Thursday, April 16, 2015

Baseball 2015: The San Diego Padres Will Make the Playoffs

Maybe A.J. Preller really is a mad genius. Preller, the preppy, indefatigable new general manager of the San Diego Padres, spends more time on his cell phone than my 15-year-old daughter. He never stops. I'm told he only gets a few hours of sleep each night. But there’s a method to his sleepless madness. Preller somehow managed to bring a boatload of talent this off-season to the hapless Padres, whose pitchers were great last year but whose offensive woes were too painful for this long-suffering Padre fan to rehash without having a nervous breakdown. A.J.'s work ethic since being named GM has been nothing short of otherworldly. It is borderline obsessive, maniacal, unbelievable. 

But in a good way. 

Thanks to A.J. and the players he’s assembled, it’s fun to be a San Diego Padres fan again. The four-game series against the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants over the weekend at Petco Park in Downtown San Diego, which the Pods took three games to one, was electric. It was as exciting and satisfying as any regular-season series I’ve witnessed in my 30-plus years as a Friars loyalist.   

And here’s the nut graf: it's not just talent that Preller has collected here. What he has done, and I think deliberately, is pick players with good character but with undeniable chips on their shoulders and perhaps some unfair marks against them.  

The thing I like most about this Padre team is that it's not just a collection of hired guns & arms. These are guys that have something to prove but, too, are very easy to root for. Not sure it’s possible to call a bunch of players who've put up fat stats and played in All Star games underdogs. But this group is just that. Call them Superstar Underdogs.

We're seeing a fast but real bond forming here, on and off the field. And it’s also happily infected the players who were here last year and remain. This is a very tight-knit group. And that's dangerous in the best of ways. 

Leadership Wins Games 

There are some clear new leaders already emerging. Some of them, like starting pitcher James Shields, were expected to play that role. Shields, a likable old-school workhorse who arrived from Kansas City, where he led the Royals to an unlikely World Series appearance last fall, is a force of nature, a positive influence on everyone in the clubhouse, not just his fellow hurlers. 

The somewhat less likely team leader who has very much established himself as such by his aggressive and smart play is Derek Norris, a solid, scrappy catcher from the Oakland A’s who doesn't take any crap and rarely lets a ball get by him. He can hit, too, and run. He has wheels and is not afraid to use them, and that's a rarity for a catcher. And did I mention that he doesn’t take any crap?

Then there are the two new offensive studs: Justin Upton and Matt Kemp. So far, both of these heavy hitters have lived up to expectations between the lines and exceeded them off the diamond. 

Upton, the relatively quiet but intense left fielder who crushed his second home run last night in San Diego's convincing 5-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, has a commanding presence but is personable and has exhibited a surprising dry sense of humor. 

Right fielder Kemp, the physically gifted superstar on this team and longtime former Los Angeles Dodger, is the prototype -- or whatever you want to call him. And he's the so-called Hollywood guy. But as we are quickly learning, that's a bum rap.

Don't be fooled by Kemp's stint in Hollyweird or the fact that he dated superstar singer Rihanna. Yeah, Kemp is flashy, but he also happens to be the hardest worker on this new offense. He desperately wants to win a world championship and is ready and willing to work his ass off for it and persuade his teammates to do the same.

The guy is 30 and is running the bases early this season like a rookie pinch runner. I mean, WTF?

In Sunday's comeback win against the Giants, Kemp stretched a double into a triple by slowing down just slightly as he rounded second, which gave the defense the impression that he wasn't going to keep running. Then he turned on the afterburners and made it to third ahead of the throw. The crowd went wild. It was too cool. 

In the game last night, Kemp did it again. Slowly rounding second, he turned it up several notches and beat the throw to third with a head-first slide for another triple. So much for him being Mr. Hollywood. The guy’s a gamer. A winner. Don’t stop pushing, Matt. But please stay healthy.

Kemp and the rest of the Padres made a very loud and joyful noise by winning three games in a row against the Giants in the opening home series. Sunday's finale, which the Padres won 6-4 after trailing 2-0, was immeasurably important for this franchise. It was far more significant than the previous night's 10-run, 20-hit blowout.  

Why? Because it showed that the previous night’s offensive explosion was not an aberration. It showed that this team, unlike Padre teams of recent history, has the offense and the heart to come back from a deficit. It showed that these guys aren't complacent and don't have any desire to settle a series at .500. They want to dominate and win as many games as they can, especially against division opponents. 

The 2015 Padres Will Make the Playoffs 

Yes, yes, it's very early. But this club showed me something over the weekend and again last night that makes me think – no, know -- that this team is a contender. San Diego has had dismal Aprils for as long as I can remember. This one is looking much different.

Admittedly, after watching the first game against the Giants, which the Padres lost 1-0 in 12 innings, it was hard for me to keep the baseball demons out of my head. Like many Padre fans, I'm sure, I wondered to myself, "Will this be just like last year? Good pitching, but no hitting, in spite of all the new guys? Was there too much hype? Is A.J.Preller an agent of goodness or pure evil?" 

But Saturday's blowout, and the impressive offensive showings on Sunday and again on Tuesday, assuaged my fears. I'm all in.

The grand slam on Sunday by 37-year-old backup catcher Wil Nieves, which erased a two-run deficit and gave the Padres a lead they never vanquished, was off the charts. Watching that ball sail over the left field wall, I could barely contain myself. The crowd joined me. We all went absolutely nuts. 

It just felt symbolic. Meaningful. It felt as if that one homer meant that this team can and will win a lot of games this year. And yes, for the record, I sit in the stands, not the press box. I'm a fan and make no apologies.

Nieves' blast was arguably the biggest regular-season home run by a San Diego Padre since Steve Finley's game-ending salami back in April, 1998. I know that sounds like hyperbole. But think about it. Finley's slam was a huge boost to that legendary ’98 Padre team. It set the tone for a magical season that saw the Padres cruise to a National League West title, then beat Houston in the NL Division Series then Atlanta in the NL Championship Series.  

We won't dwell on what happened next against the New York Yankees. But hey, at least Tony Gwynn hit a homer in Yankee Stadium. 

I hope and expect that Nieves' homer is the first of many unsubtle, unambiguous statements by this team this season. Again, it’s early. But this team has the talent and the intangibles: clubhouse leadership, a wise and low-key player’s coach in Bud Black, a chip on its collective shoulders, something to prove, etc. 

It's a cliche' but this is a group of guys that seem to genuinely like each other and love coming to the ballpark. They know they’re good. They know what A.J. has done here. They don’t want to let the mad genius down. 

Camaraderie Isn't Something You Can Buy 

The 2015 Padres have the kind of energy, resolve and camaraderie that teams like the Dodgers simply lack, despite efforts by ownership up there to purchase it. Sure, L.A.’s loaded with high-priced stars. But generally speaking and with some exceptions, those players don’t enjoy a demonstrable sense of unity or focused desire to win at all costs. 

The Dodgers win a lot of games, but they choke on the big stage. They've not been to a World Series since 1988. It’s a drought that's lasted a decade longer than the Padres' dry spell, and the Dodgers have spent so many more millions trying to get back to the Promised Land. 

The Dodgers have a preposterous payroll. It’s the highest in Major League Baseball history at around $270 million. Are you kidding me? Meanwhile, the Padres’ payroll, even after the team's so-called spending spree this off-season, is just over a third of that at $109 million.

So unless you were born and raised in Chavez Ravine, you tell me which team is easier to root for: the overpaid, underachieving Dodgers or the underpaid, overachieving Padres?  

San Diego got off to an inauspicious start up at Dodger Stadium last week. The pitching was solid. But the offense was a case of "new players, same old lack of offense." The Dodgers took two of three. It was painful to watch. I was worried. But all that has changed in the last week. I can't wait for the teams' next showdown at Petco Park later this month.  

The opening home series against the Giants attracted the most fans for a four-game series in Petco Park history: some 170,000 showed up, and refreshingly unlike previous years, most were Padre fans. I was hoarse after that series. 

Each of the four games was exciting, for different reasons. The first two were pitching duels that ended with identical scores, 1-0. One was maddening (the one the Padres lost, of course). San Diego went 20 innings without a hit, then came back on Saturday and got 20 knocks.

Then the denouement: Sunday's comeback win, which included a sighting of that very rare beast: The Petco Grand Slam.   

Petco Park Is Your Friend 

Oh, yes, the enigmatic Petco Park. It's been a bit of an albatross for some. It has psyched out many a Padre player over the last decade. But I love the place. And clearly you can hit here if you don't let it get in your head that you can't.  

I wrote about the ballpark in Newsweek when Petco Park opened in 2004. No one had seen it yet, let alone hit in it. After I took the media tour, I was eager to see the Padres organization take advantage of this stunning new ballpark to attract great players. 

Despite the fact that it was clearly a pitcher's park and that I knew we probably weren't going to see too many homers, I believed that the future for the Padres was so bright you had to wear shades.

Then the darkness came. And when I say darkness, I mean the controversy surrounding then-owner John Moores. Everything kinda went downhill from there. The next regime tightened its purse strings and let future Hall-of-Famers like Adrian Gonzales walk. 

Enter Ron Fowler and his ownership group, who smarly hired Preller, the soft-spoken, benevolent insomniac who looks like a cross between a Princeton undergrad and an Encinitas surfer dude. 

Preller is the best and brightest thing to happen to the San Diego Padres since Larry Lucchino, the former GM in San Diego who is now CEO of the Boston Red Sox. Larry is another genius,as well as a persona hero and friend of mine.

Larry, who I profile in Hope Begins in the Dark, my book on cancer survivors, is largely responsible for Petco being built, and for the Red Sox' return to glory after so many disappointing decades. The guy is a gem.

And so is Preller, who with the support of the new ownership has mercifully decided to field a real winner in this town the way Larry did. What a difference a year makes. What a difference a new GM makes. 

I’ve said it before: San Diego is an underrated baseball town. San Diegans do love these Padres. But they haven’t had a whole to cheer about since the Moores era ended in scandal and the subsequent owners got miserly.

There's something special happening at Petco Park this season and it appears this is not a one-off. This team will be good for the long haul. And not only are the high-profile acquisitions (Kemp, Upton, Shields, Wil Myers, Craig Kimbrel) contributing, so are the guys who played here last year and are gladly still here (Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, Yangervis Solarte, Yonder Alonso, Wil Venable).

When all the rosin powder settles, I believe this team will be in the middle of the postseason mix. Yes, you can quote me. These guys are having fun out there, and that is what baseball is still all about. 

And these players have a city that is behind them and hungry to forget all the past Padre problems as well as all the current San Diego Chargers drama. Downtown San Diego is rocking. The Gaslamp District, the East Village, you name it. It has never been more alive. It’s the place to be right now. 

In other words, if you have trouble reaching me in my office anytime between now and early November, you know where to find me.


  1. Love is when the other person's happiness is more important than your own.

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