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JIM MURRAY

Pillaging of Padres a Warning

July 11, 1993|JIM MURRAY

Listen to this:

"The ownership of the San Diego Padres is committed to building a strong and cohesive team, a team consisting of strong management and talented players with the desire to win.

"The San Diego Padres team was purchased during the 1990 season by a group of Southern California's most influential business leaders, men who are winners in their respective fields of expertise and are contributors to the community. The 15 partners, led by Chairman and Managing Partner Tom Werner, are committed to make the San Diego Padres contenders for years to come.

"There is one prime reason why this group of 15 owners have taken on the challenges involved in owning a major league team: They love baseball."

Well! To anyone conversant with the real situation, this must seem either like a cruel joke or a passage from "The Further Adventures of Alice In Wonderland." Actually, it's from the foreword to the 25th anniversary press guide of the San Diego Padres.

The last time we looked, the Padres' ownership had just traded away the core of the franchise. They had traded--for a couple of minor league pitchers--a player who came within a hair's breadth of becoming the first triple crown winner (batting average, home runs, runs batted in) in the league since 1937. As it was, he led in average, was third in home runs, and fifth in RBIs. They let Gary Sheffield, who will be a mega-star, go with a shrug.

But that's nothing. This is the management that granted free agency to Benito Santiago, widely conceded to be one of the best catching prospects to come along in some time. The Padres also unloaded Tony Fernandez, a .275 hitter (stratospheric for a shortstop) and generally perceived as the goldest glove in the franchise, if not the division.

None of these worthies had disappointed on the playing field. It was in the counting house that they became expendable. They were all making too much money. So was Craig Lefferts, a 13-9 pitcher whom they traded to Baltimore for the ever-loving player to be named later. Randy Myers, a relief pitcher with 38 saves, they let go into free agency with a yawn.

How does all this square with the brave quotes in the team brochure? It doesn't. San Diego has abandoned ship and is bailing out the lifeboat in the hopes of keeping it afloat.

Front-office actions illustrate the plight of the have-not owners of the national pastime, the small-market franchises that have to make do without the swollen local TV and radio contracts and commercial tie-ins that the Yankees, Dodgers and Chicago Cubs have.

This is nothing new in baseball, this jettisoning of high-priced talent to keep the doors open. The legendary Connie Mack, usually held up as one of the saintlier legends of baseball, used to apply the wrecking ball periodically to championship teams he had built.

Mack used to argue that Philadelphia would become cloyed with victory, bored with excellence and cease supporting his clubs. He tore down the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics after they had won four pennants and three World Series in five years, selling off key players for--in those days--big cash.

He did it again in 1932 after he had built up another juggernaut that had just won three pennants and two World Series in a row. It was the only team in baseball that could compete with the hallowed 1927 Yankees and even beat them.

But not when Mr. Mack got through with them. He dealt away Al Simmons, who had led the league in hitting the two previous years with .381 and .390 averages, who had hit 36 home runs and batted in 165 runs. He traded away Jimmy Dykes, the best third baseman in the game. He traded Jimmie Foxx, who had hit 58 home runs one season, fourth-most in the history of the game. Only Roger Maris, with 61, and Babe Ruth, with 60 and 59, had more. Foxx was a lifetime .325 hitter who knocked in 169 runs one season.

Mr. Mack then got rid of Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, who had hit .322 and called the best game in baseball. He sold pitcher Lefty Grove, who had posted a 31-4 record and had a ball so fast it glowed on the way to the plate.

Imagine what these guys commanded on the open market. Connie Mack wasn't saving only those guys' salaries, he was selling them for the high dollar. That's what an antitrust exemption did for you. The reserve clause, the last stand of slavery in this country, was in full bloom. A player belonged to you in perpetuity. You sold him and you pocketed the cash.

So the problem becomes, did Connie Mack have to dismember his franchise? Or was good old-fashioned American greed at work here?

In those days, revenue was almost all from ticket sales. Radio was in its infancy. TV was unknown. Even the concessions only gave a (small) percentage to the teams.

The Yankees at that time outdrew everybody. They began drawing a million fans in 1920, as soon as they got Babe Ruth.

But the Athletics drew respectably (for those times)--839,167 for their first World Series championship year, 1929, then 721,663, then 627,464.

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