A Fresh Breeze Cools The Desert Air

Under Dick Williams, the Padres had become a sullen team. Now he's out and Steve Boros promises them a new beginning
March 10, 1986

The move may not have been as revolutionary as the introduction of the McD.L.T., but last week the hamburger-funded San Diego Padres went from the hot of Dick Williams to the cool of Steve Boros. When Boros, 49, was promoted from coordinator of minor league instruction on Tuesday to succeed Williams, who resigned on Monday, it marked the greatest contrast in successive baseball managers since, well, since Steve Boros followed Billy Martin in Oakland. The surprise switch caught the Padres so unaware that they now have to dispose of 9,700 media guides, each containing a two-page bio of Williams.

According to Boros's 77-year-old father, who is also named Steve, "All his life, Steve never pushed around anybody." It's an admirable quality, but it's also the reason why, in 1984, the Oakland A's told Boros, "No more, Mr. Nice Guy," after he had spent less than a season and a half as their manager. But Boros learned some lessons in Oakland about how toughness is perceived; so, recalcitrant players and lazy umpires, watch out.

Meanwhile, his natural disposition suits the current Padres, who are just beginning their mending process in Yuma, Ariz. Four years under the sullen relentlessness of Williams, last season's disappointing defense of the National League pennant and four months of bad theater by the front office have left scars. Last week the players were again shaken when 16-game winner and former American League Cy Young Award winner LaMarr Hoyt checked himself into a center that specializes in drug treatment.

"Steve communicates, and he gets along with players," said Padre general manager Jack McKeon, who managed Boros at Omaha in '69 and chose him for his coaching staff when McKeon managed Kansas City in 1975. "Right now, that's the kind of manager this particular team needs."

Once upon a time, though, Williams was the kind of manager the Padres needed. For 18 years and with five different teams, Williams had been a consistent winner. Only he and Bill McKechnie ever achieved pennants with three different teams. And while Williams's performance last week—he resigned after failing to appear in Yuma for the opening of spring training—was not one for the Hall of Fame, it was probably effective hardball by a man who seemed to understand that he had finally worn out his welcome in San Diego.

"For the past few weeks, I have been asking myself, 'Do I really want to manage the Padres for another year?' " Williams told a press conference in San Diego. "My honest answer, finally, was 'No.' " With that, he received a kiss from owner Joan Kroc and left without taking questions from the media. Said Kroc, "It's better to kiss people goodby than to kick people goodby." Reporters who tried to call Williams at home discovered his phone was out of service. He has said in the past that San Diego would be his last managing job, but managers have a way of changing their minds, and a certain New York shipbuilder-owner has long admired the no-nonsense ways of Williams.

The resignation marked the end of speculation that began last August when Williams, disturbed by criticism of the floundering Padres, told a Philadelphia reporter, "I'm glad they put the pension in, baby, because I'll see you later." The implication was that Williams wasn't planning to return in 1986 to fulfill the last year—at $250,000—of his five-year contract.

After the Padres finished the season a disappointing 83-79 and tied for third in the NL West, Williams was not offered the contract extension he desired by president Ballard Smith. At first, Williams announced he would return to honor his contract. But on Oct. 30, the prospect of being a lame duck seemed less appealing, and he told Smith he wanted to reconsider. Smith, who contends he never offered to buy out the remainder of Williams's contract, told his manager to wait two weeks before making a final decision.

"Dick didn't want to come back," said Ozzie Virgil, a longtime coach under Williams and the closest man to the manager on the Padres. "He knew he wasn't wanted. But, naturally, he wanted them to buy him out."

The uncertainty over Williams's contract triggered an intriguing series of events.

•In November, McKeon, under the impression that Williams would not be returning, but without consulting the manager, fired Virgil. McKeon now claims he told Virgil the firing was timed so the coach could hook on with another team and that Virgil could come back to the Padres if Williams decided to stay. Virgil says he received no such promise.

•Virgil made his firing public, leading to reports that Smith and McKeon were undermining Williams in order to buy out his contract. Joan Kroc, who is Smith's mother-in-law, was not notified of any contract action on Virgil or Williams and announced that a buyout of Williams "will never happen. They [Smith and McKeon] will have to use their own money—I'm not using mine." Citing the debt she owed to Williams for bringing the World Series to San Diego in 1984, she added, "I am terribly involved with Dick Williams."

•In the meantime a telephone survey of players by Phil Collier of The San Diego Union revealed that most of the players did not want Williams back.

"It's bad when you have the players saying they'll pass the hat and help buy out Dick's contract," said one player. "I love playing for Dick," said another, "but when I get out of this game I'm going to run over him with a car."

•In early December, Smith, McKeon, Kroc and Williams held a meeting. Smith emerged from the summit talk to announce that Williams would return as manager in 1986. Virgil, who had lined up a new job with the Giants, was rehired. The confusion, said the embarrassed Smith, was due to "miscommunication." Management, he added, had complete confidence in Williams. Williams claimed he never intended to resign. He even said he would try to get along better with the players and the media.

•Two months later, Williams failed to show up for the first day of spring training. Virgil, also a no-show, then resigned. If getting one year's salary without work was Williams's goal, along with a little revenge, the odds are he achieved it. Kroc, asked in a telephone interview last week if she had changed her mind and paid Williams for the last year of his contract, said, "That's a private matter." She did say, "Forever, I will be grateful to Dick. He helped turn my grief [over the death of her husband] into healing."

Steve Garvey, who called Williams's resignation "the best thing that could happen to the Padres," was, nevertheless, unhappy with this latest episode. The normally restrained Garvey criticized Kroc for avoiding the press and said he believed Williams had been paid off. Then he unloaded on his former manager. "Dick has known for a long time that he wasn't going to manage this year," Garvey told Rick Talley of the Los Angeles Daily News. "I think he deliberately misled the media and fans in order to inflict the most harm on our team. Leaving like this...was his way of trying to burn the players."

Most players were just glad Williams was gone, regardless of how. "It couldn't have happened to a better guy," said pitcher Andy Hawkins, who won 18 games last year. "You bet I'm glad to see him go." Kurt Bevacqua, who often did impressions of Williams though he usually agreed with his manager's hard-nosed approach, said, "I look at Dick as being the same type of individual as I am—basically, a jerk."

A few paid tribute to Williams. "People shouldn't forget Dick Williams taught us how to win," said outfielder Tony Gwynn. "A lot of our success was an extension of his personality, because Dick was a perfectionist."

But after a 1984 season in which it appeared the Padres had the combination of experience and youthful talent to dominate the NL West, something happened. Perhaps it was just a natural cycle. Williams's average stay with his four previous employers was 3½ years. The 1985 season was his fourth with San Diego. The Padres overcame the loss of second baseman Alan Wiggins to take a five-game lead in the NL West on July 4. But then the clock struck 3½ years. In the second half, the Padres eroded into a punchless base-to-base team with erratic relief pitching and lost 48 of their last 85. Over the season, San Diego dropped 40 games in which the opposition came from behind.

Several Padres were angered because Williams seemed to go out of his way to make things difficult for some players. Starting pitcher Eric Show complained to the media after a loss that he had been pulled too soon. In his next start, Show was shelled early, but Williams would not take him out until he cried, "No màs." Says Bevacqua now, "Yeah, there were some times when Dick's feelings got in the way of his better judgment. And that cost him respect."

"It got to the point where you didn't even want to win for a man like that," says centerfielder Kevin McReynolds, who personally knew the exact dimensions of Williams's doghouse. Said Garvey, "Williams literally wasted the season with Kevin McReynolds. He's the kind of player Tom Lasorda would have built up. But Dick just cut him down."

It's hard to envision Boros having that kind of problem. "I like players, I like young people—I basically like people," he said last week. "I will be close to my players. That's not going to change." He even adopted the number of a player he was once close to, the 22 of the Royals' Dennis Leonard. Boros says Leonard's attempted comeback has inspired him.

The Padres were generally impressed with Boros's style in the first week of camp. They appreciated his point of speaking briefly to everyone on the team on his first day. His move to bring back popular coach Harry Dunlop, whom Williams had sent down to the minors as retribution for Virgil's firing, was applauded. Boros's nonthreatening manner was also a welcome change. When shortstop Garry Templeton stepped in to take batting practice against him, Boros said, "Bunt a couple, Garry, to get used to my very mediocre stuff."

"For me," said catcher Terry Kennedy, "I think Steve Boros is the guy I need. There's a lot of young guys on this team who are like me—confident but not supremely confident in our abilities. When we hit the rough spots during the year, this is the guy who will get us through."

Getting the Padres back to the playoffs will take some doing. Partly because of the front office snafu with Williams, McKeon was unable to make a deal for a frontline player over the winter. The team's power base is still its 41-year-old third baseman, Graig Nettles, and its 37-year-old first baseman, Garvey. The hope is that McReynolds and Kennedy will improve upon last year. San Diego has lacked speed since the departure of Wiggins, and Boros is anxious to see if second baseman Leon (Bip) Roberts, a 5'7", 160-pounder who stole 40 bases in 105 games for Nashua, N.H. of the Eastern League last year, can make the leap from Double A to the majors. The Padres went from fifth place in the NL in steals in '84 to last in '85, and rarely pulled off the hit-and-run. "I want this team to be 90 feet smarter, 90 feet more aggressive than our opponents," said Boros.

Naturally, many players are lowballing the arrival of the new manager. "I sense a little wariness," said Boros. "I'd be wary if I were them, too. They are feeling, is this going to keep up, or is it just till we lose?"

"He could be a nice guy," said outfielder Carmelo Martinez. "He could be real nice. But if we don't do the job, it's going to get him lost."

"I've played for five managers here, and I've only won with Dick," pointed out infielder Tim Flannery. "The grass isn't always greener."

But two cubicles down, McReynolds nodded. "Yeah, it's not that different," he said. "Only night and day."

PHOTOCARL IWASAKIThe Padres, who had a watered-down offense in '85, make a run for the '86 pennant. PHOTOCARL IWASAKIWhile San Diego hopes nice guy Boros (left) can finish first, NL umpires hope irascible Williams (right) will stay retired. PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.] PHOTOCARL IWASAKIWilliams deflated McReynolds's talents. PHOTOCARL IWASAKIThe usually cautious Garvey ripped his old skipper. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAHoyt brought the Padres more grief when he checked into a drug rehabilitation facility. PHOTOUNION-TRIBUNE PUBLISHINGWilliams got a team buss from Kroc after his announcement.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)