The 1989 Padres – The Season That Could Have Been

Credit: AP Photo

“It has become an annual event for the Padres. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano. First, Benito Santiago dives headlong into a slump. At that point, the manager — Larry Bowa then, Jack McKeon now — benches him for several games”.

“Finally, Santiago becomes indignant”.

In the Union on July 4,  Bill Center reported that even McKeon’s wife, Carol, questioned his decision to pull Bip Roberts (who was three-for-three) for pinch hitter Carmelo Martinez. McKeon laughed it off, but the story showed how everyone was questioning the manager.

And McKeon’s hesitancy to give more work to the versatile and speedy Roberts was indeed suspect. Roberts, 25, finished the season hitting .301, but only had 387 appearances, even as numerous Padres across the diamond were having down years. Roberts had been revived from the forgotten  after being rushed as a Rule V and failing three years earlier (’86).

McKeon’s apparent panic was in full display when he traded away Kruk and a solid utility man Randy Ready for .207-hitting outfielder Chris James.  Kruk went on to success in Philadelphia, playing a leading role on 1993’s pennant-winning team. James would flounder for the Padres in June and July and though he came alive with the bat and played good defensively to end the year, it’s hard to value the move considering how well Kruk hit for the Phillies over the next four years.

The Padres scuffled in July (14-15) as well. They exited the month at 51-54 and were now a full 10 games back of the Giants.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming for the Padres was starting pitching. Eric Show, Dennis Rasmussen and Walt Terrell had all scuffled at times. Though the top two of the rotation was rock solid with Hurst and Whitson (team highest WAR at 6.7).

Credit: AP Photo

Not known outside of the clubhouse at the time, Show was beginning an addiction to meth that he had begun to use to dull the pain of bulging disks in his back. In St.Louis on May 11th he actually showed up only 35 minutes before his scheduled start and so it wasn’t surprising that he gave up 5 runs in 2+ innings in this outing. The magic that Rasmussen had in ’88 pretty much evaporated in ’89 and 31-year-old Walt Terrell, who was more than serviceable as a 4th or 5th but was needed by the club to step up as to be a solid #3 and could not.

San Diego sportswriter Barry Bloom proclaimed what every Padres fan believed – the first half of ’89 a flop !

Jack McKeon has tried almost every way he knows to turn the Padres around, twisting himself into a psychological pretzel. He has cajoled. He has griped. He has ripped writers and recently has taken umbrage with the players.He has called team meetings in which he casually discussed the facts of baseball life. He had another meeting in which he was so angry, he out-Bowa-ed Larry Bowa.

Yet the Padres still had some fight in them.

They remained 10 games back and three games under .500 (60-63) as late as Aug. 19. They’d had just 12-11 month at this juncture, and the media had apparently written off the season with fewer critiques, reflecting waning fan interest.

Additional personnel decisions made by McKeon – dart throws that were hitting their target-helped spark the club to an incredible run.

Twenty-one-year-old Andy Benes was brought up from the minors and  strung together a series of good starts after getting hit hard in his Aug. 11 debut.

The Padres finished August by winning nine of 11 to narrow the Giants lead to 6.5 games.

Seeing an opportunity for a pennant drive,  McKeon on Aug. 30 flipped an aging Luis Salazar and Marvell Wynne (only 29 but on the verge of retirement)  for Darrin Jackson and Calvin Schiraldi. Schiradi wanted to start but was used by the Cubs in ’89 out of the pen.

Schiraldi had three winning starts and helped the Padres close to within five games of the Giants on Sept. 15.

The Sept. 15 game – a 5-3 win in San Francisco -sticks in the mind of some Padres fans because Roberts had to be removed on a stretcher in the fifth inning with a reported possible heart attack.  had a heart attack.

Thankfully, it was nothing more than a case of food poisoning, as I discussed with Roberts on Twitter;

A couple of days later, Schiraldi broke down in San Francisco with an arm injury during a crucial loss.

The Schiraldi trade was a gamble that almost paid off. Schiralidi finished 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA with the Padres in ’89 but would pitch only two more years.

Hot bats kept the Padres in contention down the stretch. During August and September, Jack Clark had an OPS well over 1.000 and future MLB Hall of Famer Alomar had a slash line of .317/.400/.460

On Sept.27, the Padres had a chance to cut the Giants’ lead to three games with three left to play – all against San Francisco in San Diego. But the Padres were eliminated that night with a heartbreaking 2-1 loss in 13 innings to the Reds.

Credit: 10 News

McKeon’s game strategy was again questioned.

He elected to have Schiraldi (in relief) pitch to superstar Eric Davis with an open base and two outs in the 13th inning, as a .245-hitting Todd Benzinger was on deck. A double by Davis ended the Padres hope of a miraculous comeback season.

The Padres ended up going a remarkable 19-8 in September, but still finished three games behind the Giants(who went on to beat the Cubs for the National League pennant before losing to the Oakland A’s in the earthquake-marred 1989 World Series.

It was over – the ultimate “what could have been” season had ended.  Nothing backed up the oft posited “there are many seasons within a season in baseball’ axiom more than the Padres 1989 campaign.

It was a year that has stuck in my mind-filled with hope, drama and tenacity amidst much success but ultimately close failure.

Mark Kreisler in the San Diego Union on Oct. 3 labeled the season “disappointing”.

Since the Padres nearly unanimously were favored to win the National League West title in 1989, and since few in the organization actively shrank from that assessment, it safely may be proposed that their second-place finish was disappointing under achievement.

But I have always seen the year not as disappointing, but as a tantalizing journey.

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: “It might have been!”-“Maud Muller” (1956) by John Greenleaf Whittier:

Postscript:

McKeon left the manager’s job halfway through the following season, as the Padres again couldn’t parlay a strong finish to a strong start. He left the organization altogether following the 1990 season, in which the Padres finished fifth.  He went on to manage the Florida Marlins to the 2003 world title.

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Jeffrey Pilch on Twitter
Jeffrey Pilch
Jeffrey grew up in Carlsbad and has been a Padres fan since the late 70's. He is currently a Social Studies teacher at Newman Smith High School in Carrollton, Texas.

3 thoughts on “The 1989 Padres – The Season That Could Have Been

  1. Still curse Schiraldi for that Davis AB. Double off the wall. Listening to Jerry call it. What’s with him and being in big losses? Of course we all wish they’d walked Davis, but I’m guessing we’d be talking about Schiraldi in that case too.

  2. I remember being so disappointed to be that close to the playoffs after that season that I divorced from baseball til 1998.

  3. Thanks for writing this. 1989 was my first Padres season as a young fan, and it really got me excited about baseball for the first time. So many great players on that team — Gwynn, Alomar, Santiago, Clark, Hurst, Benes, etc. They were in contention until the very end, and Mark Davis winning the Cy Young was the exclamation point on a successful season.

    I remember being so excited for the 1990 season, only to be viciously disappointed by all that happened next (Davis going to KC, Chris James traded, Joe Carter underperforming, Santiago getting injured, etc.). That’s baseball, I guess.

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