James Shields could be the perfect fit for the San Diego Padres, and not just because he is a good pitcher. In a city that wants desperately to believe in its baseball team, Shields can get the players to believe.
The Kansas City Royals put a three-decade drought squarely upon the shoulders of Shields. They traded for him when they had enough of rebuilding, and prospects, and draft picks. They mortgaged part of their future for a star pitcher, and the chance to win now.
They won, in no small measure because Shields led the pitching staff, on and off the field. They won the trade. They won the American League. They got to the World Series, for the first time since 1985, and they won three games.
You know how many World Series games the Padres have won?
You know who hit the Padres' lone home run in that one World Series victory?
Kurt Bevacqua, the guy Tom Lasorda memorably said "couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat." (That's the G-rated version, anyway.)
This is not about diminishing what the Padres have done this winter, including the $75-million-over-four-years addition of Shields to a decorated collection of imports that includes an all-new outfield — Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton — and All-Star catcher Derek Norris.
Rather, this is about celebrating what the Padres have done. They're trying to win. They're trying to make San Diego proud again.
It's about time. The taxpayers of San Diego provided the Padres with beautiful Petco Park. What did the Padres provide in return?
They said they could not afford to keep Adrian Gonzalez, their ideal franchise player by virtue of his childhoods in San Diego and Tijuana, even after the taxpayers paid for Petco Park with the understanding the Padres would pay for players.
They had a team president liken Zack Greinke to an autistic character in a movie.
John Moores, who put the team up for sale after a nasty divorce, first struck a deal with an ownership group that Major League Baseball determined could not afford to run the team. Then Moores sold to the current owners, but not before he kept $200 million from the Padres' new television contract — a move inexplicably blessed by former commissioner Bud Selig, who had banished Frank McCourt for trying to keep hundreds of millions from a new
Petco Park opened in 2004. The Padres never have won a postseason game there.
The Padres last appeared in the playoffs in 2006. The only National League team with a longer playoff drought? The Miami Marlins.
Before Shields, the largest contract in Padres history? That was $52 million over four years to Jake Peavy, who was traded a year and a half later.
When the Padres let it be known this winter that they would spend more for Cuban defector Yasmany Tomas, for World Series star Pablo Sandoval and for Kemp, fans were understandably skeptical. The team then swung and missed on the first two, but got Kemp from the Dodgers — and they took on $75 million to do it.
"There was initially a little bit of optimism when we traded for Kemp," said Bud Black, who is entering his ninth season as the Padres' manager. "We kept making moves to enhance our club and, with each move that was made, there was a sense around town that things were going to be different.
"What happened with Shields just took that up to another level."
Spring training opens next week, and there will be plenty of time to analyze whether the Padres' pitching staff will be deep enough, whether the outfield defense will be decent enough, whether the infield will be legitimate enough. The best players in the National League West are named Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt and Troy Tulowitzki, and none of them play for the Padres.
But better for the fans of San Diego to engage in baseball debate rather than grow apathetic to it. The Padres sold 3 million tickets in the inaugural season of Petco Park, but they have not ranked in the top 10 in the NL in attendance since 2007.
"People here are pumped," Black said. "They're enjoying what has happened the last couple months. There is a genuine sense of Padre pride going around. There is a spark now that has not been apparent in other off-seasons."
For almost a decade, Black has been the front man for various Padres' ownership groups, selling hope and faith every spring, even when his roster suggested otherwise.
"You're always hoping a season will break your way and you can get some confidence and momentum," Black said. "Teams are different. Every year is different."
He paused, not so much for effect as for relief.
"This year," he said, "is remarkably different."