On Tuesday, the Padres announced that Kevin Towers, who succumbed to thyroid cancer in January, will rightly take his place in the team’s Hall of Fame. The Padres will make it official on May 12 before the game against the St. Louis Cardinals as part of a celebration of 1998, the team’s most successful season. Under Towers, San Diego won four of their five National League West titles and went to the World Series in 1998.
Although known for his abysmal first-round draft picks (Matt Bush being the poster child), Towers actually presided over the most successful run for a team with a historical .462 winning percentage over 50 years. That success culminated in the 1998 team’s unlikely march to the World Series. The afterglow led San Diego voters to approve partial public financing for the building of Petco Park.
Without Kevin Towers, Petco Park would likely be no more than a fever dream. He even stood on street corners holding a “Yes On C” sign. The Padres would still be playing in that crumbling edifice formerly known as Qualcomm Stadium or, worse, may have even fled the city.
Leading up to 1998, Towers added the players that made the historic run possible, including pitchers Kevin Brown, Sterling Hitchcock, and Trevor Hoffman. He remade the entire infield with Wally Joyner at first, Quilvio Veras second, Chris Gomez shortstop, and Ken Caminiti third. Greg Vaughn and Steve Finley joined homegrown star and Jack McKeon draftee Tony Gwynn in the outfield. He signed catcher Carlos Hernandez, who had backed up Mike Piazza with the Dodgers, as a free agent.
The new edition of the Padres improved from a 76-86 record in 1997 to a 98-64 record in 1998. San Diego won the division by 9.5 games over the Giants. In the NL Division series, San Diego defeated the Houston Astros, a 102-win team during the regular season. In the first game of that series, Kevin Brown defeated Randy Johnson in a 2-1 thriller. The Padres lost the second game, but ended up with a 3-1 series victory.
Next up, the Padres faced the Atlanta Braves, who had won 106 games during the regular season thanks to a rotation that included Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz. San Diego won the first three games, but Atlanta took Games 4 and 5. Hitchcock outpitched Glavine in Game 6, and the Padres advanced to the World Series to face a formidable New York Yankees team, losing 4-0.
Towers deserves credit for his successful remake of the Padres just two years after he took over. After all, look what happened when current General Manager A. J. Preller tried the same tack in 2015. The team actually regressed from 77 wins to 74. The 2015 version of the Padres never jelled the way the 1998 team did, although winning has a way of improving group chemistry.
Kevin Towers will be remembered in San Diego for creating that magical playoff run and for paving the way for Petco Park. But the outpouring of sorrow at his passing at 56 demonstrates the impact he had on his fellow travelers in the baseball world.
Theo Epstein, who started his career with the Padres, and is now the president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, considered him a role model as well as a mentor in a field in which “so many people are cutthroat.”
Former Padre Phil Nevin told Ryan Posner of mlb.com: “He made people better around him.”
“I loved that man,” wrote Bob Nightengale of USA Today.