When Brigham Young righthander Kevin Towers received the phone call in June 1982 informing him that the Padres had drafted him in the first round, he immediately thought of the Golden Arches. All he knew about the team was that it was owned by Ray A. Kroc, founder of the McDonald's chain. "I thought that I might get a signing bonus in Big Macs," says Towers, who never made it to the majors as a player but is now San Diego's general manager. "Then I thought, San Diego Padres? Who the heck are those guys?"
Good question even now. The franchise has had a difficult time establishing an identity in part because of the long shadow cast by the Dodgers just up the coast. For the first 20 years after the Padres' debut in '69, they had a personality as nondescript as the basic brown that was the basic color of their uniforms. (The club's first expansion draft pick was even named Ollie Brown.) They bettered .500 just once in their first 15 seasons. Other than an anomalous World Series appearance in '84, it was only in the '90s that San Diego began to differentiate itself, mainly by being so unpredictable.
Are the Padres the ambitious spenders who acquired Fred McGriff in '91 and Gary Sheffield in '92 to pursue a pennant? Or are they the panic sellers who traded both players in '93? Are they the dauntless National League West division champs of '96? Or are they the first-to-worst flops of '97? "Lately we're so consistently inconsistent, nobody knows what to make of us," rightfielder Tony Gwynn says. "It's like this unending roller-coaster ride where we climb and climb, and then we drop like a rock and all you hear are the bloodcurdling screams."
With another last-place finish in '98, the Padres might be on their way to assuming a new identity in a different hometown. A bond issue for a baseball-only stadium in San Diego will likely appear on the ballot in November, and voters are already in a lousy mood after being saddled last year with a $78 million bill for improvements to Qualcomm Stadium. Owner John Moores, who says the team lost $8 million in '97 despite the second-best season attendance in franchise history, insists that he cannot make a profit without a new stadium. What's more, the team's lease at Qualcomm expires after the '99 season. A line is about to be drawn in the Pacific sand.
It's interesting that the future of the franchise has been entrusted in part to yet another guy named Brown. Righthander Kevin Brown, who arrived in a Dec. 15 trade with the Marlins, should boost a staff that combined for a 4.98 ERA, the second worst in the National League and the worst ever for the Padres. San Diego's rotation averaged just 52/3 innings per start and combined for only five complete games. Last year Brown averaged more than seven innings per start and pitched six complete games. For a club that hasn't had a true ace since Randy Jones in '80, Brown may be the most important addition to any team since last season. "All I know is that I can't be concerned with any of the Padres' problems off the field," Brown says. "I can't be on the mound thinking, If I don't throw a strike here, the team might move."
Even without the stadium issue, there should be a sense of urgency for a team with just two regulars younger than 30. By acquiring Brown and adding depth to the bench and bullpen, in the persons of infielder Andy Sheets and lefties Mark Langston and Ed Vosberg, Moores is maintaining a $45 million payroll, the largest in team history and more than three times what it was when he bought the club in '94. It's a last-ditch investment in the club's future in San Diego.
Recent polls indicate that the stadium vote could swing either way and that if the proposal doesn't pass by '99, the Padres will be radically altered. Brown, third baseman Ken Caminiti, outfielder Steve Finley and first baseman Wally Joyner are all potential free agents after the season; the team could be dismantled much as the '97 Marlins were. Manager Bruce Bochy jokes about insisting that all his players move to San Diego to establish residence in time for the November election.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that if the vote was taken today, the stadium probably wouldn't get built," says Gwynn, who won his fourth straight National League batting title last year. "But if we have a good season, then maybe we have a chance to sway enough people. This could be the most defining season in this franchise's history because if we don't win, I may be finishing my career with the Northern Virginia Padres."