Padres, Once Aimless Wanderers, Now Seek Prize in Baseball Playoffs

When philosopher Ben Mays said that the tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal but in having no goal to reach, he could have been talking about the San Diego Padres.

Until computer wizard John Moores bought the San Diego franchise in 1994 from 15 partners who kept selling off or trading the team's best players for personal profit, half the population of San Diego wasn't quite sure the Padres were even owned.

Actually, the trained seals who play "Stars and Stripes Forever" on air horns in the San Diego Zoo got better press in 1993 than the Padres, who lost 101 games.

But today, the new-look Padres - champions of the National League's West Division with 91 wins (after ending the season by three times making the Los Angeles Dodgers resemble a B movie) - begin a best-of-five playoff series against the Cardinals in St. Louis. Game 2 is Thursday, also in St. Louis. After that, the series shifts to San Diego, where the Padres won 45 of 81 games.

The other National League playoff begins Wednesday, when Atlanta meets the wild-card Dodgers in Los Angeles. Both of the American League playoffs begin today, with Cleveland playing at Baltimore and Texas meeting the Yankees in New York.

One thing the Padres pitching staff did to perfection during last weekend's sweep of the Dodgers was to take the bat out of the hands of LA catcher Mike Piazza, who finished third behind San Diego's Tony Gwynn and Colorado's Ellis Burks in the National League batting race.

In previous Dodger-Padres series, San Diego had been unable to consistently stop Piazza. There are two theories as to why Piazza (.336 average, 36 home runs, and 105 runs batted in during the regular season ) didn't hit well.

First, unable to afford the luxury of resting Piazza much during the season, Los Angeles didn't realize until too late that it was depending on a man who had run out of gas. Theory No. 2 credits a San Diego pitching staff with doing its homework, never pitching consecutively to him twice in the same spot. It also took advantage of his eagerness by getting him to swing at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone.

Padres manager Bruce Bochy, asked how he thought San Diego (a 4-8 record against St. Louis during the regular season) would do against the Cardinals in the playoffs, never really answered the question. Instead Bochy, who was born in France and whose theatrical mustache suggests he once rode with Jessie James, talked about a pitching staff, including his bullpen, in which he has great faith.

For example, Trevor Hoffman, saved 42 games for the Padres during the regular season. Occasionally, Bochy would use Hoffman in consecutive games without any dropoff in effectiveness. The Padres manager also has three starting pitchers in Joey Hamilton, Bob Tewksbury, and Fernando Valenzuela who have won in double figures for him.

The rest of the rotation consists of Andy Ashby and Scotts Sanders, both of whom won nine games apiece.

Bochy says he has at least 12 players on his roster who are good enough to play regularly. He has platooned all year at catcher, second base, and left field with outstanding results.

Third baseman Ken Caminiti, regardless of how he plays against the Cardinals (and he is expected to play very well) probably already has the National League's Most Valuable Player award locked up in a puncture-proof bag. There is even speculation that Piazza, once a close rival for that honor, might not even finish second.

Caminiti, with 40 home runs, 37 doubles, and 130 runs batted in, is now considered a terrorist with a bat. At the plate, he looks like an extra base waiting to happen. Defensively, in addition to getting to almost everything hit to him in the field, he has a throwing arm like a cannon.

San Diego also has two other superb hitters in seven-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn and center fielder Steve Finley, who has enjoyed a career year at the plate with 30 home runs.

Not exactly forgotten, but overshadowed because he joined the club late after a trade with Milwaukee down the stretch and because he has been platooned in left field with Rickey Henderson, is power hitter Greg Vaughn.

Henderson, who was on the top of the hill for a lot of years before his descent at the plate, is still a very big threat on the bases. Vaughn, used to more off-speed pitching in the American League, did not do quite as well as expected.

How management turned the Padres around in a little over two years is best read to rival general managers at bedtime. But the story begins with Moores and should also include chapters on chief executive officer Larry Lucchino, general manager Kevin Towers, and Bochy.

Moores, estimated to be worth more than $400 million, approached San Diego's critical talent situation with the same resolve that Lee Iacocca used to rebuild Chrysler. He also employed an open mind and an open checkbook. Attendance in 1996 was more than double that of 1995.

"My first goal was to stabilize the club financially so that it would be competitive in the field and accepted in the community," Moores told the media.

"I wanted experienced people [he picked Luchino, Towers, and Bochy] who could help me out with what was a very fouled up situation. And since it was important that the new owner be taken seriously, I wanted to do something right away that would have an impact on our talent base."

Barely a week after Moores became owner, Towers and San Diego engineered a 12-player trade with the Houston Astros that brought the Padres Caminiti, Finley, and shortstop Andujar Cedeno. Other deals, not quite as spectacular but just as solid, came later.

For San Diego to move on in the playoffs, the Padres must beat the well balanced Cardinals at least once in St. Louis, then twice at home. Although the Cardinals ended April in last place in the National League Central, new manager Tony La Russa eventually repaired the club's drive train. The rest of the trip was relatively free of bumps.

Perhaps the smartest thing La Russa did after he decided to leave as Oakland manager was to take his long-time friend and ace reliever Dennis Eckersley with him. While Eckersley doesn't come with quite the same guarantee he did five years ago, he is still good for 20 plus saves a season.

For those old-time baseball purists who preferred it when the National and American League champions clashed immediately after the regular season in a best-of-seven World Series and there were no playoffs, the return of the nickel phone call is more likely. Baseball's playoffs are here to stay because the TV and in-house money they generate (food, beverages, souvenirs, and parking are all part of it) probably would support several of today's third-world nations for a year.

Baseball Playoff Schedule

American League

Texas vs. Yankees

Tues., 8:07 p.m. at NY (NBC)

Wed., 8:11 p.m. at NY (Fox)

Fri., 8:07 p.m. at Texas (NBC)

Sat., 1:07 p.m. at Texas (ESPN or ESPN2) if necessary

Sun., 4:07 p.m. at Texas (ESPN) if necessary

Cleveland vs. Baltimore

Tues., 1:07 p.m. at Baltimore (ESPN)

Wed., 1:07 p.m. at Baltimore (ESPN)

Fri., 4:07 p.m. at Cleveland (ESPN)

Sat., 1:07 p.m. at Cleveland (ESPN or ESPN2) if necessary

Sun., 7:30 p.m. at Cleveland (Fox) if necessary

* All times Eastern

National League

San Diego vs. St. Louis

Tues., 4:07 p.m. at St. Louis (ESPN)

Thurs., 4:07 p.m. at St. Louis (ESPN)

Sat., 7:37 p.m. at San Diego (NBC)

Sun., 11:07 p.m. at San Diego (ESPN) if necessary

Mon., 4:07 p.m. at San Diego (ESPN) if necessary

Atlanta vs. Los Angeles

Wed., 4:07 p.m. at Los Angeles (ESPN)

Thurs., 8:11 p.m. at Los Angeles (Fox)

Sat., 4:15 p.m. at Atlanta (Fox)

Sun., 1:07 p.m. at Atlanta (ESPN) if necessary

Mon., 7:11 p.m. at Atlanta (Fox) if necessary

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