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On April 14, Padres closer Heath Bell bought a house for his family on a secluded cul-de-sac in San Diego's North County suburbs. The timing of the transaction was curious, given that Bell has a one-year contract, has no reason to expect a long-term offer and for months had been rumored to be trade bait. But the Padres were coming off a 17--2 beatdown of the Braves in their home opener, and Bell was emboldened. When his wife, Nicole, saw the closing date—July 1—she asked, "What if we're not here anymore?" Bell told her, "Don't worry, babe. They're not going to be able to break up this team."
Bell describes himself as "an idiot who thinks weird things," but he is already comparing the Padres to two legendary small-market outfits: the Rays of 2008 and the Indians from the 1989 movie Major League. Major League was a screwball comedy, but in San Diego it could now be a documentary. The Padres, like those fictional Indians, would make life much simpler for a lot of powerful people if they just lost, as they were so widely projected to do. Then the front office could trade Bell and slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for a glut of prospects, keeping payroll down while limiting local backlash, and of course helping some behemoth that has misused its resources to climb back into contention.
But Bell and Gonzalez, who were both born in San Diego, are not eager to move. Bell told Gonzalez in spring training, "Let's be 10 games up at the trading deadline so they have to keep it together." Their plan is working: The Padres won 19 of their first 30 games and led the NL West at week's end, a shock to those who didn't follow them in the final two months of last season, when they quietly went 37--25. "This is exactly what we expected," says Gonzalez, who has a new stock answer when he's asked where he'll be in August. "Pennant race," he says. "San Diego."
The Padres rank second in the majors in ERA, but at Petco Park pitching is rarely the problem. San Diego general manager Jed Hoyer had identified a larger issue when he was the Red Sox assistant G.M., a job he held until last October. He would tune into late games at Petco, where the scoreboard always seems to read 2--1. "An extra base could be the difference," Hoyer would tell himself. "They have to run." When Hoyer was hired in the off-season, he found that manager Bud Black agreed.
Hoyer and Black needed someone to impart their philosophy, and last winter they hired special assistant Dave Roberts. In spring training he hauled players out to the back fields, showing them how to lengthen leads and quicken jumps. Roberts, a San Diego native who played two of his 10 major league seasons in his hometown, stole more than 30 bases five times in his career, and his unforgettable Game 4 steal of second helped spur the Red Sox to a win over the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. He was the ideal tutor.
Last week the Padres were devastated to learn that Roberts, 37, had recently undergone two rounds of chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma. When third baseman Chase Headley called to check on him, Roberts said, "A bright spot in my day is watching the way you guys play." Two years after the plodding Padres finished last in the majors with 36 stolen bases, they led the NL with 35 through Sunday. "We all want Dave to see the payoff," Headley said.
The Padres, like any intriguing underdog, are playing for a variety of causes. In the long term they will have to trade Gonzalez, considering that their payroll is just over $40 million; first baseman Ryan Howard will soon command more than half that per season in Philadelphia, and Gonzalez, who led the team with six homers and 17 RBIs, will use the Howard deal as a benchmark. But Gonzalez is not a free agent until 2011, and neither is Bell. If the Padres hold on to both of them for the rest of this year, they will have less leverage in a trade and may sacrifice their haul of prospects. But they would happily make that compromise for a shot at the postseason. "To me, it's simple," Hoyer said. "You show up every day to win. As long as we're winning, it's more about how we can add something."
The Padres as trade deadline buyers? Now, that's thinking weird things.
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Cliff Corcoran handicaps the season awards race every Monday at SI.com/mlb