Tt's been a long time coming--the civic glad hand, the final welcome home. Baseball has always been regarded as a mite pedestrian for the tastes of a town that conducts its business on the beach.
Traditionally, each spring this city preens its parks, pauses to savor the heavy fragrance of its eucalyptus, jogs to the marina for a quick buffet on the bay and throws a shrug of its shoulders in the direction of the Padres.
That's over. Winning did it. Winning and a series of knockdowns, beanballs and errant missives that have spawned a rivalry with the Angelenos, about a decade late. Winning and second place.
"Give the people what they want," shortstop Garry Templeton says, "and they'll come back for more."
In some cities, the siren call of baseball is its promise of a chance to get out from beneath a flourescent bulb, the hope for a small interlude of green grass and slow time. In a city that has already stepped out of time, there is nothing special about a ball club that plays 10 miles inland from the beach in Fudgesicle uniforms, with rookie managers who spring from the broadcast booth and an owner who once grabbed the p.a. mike and publicly chastised the team.
Now Ray Kroc slides into the shadows; son-in-law Ballard Smith plays at front office while relegating decisions to General Manager Jack McKeon. Now there's a road-tested manager. Less than a handful of games out on the Fourth of July and the recent Dodger follies have quieted the surf reports.
Tell San Diego's season tale in Dodger chapters. An early four-game sweep of L.A. by San Diego, underscored by some conspicuous Padre self-congratulation, piqued the initial interest. Los Angeles came back to sweep three games one month later. In June, the Padres took to the road and finished an 8-6 trip with a split in Chavez Ravine last week--a series that featured two San Diego come-from-behind victories.
"I know we have the respect of the Dodgers," Templeton said. "This ain't the team it once was. Ain't givin' 'em nothin'. Teams used to think, 'We'll get a sweep.' No more."
"We've been doormats for years," says McKeon between cigars. A middle-rank executive manager, he is known to puff out his chest during conspicuous winning streaks. "They used to come down here and not want to wake us up, just swipe games from us. But no more are we at the disposal of the Dodgers. No longer do they take as many games off us as they want."
The Dodgers don't go out of their way to accentuate this antipathy. "We have rivalries with every team we play," Steve Garvey says. But West Coast story lines have focused on the same pitch for three days now--Tom Neidenfuer's beaning of the Padres' Joe Lefebvre late in San Diego's victory Wednesday night, two pitches after a San Diego home run. Manager Dick Williams made a few disparaging remarks about the stuff that, by all reports, flows freely through Tommy Lasorda's veins. His sentiment has not waned.
"We're supposed to be afraid of Dodger Blue? One of my players who's hitting .150 gets hit in the head by a stubborn pitcher who takes it out on the next guy? That's sick. That's a weak person."
"You can't tell me he wasn't throwing at him," Templeton said.
It's all premeditated, thought-provoking stuff. They have the stuff to back it up. No deep analysis need be applied to San Diego's situation. Williams generally wins, and McKeon can do no wrong.
He found Sixto Lezcano (.287, 45 RBI) in the outback of Busch Stadium, acquired Templeton in a fine coup that has--so far--brought nary a shade of controversy, and vetoed trade inquiries for Ruppert Jones (.299, 42 RBI) to raise himself into cult-figure status.
McKeon's starting rotation is not star-spangled--Tim Lollar, Juan Eichelberger, Chris Welsh, John Montefusco, John Curtis. But a young bullpen--Eric Show, who quotes Thomas Hobbes, and Juan DeLeon--have given the wobblies an escape clause.
McKeon has stocked the pond relatively cheaply. He plays a host of former Yankees and a Dodger named Alan Wiggins, who stole 120 bases in Texas two years ago and brings a Rickey Henderson story line to a team that, in McKeon's words, "used to sit back and wait for Dave Winfield to hit a home run."
"We were ridiculed a little at the winter meetings two years back for drafting a kid out of Class A," McKeon is quick to explain. "But I didn't want to look up in four years and see him making it and knowing I could have had him."
The Dodgers let Wiggins go in the minor-league draft because they were breeding power on the farm. Now, to both sides, he represents another twist of the knife.
Of the Yankee crop, Jones, Lollar and Lefebvre came at coupon-clipping prices. Jones makes center field a spectacle. Lawler, a former designated hitter at the Double A level, has blossomed, but Jones has been the jewel. The Yankees offered Bobby Brown. McKeon asked for Jones.
The loss of second baseman Juan Bonilla to a broken wrist and the unforeseen weak hitting of Luis Salazar at third base have not proven fatal. A few more injuries, a tired bullpen, first-time panic in a pennant stretch, all could swiftly deflate the collective ego.
"If we lose four straight, they'll probably desert us," is catcher Terry Kennedy's dour pronouncement. But for the time being, for the first time ever, the title "San Diego Padres" is pronounced with a certain emphasis, accompanied by a discernable wink-of-the-eye swagger.
"I don't think the rest of the league takes us too seriously," Templeton said. "I think they expect us to fold. I don't."