THE San Diego who?!…..Padres!…Nope, sorry. Never heard of them…
And so this was how conversations often began with friends and acquaintances as I revealed to them which Major League Baseball team I followed in the United States. Oh yes, they’d heard of the New York Yankees (who hasn’t!) and the Los Angeles Dodgers and thought there was one in Boston and maybe even two in Chicago but that pretty much ended their knowledge of America’s National Pastime.
Baseball, despite many attempts over the years, has never been anything other than a minority sport in the United Kingdom. And in lots of ways, that’s completely understandable. For when it comes to bat and ball games played in the summertime, cricket is king on this side of the Pond.
But for me, for more years than I care to remember (as it’s approaching half a century now, I guess!), I have always been aware of baseball. And loved it.
I was brought up in a house where my Liverpool-born Dad was a baseball fan. He became aware of the sport in the late 1940s and early 1950s when he used to watch American servicemen, still based here after the Second World War, play the game against local Liverpool teams. Invariably, the American outfits prevailed, but the results mattered not a jot. It was the GAME that enthralled him.
It was during the 1950s when my Dad first started listening to ballgames on the radio via the old Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast out of Frankfurt, Germany. Of course, most of the MLB games played then were afternoon contests that would start around 6pm in the UK and generally be over by 9pm. And these were the years when the furthest teams west were the two in St Louis. The first side he took a shine to were the Brooklyn Dodgers, but then his allegiance drifted to the Boston Red Sox. He has been on their rollercoaster ride since the mid-1950s and has experienced the lowest of lows when they somehow contrived to lose the Fall Classic to the New York Mets in 1986 to that unforgettable triumph 18 autumns later. Their subsequent victories in 2007 and 2013, as far as my Dad is concerned, were great but could NEVER hope to match “…back to Foulke…” et al.
For me, as a young boy in the early to mid 1970s, I noticed there was evidence of baseball in the house. There was a really heavy bat – great for punching singles through the 5.5 hole I guess! – and a glove that was ridiculously big for my hand. And, of course, baseballs. Their smooth, white cowhide covering with their weaved red stitching felt great, much better than a boring cherry red cricket ball with its single equatorial seam. Baseballs, in contrast to cricket balls, rolled smoothly over your hands and fingers. They just had SOMETHING about them.
As I grew up in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, I started to follow what was going on Stateside more closely. And by the time 1984 whirled around, I was aware of a very special team that was mauling all others – the Detroit Tigers. They had reached the World Series and were expected to steamroller their opponents in the best-of-seven clash. But instead of following the team from Motown on the radio, I had it in my mind to back the side they were up against – the underdogs from Southern California. The San Diego Padres.
So, listening on our crackly radio to the now renamed Armed Forces Radio & Television Service, I took in the 1984 World Series. I became aware of Rich ‘Goose’ Gossage, the fireball closer; Terry Kennedy, an unspectacular but very reliable catcher; Steve Garvey, a classy first-baseman whose dramatic home run over the Chicago Cubs had helped the team reach the showdown with Detroit; Graig – NOT Craig! – Nettles, a brilliant third-baseman whose fielding prowess was being compared to legends like Brooks Robinson; Garry Templeton, a very underrated shortstop who had been traded in the (in)famous Ozzie Smith deal; Kevin McReynolds, an excellent center fielder who always seemed to deliver big hits; and Tony Gwynn, a player who was every pitcher’s nightmare with a methodical, magical way of hitting the baseball into gaps to get on base himself, or bring teammates poised on the sacks safely home.
Yes, we all know it ended in great disappointment. San Diego were knocked off in five games by those all-powerful Tigers. But my love affair with the Padres began that autumn.
So, in varying formats from newspaper reports in the International Herald Tribune (a daily purchase when I was a student majoring in American Studies and History between 1987 and 1990), to occasional live coverage of Padres games on AFRTS, to more detailed reports the rare times I managed to receive a copy of USA Today to the world of the internet, I’ve followed the fortunes of the Padres.
So, here’s some names that I can recall for one reason or another who may rekindle memories for other fans – Mark Davis (what a great lefty closer he was for that short time in the late 1980s); Benito Santiago (that batting streak as a rookie in 1987 was unreal!); John Kruk (great, gutsy first-baseman); Bruce Hurst (classy left-hander who deserved to win the World Series in 1986 with Boston); Andy Ashby (very reliable starting pitcher); Trevor Hoffman (an absolute legend, despite that 2007 heartbreaker – oh, and Holliday never touched home!)
Ken Caminiti (powerful third-baseman whose passing was so tragic); Wally Joyner (what a swing – best left-handed hitter I’ve seen wearing a Padres uniform); Steve Finley (effervescent outfielder who could catch anything!); Kevin Brown (what a strong starting pitcher who helped lead us to the 1998 Pennant); Sterling Hitchcock (clever southpaw starter who had a wicked splitter); Greg Vaughn (a home run machine on that 1998 team); Ryan Klesko (tough first-baseman who could deliver key knocks); Rod Beck (‘Shooter’ who stood in for the great #51when he was sidelined through injury and was a perfect 20 out of 20 in save opportunities in 2003 but tragically also passed away)
Khalil Greene (an infielder we all had massive hopes for, but as he rose like a rocket, sadly he fell like a stick); Brian Giles (so delighted when he signed, but he just didn’t have the impact we all wanted, despite one or two moments); Jake Peavy (a stud of a starter who carried the team on occasions but wasn’t able to make that step up for us when it came to the playoffs in 2005 and 2006); Chris Young (the beanpole starter who I hoped would, one glorious day, throw the franchise’s first perfect game. Alas, ’twas not to be; at least, not with CY, anyway); Adrian Gonzalez (A-Gon with his local roots could have been a team legend, but once more, it wasn’t to be. Now he’s killing us wearing the flannels of our biggest rivals); and Greg Maddux (what a thrill to see this wonderful Cooperstown-bound craftsman deliver a baseball, and win ballgames wearing a Padres uniform in the twilight of his stunning career).
Of course there are many, many more that could be added to this list, not least from today’s roster – Derek Norris, for one, is one of my personal favorites of our current lineup. He’s ‘old school’ who could easily slot into a team from any time in this magical game’s history. I also rate Will Venable highly. Whatever he does fielding-wise would have to be something special to better an extra-innings game-saving catch he took in center field against the Giants a couple of seasons ago. Anyone else remember that?
So here we are in late June, 2015. The much-improved Padres roster, bulked up with extra talent in a winter to remember have not really delivered. Yet. There’s still a big chunk of the season left, but with the trade deadline date of July 31 not that far away, it’s a crucial few weeks for the team. I hope they can get back into the mix in the National League West and challenge their division rivals for a place in the postseason. It’s been a long while since we were last there. But even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still be supporting the Friars – heck, I’ve come this far, I’m not going to give up on them and start following another ballclub!
And one great day, I finally will get to see the Padres play in San Diego for myself with the warm Southern Californian sunshine beating down on me as I sit in the bleachers with an ice-cold beer in my right hand, my Dad’s old mitt on my left hand and my vintage 1984-style cap adorned on my head – yes, the headgear really is from that unforgettable year.
The year I fell in love with the Padres.