefree as they might have been last week, a few of them saw some benefits in the brawls. Reserve infielder Tim Flannery liked the way the pitchers came to Wiggins's defense. "These guys care about each other, they take up for one another," said Flannery. "We used to have players who didn't care about each other." Another utility man, veteran Kurt Bevacqua, saw the incident as evidence of the Padres' new respectability. In the past, said Bevacqua, only those hateful neighbors, the Dodgers, would have bothered to throw at San Diego hitters, so unthreatening were they, and even when they did throw at them, "we couldn't retaliate because we were usually so far behind in the game we couldn't waste a pitch." Bevacqua, who by week's end had played in only 35 games this season, found one other bright spot: "That's the longest I've been on the field in some time."
Respectability isn't achieved simply by becoming important enough to be a worthwhile target. The Padres have earned respect the hard way—by winning it. Last week may have been unusual, but then again, this has been an unusual season in San Diego. Until this year, no Padre team in the 15-year history of the franchise had finished higher than fourth in the division. In their first 13 seasons the Padres were dead last eight times and next to last on three occasions. Only three years ago they were playing .373 ball. Until this year they had never been in first place past April 27. And until this year they had never been 15 games over .500. They've been that many over or more three times already.
Why the remarkable turnaround? There are almost as many reasons as wins. General manager Jack McKeon, who has moved 95 players in his four years in office, is certainly one factor. Either by trade or through free agency, Trader Jack, as he is known, has acquired the three veteran players—all of whom have played on championship teams—who have added stability and confidence to a predominantly young team. And Goose Gossage, 33, Steve Garvey, 35, and Nettles, 40, can still play. Gossage had 22 saves and seven wins by week's end, Garvey was hitting .282 with 66 RBIs and Nettles had 17 homers and 54 RBIs. However, their real importance will come in the next few weeks when the division races heat up. "This [a pennant race] is new to a lot of us," says Tony Gwynn, 24, who had played in only 140 big league games before this season but through Sunday led the league in average (.360), hits (171) and on-base percentage (.421). "Come September, it'll be tougher on us younger guys. We'll put more pressure on ourselves. Goose, Garvey and Nettles will help us get through it."
Another reason why the Padres have gotten where they are has been the improvement of the pitching staff. And a key to that has been Kennedy. Last year he hit .284 with 17 homers and 98 RBIs. This year, he says, "I can't reach the warning track." Indeed, he was batting only .229 with nine homers and 45 RBIs at week's end, but he's doing a superb job behind the plate, particularly in handling the Padres' young staff. "It's a sign of his maturity as a player-that he's improved so much defensively," says Garvey. "It's selflessness. He's not hitting, so he's asked himself, what can I do to make this team work." Says Kennedy, "I never thought my defense would keep me in the lineup, but with four years here now, I've gotten good rapport with the pitchers. We're working a lot better together."
Whitson, 29, who was 5-7 with the Padres last year, is now 12-7. Mark Thurmond, 27, had won five in a row and seven of his last nine until he was shelled by the Expos last Friday. Dave Dravecky, 28, is second in the league with a 2.51 ERA. Andy Hawkins, 24, had won three of his last four starts until the Phillies drove him to cover on Thursday. Eric Show, 28, has 12 wins. And Lefferts, 27, has, with eight saves, become the lefthanded late-inning counterpart to the righthanded Gossage. Lefferts had a 1.71 ERA through Sunday.
The temporarily banished Williams may be the ultimate reason for the team's rise. Williams had won a pennant at Boston in '67 and World Series at Oakland in '72 and '73, and he had taken a doormat Montreal Expo team and moved it all the way up to second-place finishes in '79 and '80, winning 95 and 90 games, respectively.
Williams has long had a reputation as a cold and distant martinet. He would be the last to acknowledge any softening of his hide, but tender spots have been located. He's proved himself a deft comedian in Lite beer commercials, for one thing. And he no longer seems to regard his players as so many Bob Cratchits.
On his way to baseball purgatory last Friday, Williams stopped by Garvey's locker to offer encouragement. Garvey rose from his stool to shake the manager's hand. Williams had said earlier that there was no reason the team shouldn't win without him at the tiller. Now he said to Garvey, "We'll just go out and get 'em, won't we." Garvey nodded in agreement, and as Williams moved on, resumed his seat and his conversation. "Dick has enjoyed this year as much as any he's had in the past," he said, shaking his head as if confounded by such a phenomenon. "I know he won't admit it, but he's had a more personal approach to the team this year. He's shown some real compassion. I think all of us have grown both professionally and personally this year. We're enjoying the camaraderie, and that's what it's all about."
Williams watched the first game of his suspension behind a carton of popcorn in McKeon's upstairs box. He was helpless to stop the 8-4 slaughter. Coach Ozzie Virgil, the surrogate manager, entertained the press afterward in the cramped coaches' quarters. "We just played horsebleep," he said. "You play like that, you can't expect to win a ball game.
The door was open to Williams's office. An attaché case rested on a chair. There were papers on the desk and clothes in the closet. A large photograph of Babe Ruth hung on one wall, alongside one of Williams with President Johnson after the '67 Series. But nobody was home and all the lights were off except one. There blinking in the darkness was a Lite beer advertising sign, a beacon of sorts, a comic reminder of the missing manager, and, at the same time, the Lite, as it were, at the end of a long dark tunnel for the Padres.