Two days before training camp opened, Padres general manager Kevin Towers was hosting a backyard barbecue for manager Bruce Bochy in Scottsdale, Ariz., when the shaved head of his next-door neighbor popped above the six-foot-high wall separating the properties. "Hey, want me to bring some brats over for the 'cue?" the man shouted. "It was right out of Home Improvement, with the guy next door," Towers says.
Little did Towers know when he rented the property that his neighbor would be David Wells, noted connoisseur of heavy metal, brewed beverages and fire-cooked meat. Inviting Wells over for food and refreshments was an easy call, seeing that over the winter Towers had invited the free agent Wells to San Diego for a less hospitable undertaking: to rescue a rotation that had given up a National League-high 144 homers and walked more batters than any but the Cubs'.
"He came [to the barbecue], and we did a little male bonding," Towers says. "Listen, I got the scouting report from [ Yankees G.M.] Brian Cashman. He told me, 'Kevin, there will be times when David's lying on the trainer's table with gout and times when you'll look at him and think he'll never be ready, but at the end of the year he'll have 15 wins, 200 innings and 30 starts, and you'll be very happy. You'll love him.' "
True to form, Wells flustered his new G.M. two weeks into camp by joining a mosh pit at a Metallica concert in Phoenix. Towers read about it in his morning paper. "From what I learned about mosh pits," Towers says, "they do body passing and slam dancing. I just hope his body was being passed, not slammed."
Mosh pits aside, the 40-year-old Wells's remarkable durability and experience were two reasons that the Padres signed him to front Brian Lawrence, 27, Adam Eaton, 26, and Jake Peavy, 22. (Veterans Sterling Hitchcock and Ismael Valdez were competing for the fifth spot.) Wells has thrown at least 200 innings in all but one of the past eight seasons. Improving with age, Wells is 90-75 before 1997 and 110-53 since.
If Wells's rubber arm doesn't hold, San Diego's plan to turn a 98-loss team into a contender could go up in mesquite-flavored smoke. Lawrence opened camp throwing 82 mph, an ominous sign for a control pitcher who, at the end of last season, showed diminished velocity from his usual 87-mph heater. Eaton pitched well last season in his first full duty since Tommy John surgery and looked shaky this spring. Peavy, a 180-pound righthander, has logged strenuous seasons for a young, small-framed pitcher: 178 innings (combined majors and minors) two years ago and 194? last year.
"Freshman and sophomore years are over for these guys," leftfielder Ryan Klesko says. "It's time to go. We have the offense. Pitching is big."
Towers expects San Diego to score 800 runs, which would be five more than the team record set in 1997. To get that production the Padres need Klesko, 32, center-fielder Jay Payton, 31, and first baseman Phil Nevin, 33, to avoid the injuries that have plagued them in recent years. That prospect was clouded when Nevin strained his left shoulder in spring training—a year and a day after he separated the same shoulder. He hopes to be in the lineup on Opening Day.
San Diego's offense, especially its home run output, could be further depressed by the team's new $411 million downtown stadium, PETCO Park. Because of the 411-foot right centerfield gap, Klesko, Nevin and rightfielder Brian Giles, all of whom have power that way, may find it difficult to go downtown downtown.
PETCO, which owner John Moores says "will be the new standard for ballparks," also boasts an existing factory building incorporated into the leftfield corner; a grassy park area beyond centerfield; and, because of a wacky configuration of walls and seating near the rightfield foul pole, the most mind-blowing corner since Haight and Ashbury. Says Giles, "It's going to make people look stupid."