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Future Padres owner could use Tony Gwynn to spark interest in club

Just like the Dodgers have Magic Johnson now, San Diego has the potential to make use of the Hall of Fame outfielder and city icon to revitalize the team.

April 07, 2012|By Bill Shaikin
  • Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn had 3,141 hits in 20 seasons with San Diego.
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn had 3,141 hits in 20 seasons with San Diego. (Lenny Ignelzi / Associated…)

SAN DIEGO — This town could use a little Magic too.

Magic Johnson won't hit home runs for the Dodgers. He won't run the team. He won't pay the bills.

Yet, he smiles, and happy days are here again. In Magic we trust.

The San Diego Padres could use someone like that. Tony Gwynn, please save your team.

The Padres are up for sale, after Jeff Moorad's bid to buy the team from John Moores collapsed last month. Moores has retained Steve Greenberg of Allen and Co. to broker the sale, according to two people speaking on condition of anonymity because Moores has made no announcement.

The Padres are a disaster. They are on their third general manager in four years, their seventh chief executive in 12 years. They finished at least 20 games out of first place in three of the last four seasons and coughed up a 61/2-game lead in the other one.

They got what probably will be the last taxpayer-funded ballpark in California, then told their fans they could not afford to retain hometown star Adrian Gonzalez. Attendance is no better now at magnificent Petco Park than it was at creaky Qualcomm Stadium.

This just in: The Padres' rivals sold for a world-record $2.15 billion. Gwynn noticed, and not just because his son plays for the Dodgers.

"In the near future, people are going to feel comfortable knowing that this group is doing everything they can to put a winning product on the field," Gwynn said.

"I think a lot of people feel that way because of what they paid. Obviously, they wanted it, and from a fan's perspective, I think that's important. Everybody in the world says, 'Well, they overpaid for them,' but if you want 'em bad enough …"

So what would Gwynn tell a prospective buyer wondering why he should pay $600 million or so for the Padres and then try to compete with the Dodgers?

"That's the fun part about it," Gwynn said. "Nobody thinks you can, especially with the kinds of dollars that are being spent these days. They just signed [Matt] Kemp. They're going to sign [Clayton] Kershaw. They probably are going to sign [Andre] Ethier. If they were smart, they would have signed Prince [Fielder]. That would have made the deal a whole lot easier, I think, sitting on the outside looking in.

"In San Diego, you're not going to be able to shell out that kind of coin for that kind of product. You've got to do it a little differently. I've always been a proponent that you have to draft and develop, when you don't have the kind of pockets the big markets do. If you can do that and you can do that the right way, you can be every bit as competitive as the big-market teams."

The Padres just signed a television deal for $1 billion. But the Angels just signed one for $3 billion, and the Dodgers might get one for $5 billion. The Padres play in the fourth-smallest television market in the major leagues, with growth constrained by the ocean to the west, the desert to the east, Mexico to the south and Albert Pujols to the north.

Gwynn is pitching common sense. The new owners are going to need someone like him selling it, the same way Magic is selling the Dodgers.

The money to buy the Dodgers isn't coming from L.A. The money to buy the Padres almost certainly won't come from San Diego, where there are no companies in the Fortune 500 and no billionaires under 65, according to Forbes.

It is doubtful that any of the losing Dodgers bidders would jump into the Padres sweepstakes. Tony Ressler, a minority investor in baseball's best-run small-market team, the Milwaukee Brewers, coveted his hometown Dodgers but would rather pursue an NBA franchise otherwise. Major League Baseball officials have encouraged L.A.-based baseball executive Dennis Gilbert to pursue the Padres, but he figures to let the Dodgers ownership transition play out first.

Gwynn said he has not heard from any prospective Padres owners, but he would listen to what they had to say.

"I'd have to do my homework on it," he said. "I've heard that Magic was interviewing the groups, to see which one he wanted to align himself with.

"I would suspect most people on Earth think Magic is the main guy in that group. Really, he's just one of the guys, but he is the face that everybody in L.A. identifies with."

In San Diego, Gwynn is that face. Padres fans would feel better with Gwynn fronting an ownership group, secure in the belief that he would not align himself with buyers he did not trust to put a winner on the field.

Would he do it?

Gwynn fidgeted in his chair inside a cramped office bunker at San Diego State.

He is the baseball coach there, and he would be reluctant to walk away from the Aztecs before leading them to the College World Series. He works for the Padres too, as a special assistant and television analyst, and Moores paid to renovate the Aztecs' ballpark into Tony Gwynn Stadium.

"I respect the guys that run the Padres now," Gwynn said. "I work for them. We'll see. I like what I'm doing. My focus is here with these guys."

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