The Late Greats
“There was a period of time,” recalls Minnich, “when this team would hire big names in their waning years. Sometimes they were very productive for us, and sometimes they were just going out to pasture. But it created some exciting moments just the same.”
A few highlights from those days:
“The most exciting was Fernando Valenzuela. I just loved watching him pitch. He was a classic intellectual pitcher: he would pitch to the man he saw based on the man who was coming up. A joy to watch.” (Valenzuela was 13–8 for San Diego in 1996, with a 3.62 ERA.) Slightly less exciting, if more successful: “Gaylord Perry won a Cy Young with us in 1978” — he was 39 years old and went 21–6 with a 2.73 ERA.
“Graig Nettles was a great third baseman who had been a Yankee all his life” — or at least, for the 11 seasons before he came back to his hometown of San Diego in 1984. (Yankees owner George Steinbrenner traded him after seeing a promotional copy of Nettles’s memoir Balls, which was critical of Steinbrenner.) “His family lived here. His father was a district counselor, and I was a psychologist at one of the schools he was assigned to. He has a picture of Graig and his younger brother Jim in his office.” The two both played baseball at San Diego State. “Jim had hit a home run and was rounding third base, giving that look to his brother. It was a great picture.” (In 1985, at age 40, Graig Nettles the Padre was selected for the National League All-Star team.) “Goose Gossage had been a Yankee as well” and came over at the same time as Nettles, delivering over 20 saves a season for his first three years with the team.
“We had Dave Kingman for a while. He was tall, and he wore a skin-tight uniform — you’ve seen some of these players, there isn’t a ruffle. He was a good-fielding first baseman, and he was known for strikeouts and home runs. Unfortunately, when he played for us in 1977, he opted for the former (48) more than the latter (11).” Two years later, he uncorked 48 for the Chicago Cubs.
“Willie McCovey was a classic first baseman. He was 6 feet 4 inches, and his nickname was Stretch — a great defensive player. And Steve Garvey, of course, had a moment or two with us,” including a couple of years as an All-Star in the mid-’80s.
While Minnich talks, members of the field crew — outfitted in their glamour-free uniforms of khakis and light blue shirts — set to work prepping the infield: misting the dirt, raking it smooth with broad brushes, formatting and laying the white lines around home plate, smoothing the pitcher’s mound. The ritual is its own sort of entertainment. If there is a Zen quality to baseball — the back and forth of pitcher to catcher, shortstop to second to first, and all the rest of it — it’s only half as perfect as the perfect sameness of the field crew’s motions as they rake and rerake the cocoa-brown earth, rendering it absolutely uniform so that it contrasts with the outfield’s stripedy crosshatch of lawn-mower lines.
A team from the San Diego Zoo lines up along the third base line and displays a collection of beasties: raptors, turtles, etc. Four men from the Oceanside Police Department Color Guard — two with rifles — bear the flags of the United States and the State of California to a patch of infield just behind the pitcher’s mound, and we’re ready for the national anthem. Encinitas resident Michael Ahmann takes his place at the microphone set up behind home plate. Backsides heave up from their seats, hats slip off of heads, and the words flash on the digital screens along the walls lining the playing field. “O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light…” And now we’re ready to play ball.
As soon as we watch this exciting video on the JumboTron, anyway. The one that takes us on a computer-generated roller-coaster ride past helicopters and scenery and Padres players making wonderful catches. And as soon as we hear the starting lineups, which are received in silence.
Padres pitcher Chad Gaudin gets off to a strong start, throwing his first pitch, a 91-mile-per-hour fastball, in for a strike, and getting Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan to fly out to left on the next pitch. Third baseman Emilio Bonifacio is out after two pitches as well, ripping a grounder into the glove of Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera. (Later, he will make another sparkling catch, and the JumboTron, sponsored by Carl’s Jr., will advise us to hang a star on that one.) Both outs garner applause from the crowd. Hanley Ramirez tags the first pitch he sees and sends it through the hole beside second base, but Jorge Cantu grounds out, and the Padres are done with one.
Eats at the Outset
I will never forget taking my sons to their first ballgame at Petco, way back when it opened. The boys were young, maybe seven and five. We had sweet seats along the first base line — a friend had given us tickets. But the drama of the evening was unrelated to the game. The drama came from the endless parade of goodies passing before their eyes. Here’s what gets hawked at the beginning of tonight’s game: 7:04: popcorn. 7:05: iced tea. 7:06: popcorn again. 7:07: iced tea again. 7:10: snow cones. 7:18: Cracker Jacks, peanuts. 7:35: ice cream. 7:37: soda. By 7:45, the cotton candy man had shown up. After that, I stopped keeping track.
Shortstop Cabrera walks to lead off for the Padres. And after Tony Gwynn Jr. advances him to second, the San Diego Chicken starts to dance and we hear our first blast from the organ — CHARGE! Our enthusiasm is rewarded: first baseman Adrian Gonzalez singles to center, and Cabrera scores. It’s only the first inning; it’s just one run. But it’s still thrilling. When third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff grounds into a double play to end the inning and a lady in the row behind me cheers, she catches more than one look of shock and chagrin. What’s a Marlins fan doing way down here in the infield seats? She’s harshing our buzz! But she is not intimidated and continues to hoot and holler for her boys in gray. And the boys in gray respond, scoring runs in the second, third, and fifth while the Padres fizzle.