Having already acquired leftfielder Rickey Henderson, first baseman Wally Joyner and righthander Bob Tewksbury during this off-season, the San Diego Padres announced on Feb. 6 the addition of yet another thirtysomething veteran. And they did so to the accompaniment of a three-piece band and a gospel choir. The guy worthy of such fanfare is a jovial sort who was with the Padres previously, has the look and ample silhouette of Buddy Hackett, and swings a big bat with a mean uppercut.
No, John Kruk is not returning. San Diego is bringing back the cartoonish mascot known as the Swinging Friar, whose association with the team began in 1958 with the Pacific Coast League Padres and ended, inexplicably and some would say ominously, after San Diego's only World Series appearance, in 1984. Defrocked, the Padres have finished within seven games of first place only once in the 11 seasons since.
While the Padres seek divine intervention, the story of how the Friar came back offers a glimpse into the direction of the team. Not long after assuming operation of the club in January 1995, new owners Larry Lucchino and John Moores organized fan focus groups called "Tell It to the Padres." Says Lucchino: "One of the things we heard from them is that they liked the Friar. We like to think we're an organization that has big ears and listens to our fans."
On the night of the Friar's announced return, Lucchino and Moores were guests on a radio talk show at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. During a commercial break a concerned fan in the audience pulled aside one of the radio hosts and, aware that the club switched its primary uniform color from brown to blue in 1991, said, "Tell me something: Is the Friar's robe blue or brown?" Told the Friar would be outfitted in his traditional brown, the relieved fan sighed, "Oh, good. Good."
The Padres owners are on a roll. Last season San Diego was 2� games out of first place as late as Labor Day weekend and, even with a 12-15 fizzle thereafter, finished as the most-improved team in the National League, having jumped from 47-70 in 1994 to 70-74 in '95. In 1996 the Padres have the potential to make another leap forward, perhaps with a Cinderella ending this time: They have a shot to be this year's feel-good, wild-card entry in the National League playoffs (see Rockies, Colorado).
Primarily through trades and free-agent acquisitions the past two winters, the Padres will start six players who are at least 31 years old—seven when Tewksbury, 35, is the starting pitcher. It's a huge step in a new direction from former owner Tom Werner's dollar-driven youth movement of 1993, which ended in 101 losses. The new owners are banking on veterans to make the team a contender as quickly as possible while at the same time creating a bridge to '98, when most of the team's best prospects should be ready. San Diego opened camp with only one player, six-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn, who was on the roster as recently as May 1993.
"This is my sixth year here," says San Diego batting coach Merv Rettenmund, "and it's my first time going into spring training with the feeling that we have a team that will compete for the division title."
Lucchino and Moores have pushed so many buttons correctly that when they signed off from their radio gig two weeks ago, the audience of about 200 people gave them a standing ovation. Such warmth for a baseball owner is about as rare in San Diego as a snow shovel. After all, this is a city that endured Werner, whose legacy was the desecration of the national anthem (by guest "vocalist" Roseanne in 1990) and the dismantling of a talented team on the rise (thanks to his cost-cutting player moves). Current Padres players refer to Werner's 1993 purge that included National League batting champion Gary Sheffield and home run champ Fred McGriff the way Chicago historians do Mrs. O'Leary's cow. "The Fire Sale," says closer Trevor Hoffman, who was obtained from the Florida Marlins in the Sheffield trade. "People here still talk about it, and a lot of them still aren't over it."
Now comes the Friar Sale. San Diego's marketing slogan is KEEP THE FAITH. Lucchino likes to talk about overcoming "the triple whammy" that awaited him in San Diego: the perception of the Padres as penny-squeezing losers, the fallout from baseball's ugly labor unrest and the recessionary economy of Southern California. "Now," he says, "there's a definite upswing [with this team], a very definite sense of optimism."
The owners began the turnaround by unofficially renaming the club the New Padres last season, plastering the moniker all over the Murph. There was truth in advertising. A 12-player trade with the Houston Astros in December 1994, the biggest swap in baseball in 37 years, provided three new starters: Centerfielder Steve Finley, third baseman Ken Caminiti and shortstop Andujar Cedeno. While Cedeno struggled, Finley (.297, 104 runs) and Caminiti (.302, 26 home runs, 94 RBIs) had career years, then both re-signed with San Diego for less than their expected market value as free agents.