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Hey, all you second-guessers out there. You know who you are. You sit at the bar, beer in hand, fantasizing about how you'd handle your local last-place team. "Overpaid bums in britches!" you bellow. "I'd make them work! I'd discipline them, teach them to execute fundamentals and sit them down when they didn't. I'd tell the pitchers to throw strikes and the runners to steal bases. So what if we don't have a Jackson or a Schmidt? Baseball is 95% mental anyway. Who says managers don't win games?" Then you stalk out, as the other patrons roll their eyes, knowing full well that players win games, not managers.
Or do they? Consider the job Dick Williams has done in his first year at San Diego. Williams inherited the team with the worst record in the National League's Western Division last year—in fact, the team with the worst percentage, historically, of any NL franchise. Few of his players are outdoing themselves in 1982; at the end of last week, nine of the Padres' 15 batters were hitting below their career averages. "Position for position, we're a better team than they are," says Frank Robinson, whose Giants were fourth in the NL West. "You look at their lineup and it really doesn't impress you," says Lee Elia, whose Cubs were last in the NL East. Yet at week's end the Padres were in second place, trailing the Braves by 3½ games and thinking about October. Having already drawn 813,000 fans, San Diego is sure to break its 1978 attendance record of 1.67 million.
How have the Padres done it? With the same combination of pitching, speed, defense and fundamentals that Williams taught in previous stops at Boston (1967-69), Oakland (1971-73), California (1974-76) and Montreal (1977-81).
"Dick's like an orchestra leader," says Centerfielder Ruppert Jones, who as of Sunday was among the league leaders with a .321 average and has a golden spittoon by his locker, befitting his status. "You have 25 guys who can play and one guy who makes them harmonize."
Indeed, the Padres are most impressive when taken collectively. Five pitchers have won four to six games, four runners have stolen more than 10 bases and five batters have driven in 20 to 40 runs.
"Individual statistics mean nothing," says the mustachioed and magisterial Williams. "Execution and teamwork are what do matter. I hate bases on balls; there's no defense for them. Physical mistakes may be understandable, but screwed-up fundamentals will kill you. I want my players to throw the ball over the plate, execute well and run those bases. I don't care if you run us out of some innings. You'll run us into more."
Of course, every manager—including the eight who previously piloted the Padres—preaches what he thinks will be a successful system. The difference is that Williams makes his work. He gives six of his players—Jones, First Baseman Gene Richards, Shortstop Garry Templeton, Third Baseman Luis Salazar, Leftfielder Alan Wiggins and Rightfielder Sixto Lezcano—the green light. Led by rookie Wiggins, who had 23 steals in 29 attempts, the Padres were third in the National League with 70 stolen bases. By no coincidence, they were second to West leader Atlanta in runs, with 4.59 a game. "Since we don't have much power [they've been outhomered 45-31] we have to create run-scoring opportunities for the next batter," says Jones. "We're winning because the manager gives us the freedom to be aggressive."
That's about as far as the freedom goes. Williams shocked the club in spring training by benching Lezcano and First Baseman Broderick Perkins for making mental mistakes and refused to sign Bill North, the heir apparent in centerfield, when North asked for what the manager considered too many days off. "Jones was better suited for us as a cleanup hitter than North would have been as a No. 2 hitter," explained Williams, but the players got a message that had nothing to do with tactics. Jones, who had had a mediocre spring up to that point, got four hits the day North departed and has been in high gear ever since. The other Padres decided to work more and complain less.
A chart in the San Diego locker room shows each player's record in 13 categories including defensive plays that saved wins; moving runners from second to third with no outs; driving in men from third with fewer than two outs ("a double plus," says Williams); game-winning runs batted in; and missed signs.
The Padres are also executing in ways that don't show up in the stats. Two that do: They've had four more at bats than their opponents but have outscored them 289-241 and outsacrificed them 51-48.