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PADRES : Where's the Beef? Ballard Smith Doesn't Have Any

April 05, 1985|DAVE DISTEL | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Ballard Smith almost choked on his coffee one recent morning when he picked up his newspaper and read about the latest episode in the continuing saga of Mayor Roger Hedgecock's problems.

A story reported that a group of prominent San Diego businessmen had met with Hedgecock and Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller, hoping to forge a plea bargain which would spare the city a second felony trial of its mayor.

And Ballard Smith--"baseball executive"--was the first of the prominent businessmen listed. He was not surprised that he happened to be listed. After all, he was there. He was surprised by how he was described.

"That was the first time I've ever read anything describing me as a business leader," he mused. "I was really taken aback. I've never thought of myself in that sense."

Ballard Smith had been called a lot of things, particularly during those stormy early years in the Padres' front office. Smart alecky. Cocky. Pompous. Arrogant. Ungentlemanly. He was never described as anything like a civic or business leader, and never likely to be invited to tea by anyone who was.

Obviously, times have changed for the one-time enfant terrible, who came into his job as the Padres' president in 1979 and launched a series of battles with a succession of adversaries including Bowie Kuhn, Eugene Klein, a number of players' agents and virtually all of the San Diego City Council. He was a walking confrontation.

These days, with his National League champions riding a tidal wave of popularity hereabouts, Ballard Smith, at 38, has settled comfortably as a part of The Establishment he once battled with such regularity.

"I guess it's probably part of growing up and gaining self-confidence," he said. "I think I came into the job with a lot of doubts about whether I could really run the club."

If Smith was at all lacking in self-confidence, it was not apparent. He hid it behind that cocky facade that caused him to be considered arrogant and pompous, neither of which are adjectives normally applied to an individual short on self-confidence.

And maybe his "adversarial attitude" stemmed from his days as an attorney in Meadville, Pa., where he was eventually elected district attorney of Crawford County.

Not that Crawford County was a place for a young district attorney to make a name for himself with sensational cases.

"We're kind of a laid back rural area," said John Wellington, the managing editor of the Meadville Tribune. "Nothing much sensational happens around here. For example, our homicide rate is about one a year for the whole county."

Smith, who went to the University of Minnesota Law School, had been an attorney for five years when he ran for district attorney. And a political campaign is not a place for the shy.

"Some folks didn't like his attitude," Wellington said. "Some people thought he was arrogant or uppity or pompous. But not everyone. After all, he won the election."

Jack Yoset, the courthouse reporter for the Tribune when Smith was district attorney, was not among those who found Smith arrogant or pompous.

"He was very unassuming and down to earth," said Yoset, now an editorial writer. "He and his wife came through Meadville a few weeks ago and took the time to stop in and visit for a few minutes at the newspaper office."

And, Yoset said, The Ray Kroc Connection never came into play in Meadville. Smith's wife, Linda, just happened to be the multi-millionaire hamburger magnate's daughter.

"A lot of people knew Ballard and Linda Smith for quite a while before anyone realized the background in terms of Linda's connection with Ray Kroc," Yoset said. "They didn't have any 'above it all' approach to people."

Kroc, however, was to abruptly terminate Smith's term as district attorney in the fall of 1976. He wanted his son-in-law to move to San Diego, ostensibly to join the Padres' front office.

"I thought it was kind of neat," Smith said. "I'd always been a big baseball fan."

By the time Smith was headed for San Diego, his assignment changed. His father-in-law had bought the San Diego Mariners of the World Hockey Assn.

"And," said Smith, "I got elected to run it. I would never have come out here to run a hockey team, but it was a good education."

In a very short time, in fact, he learned about the business side of the world of fun and games.

"After I studied the budget," he said, "I realized we could sell every seat for every game and still lose money. That wasn't the way it was portrayed to Ray when he bought the club."

Meanwhile, the Mariners ended up in court with Sports Arena operator Peter Graham over parking fees. In an affidavit, Smith said Graham threatened to run him down in his car. They now pass it off as a misunderstanding, but it was perhaps the first sign that Ballard Smith would not easily be pushed around--or threatened.

When the Mariners were dissolved as part of the WHA's merger with the National Hockey League, Smith was finally in the baseball business.

In fact, he never has practiced law in California.

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