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The fat lady sang. Actually, she screeched. Then she scratched her crotch and spat. But the San Diego Padres didn't need Roseanne Barr's questionable rendition of the national anthem on July 25 at San Diego/Jack Murphy Stadium to tell them that their hopes of winning the pennant were over. A 3-21 stretch in June and July had taken care of that. All Barr did, besides make Pia Zadora sound like Barbra Streisand, was add an embarrassing chapter to an already disappointing season in San Diego.
Now that it's too late, now that the pressure is off, San Diego is finally playing up to its potential, winning six of its last seven games as of Sunday. Don't be surprised if the Padres do just what they did the last two seasons: rip through the second half, finish a bit over .500 and trick people into thinking the season wasn't that bad. It won't work this time, though. After the Padres beat the Houston Astros 6-2 last Friday for their fifth straight victory, San Diego rightfielder Tony Gwynn said, "We have to win 25 in a row to get anyone's attention."
The Padres got baseball's attention in the off-season, when they acquired outfielder Joe Carter from the Cleveland Indians and signed two free agents, pitcher Craig Lefferts and outfielder Fred Lynn. Because San Diego had finished only three games behind the National League West champion San Francisco Giants in 1989, this was supposed to be the Padres' year. Yet at week's end they were 44-55, in fourth place and 15 games out of first.
How could that happen? "It's puzzling to all of us," says manager Greg Riddoch. "But look what's happened to the Cardinals, the Royals. Talk about having name players. We can talk about five players; they can talk about 15. I think the expectations for us were too high. The second half of last year, three or four guys had career half-seasons."
Perhaps expectations were inflated. After all, the Padres weren't true contenders last season. Sure, they went 47-27 after the All-Star break (again, no pressure), but they were 10 games back on Aug. 23, and their finish was deceptive: Three games out was as close as they had gotten to first place since June 2.
Being slightly overrated might explain why the Padres aren't battling the Cincinnati Reds for first place. However, that doesn't explain why they're struggling to stay out of the cellar. True, San Diego entered the season with little depth and then got hit hard by injuries and a series of individual slumps. Nevertheless, as Houston pitcher Jim Deshaies says, "There have to be other reasons. I thought they'd be the team to beat in the division. Maybe there's a fine line between having good players and having a good team."
Another opposing player offers this explanation: "Maybe it's just too nice out there." Too nice?
"Tim Flannery [a former San Diego in-fielder] used to say that to play in San Diego, you have to motivate yourself," says catcher Mark Parent. "The media aren't big here. Fans can motivate you, but the fans here aren't rowdy like those in New York or Boston. [Former Padres outfielder-third baseman] Keith More-land came here from Chicago [in 1988]. There, he would go on the field and kill people. But it's so laid back here, it ate him up. He lost his flair for the game."
No team needs a kick in the pants more often than San Diego. Indeed, according to Parent, a comment by Reds outfielder Eric Davis might have sparked the Padres to win three of four games from Cincinnati last week. "He said he couldn't believe we were playing as bad as our record," says Parent. "The guys might have seen that and got it in gear."
Pitcher Bruce Hurst is among the many Padres who say that the team misses outfielder Chris James. He, along with third baseman Carlos Baerga and catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., went over to Cleveland in the Carter trade. James hit .282 with 11 home runs in the second half of '89, and his aggressive style of play rubbed off on the younger players. Now, says Hurst, "we have some guys who bring the younger guys the other way. They bring 'em down."