In the view of every comptroller in the National League -- those flinty-eyed types who may not know an infield fly from a long out but are sensitive to cash flow -- the miracle team of 1978 was the San Diego Padres. Last June 25, the Padres took firm hold of their destiny, never surrendered fourth place, never indicated they would bother the pennant contenders and drew 1,670,107 fans at the gate
As final testimony of the adoration of San Diego citizens for their team, 37,185 madly cheering loyalists were in the park for the Padres' last game of the season, imploring their idols to chip away at the Dodgers' 12-game division lead.
A single man is responsible in large measure for the city's love affair with its baseball franchise. He, too, is one of the cheering, agitated fans at the Padres' games. He is Ray Kroc, who descended on San Diego from Chicago five years ago with bags of money in the nick of time to buy the club and save it from the predatory grab of baseball-less Washington, D.C.
The Padres were so close to being switched to Washington that their office furniture was already in the moving vans headed for Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Bubble-gum cards showing the Padre players in Washington uniform, albeit quick retouch jobs, were already in circulation; they are now precious collectors' items.
Every bite of a Big Mac enriches Kroc, founder of the McDonald's fastfood chain hhat began with six shops he bought. (There are now 5,000.) He not only has the money to underwrite the Padres, but to indulge himself in the kind of public statements that every fan has been tempted to make at certain times.
With one action, Kroc endeared himself to Padre fans at a game three years ago when the team was messing up badly on a night against Houston, throwing the ball around and botching plays generally. The gasket blew when, with the bases full of Pares and a promising rally at hand, Matty Alou, their most experienced player, was picked off first.
Kroc, on impulse, strode to the public-address booth preempted the microphone and told 40,000 Padre fans, "This is Ray Kroc and I am suffering with you. I never saw such stupid playing."
The Padre players were outraged at that kind of unprofessional behavior by a club owner. After the game, third baseman Doug Rader spoke their mind when he said of Kroc, "Who's he think he's talking to? A bunch of short-order cooks?" An obvious reference to Kroc's fast-food empire.
But as the San Diego Union's estimable and observant columnist, Jack Murphy, remembers it, "The players may have hated it but the fans loved it. At last they had a club owner who was showing them he was with 'em. Kroc still sees no reason to charge them more than $2 for general admission.
The 76-year-old Kroc scored points with the Padre fans in 1977 when he plunged into the free-agent market, damn the cost. For $1.8 million, he signed pitcher Rollie Fingers, an Oakland escapee; for $1.6 million, he got catcher-first baseman Gene Tenace from the same team, and in one of the worst investimments ever made, he signed wandering Oscar Gamble to a $2.85-million contract.
The sad result: the Padres lost three more games than they did the previous year. But tickets sold better and Kroc was getting more for the radio-TV rights.
That was another thing the baseball savants used to bad-mouth San Diego. They asked how the radio-TV rights could ever be worth much "because San Diego is bounded on the east by desert, the west by the Pacific Ocean, the south by Mexico, and on the north by the Dodgers."
The Padres were ripe for disposal to Washington, or any other place that would have them, back in 1974. Home attendance was down to a bare-bones 611,000 in 1973 and club owner C. Arnolt Smith wanted out. He was nearing a $10 million sale to the Joseph Danzansky group in Washington that brought the San Diego city attorney to his feet screaming that the team had an unbreakable lease with the city. This, however, could be overcome, Danzansky believed.
What the whole town didn't know at the time was that C. Arnholt Smith -- banker and fishing, airport and taxicab tycoon -- was among the needy persons; that his vast empire was crumbling, that his U.S. National Bank would be the biggest bank failure in U.S. history, and that the symbol of solid wealth in San Diego would soon be on trial for his freedom.
Long aware of Smith's money squeeze was Buzzie Bavasi, his general manager. Smith was putting no money into the Padres. The team couldn't sign expensive players or trade for players with big salaries. At one time Bavasi's plight seemed to ease when there were signs that Marje Lindheimer Everett would beat the Washington group to the deal and keep the team in San Diego.
Bavasi, knowing of Everett's great wealth and her fondness for big names, started trading for such salaried notables as Willie McCovey, Tito Fuentes and Matty Alou, counting on her to meet the payroll. And then, curses! The Everett deal fell through.
With the Washington deal also threatening to collapse, Bavasi was left with expensive players and nobody to pay their salaries. But ah! An attorney fellow named Dan Lubin called from Chicago on behalf of a client named Mr. Kroc who might be interested in buying the Padres, he told Bavasi. Bavasi asked, "Who else is in Mr. Kroc's group?" and was told, "Mr. Kroc is the group."
Before buying the Padres, Kroc had the politeness to ask his wife, "What would you think if I bought a baseball team?" and she said, "I think you would be crazy. But I know that's what you want."
His first act in San Diego was to tell General Manager Bavasi he was working too cheaply at $32,500 a year and raised his salary on the spot to $100,000.
Kroc has a record of doing nice things for underpaid employes. In those hard-scrabbling years when he was first trying to merchandise McDonald's hamburgers, he knew he wasn't giving decent pay to a faithful young secretary. He wrote her name on a batch of McDonald's stock. She's retired now and living in La Jolla, Calif. She could, if there was need, sell her McDonald's stock for $60 million.