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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Rebuilding? No, This Is Demolition

August 01, 1993|ROSS NEWHAN

While pseudo commissioner Bud Selig continues to whitewash the dismantling of the San Diego Padres as a "dramatic manifestation" of the problems facing small-market teams, not all owners agree with him.

"I think (Padre) management has gone too far," Dodger President Peter O'Malley said of the fire sale.

O'Malley refused to expand on that criticism. He added only, "I believe San Diego can support major league baseball. I believe it has supported major league baseball and can continue in the future, particularly with a new compensation system."

Some believe that's what this is all about.

"The owners are holding the Padres hostage to the labor situation," Don Fehr, executive director of the players' union, said.

"If the Padres are really having financial problems and the owners are really interested in a new partnership among themselves and with the players, they could have stepped in and helped the Padres through the season without destroying the team.

"But the truth is, they're more interested in having the small-market example than helping the Padres, which leaves the players to sit and think, 'If you're not interested in helping your own, how much do you really care?' "

Under the guise of a rebuilding program for a team that was only 4 1/2 games behind in the National League West on Aug. 1 of last year, the Padres have reduced their payroll from the $29.2 million on opening day of last year to less than $10 million, the major league low.

They have traded Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, Greg Harris, Bruce Hurst, Craig Lefferts, Darrin Jackson and Tony Fernandez, allowed Randy Myers and Benito Santiago to leave as free agents, and released Kurt Stillwell. They are carrying 13 players at the major league minimum of $109,000 and only two at more than $1 million, Tony Gwynn and Andy Benes.

A rebuilding project?

Of the departed players mentioned above, only Hurst, 35; Lefferts, 35; Fernandez, 31, and Jackson, 30, are 30 or older. Sheffield, the defending National League batting champion, is 24, and McGriff, the defending home run king, is 29.

The suspicion is that owner Tom Werner's real intent has been to lower the payroll to a point that it will attract a buyer willing to shell out something in the neighborhood of the $115 million the Tampa-St. Petersburg syndicate had been willing to pay for the San Francisco Giants before other owners stepped in and told owner Bob Lurie he would have to sell to a San Francisco group for about $15 million less.

Werner and his 14 partners--one of baseball's richest ownership groups--bought the Padres for about $70 million in 1989 and would be happy with the $100 million that Lurie received. If that's the goal, however, they apparently will not get it from any group interested in moving the team.

Selig and other baseball officials have cautioned Vince Naimoli, who headed the Tampa-St. Petersburg group and was Selig's guest at the All-Star game, to keep away from the Padres, that baseball would probably oppose any proposed move of that franchise, and that Tampa-St. Petersburg will be part of the next expansion.

Things can change, of course. If the owners don't get a salary cap and a new compensation system in talks with the union, they may be more agreeable to letting a small-market team move.

And Werner kept the door open in an out-of-court settlement with season ticket-holders who had brought a class-action suit, charging the Padres with fraud for trading Jackson and Sheffield after sending a preseason letter to prospective customers saying that Jackson, Sheffield and others would be with the club for the entire season.

In the tentative settlement, scheduled for a Superior Court hearing on Aug. 23, the club agreed to offer refunds to holders of season or individual tickets, the plaintiffs dropped their request for punitive damages, and the club rejected a demand by the plaintiffs that it pledge it will not be moved.

In the meantime, General Manager Randy Smith, who agreed to take on the fire sale after Joe McIlvaine decided he no longer could cope with it, contends that rebuilding was necessary because the Padres were a sixth-place club not going anywhere any way.

Smith is merely repeating the company line, but it's a spurious claim because the Padres of last August were a contending club, one pitcher away, perhaps, from a division title.

Now? Smith says the Padres could be back in contention by 1995. He insists--and some scouts agree--that through trades and internal development the Padres have assembled "a collection of live young arms that is as good as anyone's," and a comparable collection of young outfielders.

"The only real youth we gave up was Sheffield, and it's unrealistic to think we could have re-signed him after the '94 season when he was eligible for free agency," Smith said.

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