It was opening day, 1994. I was at the Murph to see if the Padres had sold the toilet seats yet. Management had been unloading players and their contracts, laying off secretaries, rationing office supplies - running the team like an ongoing bankruptcy auction. The game with Cincinnati said it all. On that celebrated afternoon, the Reds' shortstop earned a larger salary than the entire nine-man Padres squad.
I noticed a sign over one of the tunnels. "Under New Management." Beneath the banner was a smallish man wearing blue slacks, a white shirt, and tie, shaking hands with fans as they walked in. It was like the neighborhood appliance store had changed hands, and the new owner was damn well going to make sure customers knew things had changed. I thought, "It's going to take a hell of a lot more than that, pard."
The man gripping and greeting was Larry Lucchino, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Padres. In a short period of time he and majority owner John Moores have brought the Padres from below zero to last year's National League Western Division championship. Along the way the duo has restored goodwill to what was once the most hated franchise in baseball. The Padres have a community outreach program and a college scholarship program. The team embraced Mexican fans by playing a series in Mexico and setting up an outlet in Tijuana to sell game tickets and arrange transportation. Moores donated $3 million for a new baseball stadium at San Diego State University.
I wasn't thinking about any of this last week when I parked my car next to G gate at the Murph. There's no baseball game today; I am here on other business. I walk toward the Stadium Club and notice that the Padres are hosting a barbecue for employees of Coors beer. I make a detour and listen in as Larry Lucchino is introduced. Lucchino, still dressed in blue slacks, white shirt, and tie, welcomes his guests and remarks, "If you have any special needs for your children, your grandchildren, things that we can do that are within reason, do let us know because we hope that this is a relationship that goes on for a long time. The relationship between baseball and beer goes back a long way, and I think it's going to go forward for a long way as well."
Lucchino calls for questions. "What's happening on the field? What's going on off the field? What's going on as regards the Chargers expansion? What's going on with respect to a new ballpark? Now that you're inside the tent, I suppose we can be frank and honest and direct in responding to those questions.
"Just to anticipate a couple. We don't have any present plans to trade Rickey Henderson. If we get a good deal, we'll consider trading Rickey, but unless that happens, Rickey Henderson is going to stay here and play, because you know what's going to happen the day after we trade that sucker. Somebody is going to get hurt, and then it will be, 'Why did you trade Rickey Henderson?' "
A youngish man wearing a white sports shirt calls out, "What's the timetable for a new stadium?"
"We have a stadium." Lucchino turns and waves at the huge cement bunker behind his back. "This is a stadium. What we're thinking about is a ballpark. There is a big difference. Stadiums are 70,000-seat concrete monoliths. We're thinking of a nice, intimate, old-fashioned baseball park that looks and feels and tastes like California. I think it's going to happen fairly quickly. Now that the Chargers expansion is behind us, I think it's time to focus our attention on a way to preserve the Padres in this community. The best way to do that is to build a ballpark."
Lucchino pauses, studies the crowd. "I have a question for you. Where would you rather see a baseball park? One site is downtown on the waterfront where Lane Field was. The second site is Centre City East, about 10th to 12th Street by the Gaslamp District. The third site is right next door. We'd share the parking lot with the Chargers. And the fourth possibility is up near the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Just vote for one of the four." Out of 45 people, Lane Field takes 20 votes, L Street corridor by the Gaslamp receives no votes. "Somebody call the mayor," cracks Lucchino. "I think this would surprise a lot of city planners." Adjacent to the Murph receives 10 votes. Del Mar secures a surprising 14. "Oh and yes," adds the speaker, "how many want to stay right here and not do anything?" One hand goes up. "Would you please escort her out of the area?" The group chuckles.
A man, hot dog in hand, shouts, "Any news from Japan?"
"About Irabu," Lucchino dips his head. "Our view of that is nothing ventured, nothing gained. We outflanked a couple of teams and got his rights. We spent some time and effort on it. We didn't lose any significant players. The players that went over to Japan can come back and play for us in a couple of years if they choose. The simple answer is that nothing new has happened with Irabu. His Japanese team doesn't want him back because his agent is such a bad guy; they don't want any part of them.
"I don't know what will happen. Our view is that we're in it for the long-term. If we get nothing for this guy, that's okay; we've made inroads with Japanese baseball. Somewhere down the road we will be compensated by the Japanese team that we dealt with if we don't get Irabu.
"We'll make a deal with the devil. If [George] Steinbrenner [owner of the New York Yankees] gives us a fair deal, we'll deal with the devil. But it's got to be a decent deal, otherwise we'll let the guy sit if that's what he wants to do."
A middle-aged male is next. "If he sits out this whole year, will he be a free agent next year?"
"The answer that the Japanese commissioner's office and the Japanese team regularly tell us is, 'No, no, no.' His agent says, 'Yes, yes, yes.' So we'll see what happens. If we get nothing for him, that's okay, but we're not going to give the guy away and run and hide because we're worried about the controversy. I told someone yesterday, 'We'll keep a light on in the window. If he wants to come to San Diego, there's still a chance here.' "
A woman asks, "Why doesn't he want to play for the Padres?"
"We've heard a couple of different reasons. The one publicly stated is that he's upset at his old team in Japan, didn't like the way he was treated, and we are the team that his old team in Japan had dealt with. It's a little like the friend of my enemy is my enemy. The truth, I suspect - and this is within the family, right? - I think a deal was made off the record with the Yankees that said, 'If you can bring this guy to us, here's what we'll do for you.' And so once they made an off-the-record, under-the-table kind of deal, then Irabu decided that he just couldn't live without being a New York Yankee. He's the guy who thought that Joe DiMaggio's record was a 56-game holdout."
Another question. "Would he play for the Mets?"
"The Mets are very interested, and they had a decent offer. [Padres general manager] Kevin Powers was being nice to their general manager by saying, 'They're working hard.' Their offer is pretty good, but we need to get it a little better. But once again, I think the deal has already been set with the Yankees, so it probably wouldn't work with the Mets. Anyway, we've got a season going on; this is a diversion for us now, it's not the main event."
There's a drawing for two $100 game seats. Lucchino congratulates the winner and bids good-bye. I catch up to him as he walks back to his office.
"Hello, I made a good living for several years slamming the Padres."
Lucchino stops and looks up. "Oh really."
"Then you came along and ruined it. How's it feel to be so well liked?"
Lucchino smiles. "Thank you. It feels good, to tell you the truth. But we know we've got to keep the crowds, we've got to keep doing good things, we've got to keep winning." We're both in the midst of the alpha dog dance, taking one another in, measuring head to toe. "What was it like when you first came here? It had to be like walking on the ashes of Hiroshima."
"Yeah, it was. There was a great challenge here. The stone was at the bottom of the hill: the strike was on, the popularity of the team was awful, there was a perception that the previous ownership was uncommitted, there was an economic recession in Southern California. A lot of things were bleak."
"Why did you do it?"
"First off, I'm a baseball executive; that's what I've been doing for the last ump-de-dump years. Secondly, I did it because of John Moores. I thought he was going to be a great business partner and a great guy to be in any business with. Thirdly, I love the challenge of doing it in a situation that was tough. And fourth, I thought I might really like San Diego. I underestimated that. I didn't know how much I was going to come to love it here."
Well, I want to believe him, want to believe he's not just another baseball mercenary. "The franchise was so far down when you came in. Did you have a plan, or did you improvise?"
"I wish that I could say that we anticipated everything, that we had this clever game plan. We did have a game plan certainly, four- and five-year projections. We knew we had to approach the regionalization of the club, the internationalization of the club. We knew we had to field a team worth fan support. I've been in baseball since '79, so I thought I had a sense of what we had to do."
"How lucky were you with Rickey Henderson and Fernando Valenzuela?"
"We were lucky, I won't necessarily say with those guys, but on some transactions we were lucky. Fernando has been great, he was a horse for us down the stretch last year. Rickey - images that are formed early on are hard to change. The media may have a certain image of a guy, and even if he does change, mature, get beyond that, it's hard for his image to change. Rickey's been nothing but great for us. On the field, off the field. He's a very popular guy; he keeps the clubhouse loose. He's been great with kids and community activities. He's been terrific."
We are standing right on the spot where I first laid eyes on Lucchino. "I was here when you first got in. It was opening day, and I remember watching you work the lines. Do you still do that?"
"Yeah. I walk around before the game and see a lot of fans. I used to go out and do the line. I haven't been out this year except on opening day. But there's only been eight other games, so give me a chance."
"How will you do this year?"
"I don't know. The problem with baseball is you tend to react to the most recent data. The most recent data is the team's not hitting, we lost two out of three to a really weak club [Pittsburgh]. I think we're going to be competitive, but I think the National League West is a stronger division than it's given credit for. The Rockies are strong, the Dodgers are strong. I hope to see a dog-eat-dog race until mid-September."