Welcome to the San Diego Zoo. As utilityman Kurt Bevacqua says, "We're all animals on this team." Over there is the graytufted thirdsacker recently acquired from the Bronx Zoo in New York. See him leap headlong into the dust to nab his prey. To your left is a baby bull from Puerto Rico—note the powerful hindquarters. Next to him is a razorback. He was shy when he first came here, but now he's becoming accustomed to the attention. The gazelle you see scampering among them used to graze on outfield grass, but the keepers feel he can thrive in just about any habitat. And there, yes, you can see him emerging from the pen, is the....
Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego was wild with excitement last Tuesday evening because it was Opening Night for the Padres. There was more in the air than just the swallows flitting about the upper decks. The ushers and parking-lot attendants, hundreds of them, were dressed in tuxedos, resembling so many penguins. The Chicken, attired in tails and accompanied by several foxes, arrived on the field in a stretch limo. Bombs were bursting in air.
When the new thirdsacker, Graig Nettles, was introduced, he was greeted with a long, standing ovation and, obviously moved, Nettles tipped his cap. The last player introduction was reserved for Nettles' Bronx Zoo-mate, Rich Gossage, and calls of "GOOOOOSE!" probably woke up the pygmy hippos in the real San Diego Zoo, which is four miles away.
Then the Padres went out and beat the Pirates. In the second, Kevin McReynolds, the highly touted centerfielder, pulverized a Rick Rhoden fastball, sending it into the leftfield seats. The other half of the "M & M Boys," leftfielder Carmelo Martinez, matched him with a two-run homer in the sixth that landed just to the right of McReynolds' shot. The Goose made his appearance with the score 5-1 in the seventh. Manifestly pumped up, Gossage threw three straight pitches past Pirate rookie Doug Frobel. The next five Pirates also went down easily, and long into the night the Padre fans chanted "GOOOOOSE!" as if they had been practicing for about 10 years.
In fact, it was precisely 10 years ago that the new owner of the Padres, Ray Kroc, may he rest in peace, grabbed the microphone at the home opener and said, "I've never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life."
Kroc died on Jan. 14, eight days after his team signed Gossage, and the Padres are wearing the monogram R A K on their sleeves this season. "My father-in-law would have liked what he saw Opening Night," says Padre president Ballard Smith. "He was such a perfectionist that he used to say, 'Well, we won, but I didn't like the way we won.' He might have taken the microphone in the opener and said, 'I've never seen such beautiful ballplaying.' "
The Padres continued to perform beautifully the rest of the week, winning three more games to give them their best start ever. With a 4-1 record following Sunday's 8-5 10-inning loss to the Cubs they led the National League West by two games.
"I'm the only one who's been here since 1980," says utility infielder Tim Flannery, "so I've seen a lot of players come and go. But this year, the atmosphere is different. It's time to start winning." The Padres are the only team in the division never to have won the title, and, in fact, they've never finished higher than fourth in their 15-year history. They've made some progress in recent years, but it's strictly been rags to middle class—they are coming off two straight .500 seasons.
But only three players who were in last year's Opening Day lineup for San Diego, first baseman Steve Garvey, catcher Terry Kennedy and shortstop Garry Templeton, were in the Opening Day lineup this year. The '84 team is a strange mix of young and old, with players in odd positions. However, offensively the Padres are well balanced with speed and power, lefties and righties, and Nettles, who has more homers than any third baseman in American League history, will platoon with Luis Salazar. As the line in every science-fiction movie ever made goes, "It sounds crazy, but it just might work."