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McIlvaine Blueprint is Tested

January 22, 1992|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — They've found other celebrities who can sing the national anthem better than Roseanne Barr. Sons-in-law no longer are running the front office. Club presidents have quit making obscene gestures to local fans.

Tranquillity has returned to the Padres. Ever since 1990, when Barr took the stage at Jack Murphy Stadium, and virtually the entire front office was fired a few months later, there has been almost a peaceful hush in Mission Valley.

Crazy as it sounds, who would ever have imagined the Padres would actually be aching for attention once again?

You see, the worst has occurred. Apathy has set in.

The Padres, championship contenders two years ago, have become a spiritless, mediocre team whose stock is plummeting quicker than IBM's, critics say.

Check out the conversation in local bars. Tune into the talk shows. The Padres, who are a month away from opening spring training, are barely an afterthought.

The most publicity they receive now are the letters to the editor from fans vowing to cancel their season tickets.

"I can't believe how much disinterest there is in the team around town," said Jack McKeon, fired 18 months ago as Padres general manager. "People say, 'Jack had an ego. Jack's ego was out of control.'

"Hey, we sold tickets, didn't we? I always considered that selling tickets were part of my job. I'm damn proud of what I accomplished during my 10 years with the Padres.

"That's why I'm almost sick to my stomach when I see what's happened."

Instead of fantasizing about a championship, Padre fans are fearful the only entertainment next summer will be the 1992 All-Star game.

They wonder what happened to the new ownership that said it wanted to emulate the Oakland Athletics, but couldn't afford Jose Canseco's speeding tickets, much less his salary, placing about a $23 million cap on this year's player payroll.

They wonder why several members of the ownership group have informed Padre chairman Tom Werner they want out. Werner, despite rumors he also will bail out, says he'll stay.

They wonder why a team that frequently failed to live up to expectations this past decade, now no longer has expectations.

When you're picked to finish no better than fourth in the National League West this season and still are relishing last year's third-place finish, something is wrong.

"San Diego always has been under a microscope because of all the personalities involved, but now people are wondering what's going on there," said Randy Smith, assistant general manager of the Colorado Rockies, who left the Padres three months ago. "Time will tell, but I don't feel progress has been made the last 14 months there. The major league club certainly hasn't improved.

"To be successful, you need a plan, and to stick by it, " he said. "There hasn't been a long-term plan in San Diego in years."

Certainly, no one can entirely blame Joe McIlvaine, current general manager, for the mess Padres are in.

He's not the one who left outfielder Shane Mack and third baseman Dave Hollins unprotected during the Rule 5 draft in 1989, watching both emerge into potential stars while the Padres have gaping holes at each position.

He's not the one who allowed Kevin Mitchell, Kevin McReynolds, Ozzie Guillen, Ozzie Smith, Mack, Dave Winfield, Mark Davis and Hollins to leave town in the last 11 years, with only Tim Teufel left to show for it.

He's not the one who paid reliever Craig Lefferts a three-year, $5.35-million contract to make him the bullpen stopper, and now can not trade him because of the salary.

He's not the one who chose to trade catcher Sandy Alomar when the rest of the organization recommended trading Benito Santiago, eligible for free agency at the end of the season.

Yet, it doesn't matter to San Diego what transpired before McIlvaine's grand entrance. He arrived from the New York Mets with impeccable credentials. He was rewarded with a three-year contract and two-year option worth about $2.6 million, including mind-boggling fringe benefits.

Although McIlvaine might have been on the job only 15 months, and for the first time in his career is responsible for an entire operation, there has been little forgiveness and plenty of ridicule.

"I'm not afraid of criticism, but accept me for what I am," McIlvaine said. "Give me a chance. You've got to remember, when I came here a year ago it was not a pretty sight.

"There were a lot of fires that needed to be put out, and I was the one who had to do it. I felt like a fireman. That's over with now, but it all takes time."

There were 31 firings during the transition. McKeon, farm director Tom Romenesko, assistant general manager Bill Beck, public relations director Mike Swanson, scouts, coaches, trainers and front-office employees were dismissed. McIlvaine took responsibility for most of the firings, but the truth is that he was acting primarily on advice for many of the moves.

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