Ballard Smith almost choked on his coffee one recent morning when he picked up his newspaper and read about the latest episode in the continuing saga of Mayor Roger Hedgecock’s problems.
A story reported that a group of prominent San Diego businessmen had met with Hedgecock and Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller, hoping to forge a plea bargain which would spare the city a second felony trial of its mayor.
And Ballard Smith--"baseball executive"--was the first of the prominent businessmen listed. He was not surprised that he happened to be listed. After all, he was there. He was surprised by how he was described.
“That was the first time I’ve ever read anything describing me as a business leader,” he mused. “I was really taken aback. I’ve never thought of myself in that sense.”
Ballard Smith had been called a lot of things, particularly during those stormy early years in the Padres’ front office. Smart alecky. Cocky. Pompous. Arrogant. Ungentlemanly. He was never described as anything like a civic or business leader, and never likely to be invited to tea by anyone who was.
Obviously, times have changed for the one-time enfant terrible, who came into his job as the Padres’ president in 1979 and launched a series of battles with a succession of adversaries including Bowie Kuhn, Eugene Klein, a number of players’ agents and virtually all of the San Diego City Council. He was a walking confrontation.
These days, with his National League champions riding a tidal wave of popularity hereabouts, Ballard Smith, at 38, has settled comfortably as a part of The Establishment he once battled with such regularity.
“I guess it’s probably part of growing up and gaining self-confidence,” he said. “I think I came into the job with a lot of doubts about whether I could really run the club.”
If Smith was at all lacking in self-confidence, it was not apparent. He hid it behind that cocky facade that caused him to be considered arrogant and pompous, neither of which are adjectives normally applied to an individual short on self-confidence.
And maybe his “adversarial attitude” stemmed from his days as an attorney in Meadville, Pa., where he was eventually elected district attorney of Crawford County.
Not that Crawford County was a place for a young district attorney to make a name for himself with sensational cases.
“We’re kind of a laid back rural area,” said John Wellington, the managing editor of the Meadville Tribune. “Nothing much sensational happens around here. For example, our homicide rate is about one a year for the whole county.”
Smith, who went to the University of Minnesota Law School, had been an attorney for five years when he ran for district attorney. And a political campaign is not a place for the shy.
“Some folks didn’t like his attitude,” Wellington said. “Some people thought he was arrogant or uppity or pompous. But not everyone. After all, he won the election.”
Jack Yoset, the courthouse reporter for the Tribune when Smith was district attorney, was not among those who found Smith arrogant or pompous.
“He was very unassuming and down to earth,” said Yoset, now an editorial writer. “He and his wife came through Meadville a few weeks ago and took the time to stop in and visit for a few minutes at the newspaper office.”
And, Yoset said, The Ray Kroc Connection never came into play in Meadville. Smith’s wife, Linda, just happened to be the multi-millionaire hamburger magnate’s daughter.
“A lot of people knew Ballard and Linda Smith for quite a while before anyone realized the background in terms of Linda’s connection with Ray Kroc,” Yoset said. “They didn’t have any ‘above it all’ approach to people.”
Kroc, however, was to abruptly terminate Smith’s term as district attorney in the fall of 1976. He wanted his son-in-law to move to San Diego, ostensibly to join the Padres’ front office.
“I thought it was kind of neat,” Smith said. “I’d always been a big baseball fan.”
By the time Smith was headed for San Diego, his assignment changed. His father-in-law had bought the San Diego Mariners of the World Hockey Assn.
“And,” said Smith, “I got elected to run it. I would never have come out here to run a hockey team, but it was a good education.”
In a very short time, in fact, he learned about the business side of the world of fun and games.
“After I studied the budget,” he said, “I realized we could sell every seat for every game and still lose money. That wasn’t the way it was portrayed to Ray when he bought the club.”
Meanwhile, the Mariners ended up in court with Sports Arena operator Peter Graham over parking fees. In an affidavit, Smith said Graham threatened to run him down in his car. They now pass it off as a misunderstanding, but it was perhaps the first sign that Ballard Smith would not easily be pushed around--or threatened.
When the Mariners were dissolved as part of the WHA’s merger with the National Hockey League, Smith was finally in the baseball business.
In fact, he never has practiced law in California.
“I was going to try to pass the California Bar Exam,” he said, “but I never planned on practicing here. I did take the exam, but I didn’t pass it. I didn’t study, and I guess I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Besides, California has enough attorneys. They don’t need me. I tell people I’m a recovering lawyer.”
Ballard Smith has not always been so self-effacing. At the height of his most celebrated and controversial battle with City Hall, the 1979 scrap over the use of Director’s Box 25-B at the stadium, he got into a verbal joust with then-Councilman Tom Gade.
Gade called Smith, then a Padre vice president, “ungentlemanly” and “smart alecky,” and questioned whether he was an attorney and could practice law in California.
“I know more about practicing law than he will ever know,” Smith said. “Put that in the paper.”
If not arrogant, Smith was at least brash. He sparked the controversy over the use of Box 25-B because he could not make headway with the city on stadium improvements. Before the brouhaha, the box was used by city officials for baseball and football games. Smith went so far as to ask the Fair Political Practices Commission about the legality of city officials (a) accepting free tickets and (b) not reporting them.
“I’ve always felt that the city manager’s office and city attorney’s office have been great to work with,” he said this week, “but there have been some people on City Council through the years who’ve had a less than tremendous commitment to a first-class stadium.”
Larry Stirling, then a city councilman and now a state assemblyman, recalled that the controversy came in the immediate post-Proposition 13 days.
“A new city council came into power with a brand new majority and did a flat 180-degree change at the policy level,” he said. “In those days, just after Prop. 13, the stadium was fair game. We were trying to make it pay its way.”
Smith, to be sure, found himself very short of allies.
“He was a guy who felt he was under attack,” Stirling said. “Ballard was new in town, new at the helm and maybe a little insecure just because he was a new guy. To be gratuitously ambushed didn’t appeal to him. He struck back with a highly visible situation--the City Box.”
The controversy festered for two years with compromise piled on compromise and rhetoric piled on rhetoric. It was finally resolved when the city agreed to let the Padres rent the box, and provide seats elsewhere for city officials.
Smith, meanwhile, continued to find himself involved in other controversies of shorter duration. He simply was not a man to back away from a skirmish.
“Ballard wears his feelings on his sleeve,” said John Lockwood, the assistant city manager. “He says what he thinks at the time he thinks it. It’s the kind of candor I appreciate. There’s nothing devious about Ballard. It hasn’t always been the best public relations. In the early years, saying what he thought developed into arguments.”
By 1981, Smith seemed to be taking a more mellow course. No arguments. No controversies.
“I’m trying to become non-controversial,” he said in a 1981 interview. Asked if he thought that was possible, he said with a laugh: “No. When I believe in something, I fight for it. And it gets me in trouble sometimes, I guess.”
However, it has been a long time since Smith has really gotten himself into trouble--or controversy.
“He’s still a candid guy,” Lockwood said, “but he’s more PR conscious in how he phrases things. He still lets you know where he’s coming from. I’d rather deal with a guy like that than with a super smooth guy you have to read between the lines.”
Simply stated, he has been able to establish a more “presidential” demeanor. He has put together a solid organization which is favored by virtually everyone picking favorites to repeat as champion of the National League West.
“Barring major injuries, I think we can have a pretty good run for maybe three to five years,” he said. “Baseball’s always going to have cycles, but I hope we’re never a last-place ballclub again. There might be years we finish third and maybe even fourth, but hopefully never last.”
It almost seems as if he has put together an organization which runs itself.
“If I do my job, that’s true,” he said. “My job is to get the right people, set goals and let them do their jobs.”
Smith sits atop an organizational structure which includes three vice presidents with varying spheres of influence--Jack McKeon, the baseball man; Elten Schiller, the business man; and Dick Freeman, the financial administrator.
“This franchise started to turn around when we started running it like a business,” Smith said. “You can’t run a sports franchise on emotion.”
Freeman, for example, fills a role which would not have been needed before the days of free agency, seven-figure salaries and deferred payments. He is responsible for structuring investments so that the club will be able to make deferred payments without destroying future cash flow.
“If you don’t fund deferred payments, you’re asking for trouble,” Smith said. “Dick Freeman is very good at it. His input was very, very creative in the signing of Goose Gossage. He had a tremendous role in that contract.”
While people such as Freeman and Schiller work in the background, McKeon has become the most visible man in the front office. His dealings with players get most of the publicity, even to the point of casting a shadow on the club president himself.
“Jack can make any player decisions he wants on two conditions,” Smith said. “I don’t want him to substantially increase the payroll without talking to me and I don’t want him signing anyone with a ‘bad reputation’ before we talk about it.”
When the Padres traded for LaMarr Hoyt last winter, Smith only had one role in the transaction. He read Hoyt’s contract.
And Smith said he has rejected only one acquisition because he was concerned with a player’s reputation. It happened in 1982, early in Dick Williams’ first year as manager. The decision incurred Williams’ wrath because the player, Montreal’s Rodney Scott, happened to be the second baseman he wanted to replace the injured Juan Bonilla.
Of course, Williams himself came to the Padres’ with a reputation for being a tough guy with a bit of a temper.
Did Smith have any reservations following “nice guys” such as Jerry Coleman and Frank Howard with a hard-nosed individual such as Williams?
“No,” he said, “aside from the fact that everyone in baseball told me not to hire him. But the guy’s got one quality no one can take away. No matter what anyone might say personally, the guy’s a winner. I made my own judgment. At that point, I was looking for a tough guy anyway.”
Given the front office and field leadership, Smith was in good shape. Ownership--first the late Ray Kroc and now Joan Kroc--is obviously in his corner.
“You need financial stability,” he said, “and our ownership provides it. We’ve got the same commitment from Joan that we had from Ray. I can’t tell you how important that is.”
Obviously, Smith is a bit prejudiced when it comes to the Padres’ ownership, but it is hard to argue that financial commitment is lacking. That commitment produced the players who produced the season to remember in 1984.
“A lot of what happened was dreamlike,” he said, “but the only thing that’s really surprised me is how caught up the city still is, after going through the whole winter.”
Around San Diego, it is as though the 1984 season never really ended on that dreary Sunday in Detroit. And it is whispered that the Padres can only lose in 1985 if they get complacent.
“How could anyone be complacent?” Smith asked. “I can’t imagine how anyone who’s been to the playoffs and World Series wouldn’t want to do everything possible to get there again.”
More mundane matters occupy his time these days. He is working on a new stadium lease to extend or replace the one which expires in 1988, a new radio contract and a new television contract. Back to business.
And he is also working with organizational image.
“A lot of people have told me how the Chargers reacted to their success,” he said. “That they became pompous. I don’t want our organization to do that. Nothing will get me going faster than hearing that someone has been treated rudely at the ticket office.”
There’s that word again. Pompous. And there is Ballard Smith trying to disassociate himself--and his organization--from any such distasteful adjectives.
The ticket office is probably the area in which an organization deals most directly with the public.
“I listened to Ray for a lot of years and he always talked of quality, service and value,” he said. “I think we’ve got quality and we’ve got value, but we have to work a little bit on service. I can’t control when we lose, but I can exercise some control over the way fans are treated by ticket takers, concessionaires and ushers.”
Smith’s concerns are much more basic--and non-controversial--these days. Instead of battling the establishment, he sits on committees for an assortment of charities. He’s even chairman of the Fox Symphony Fund Raising drive.
“If you’re going to be a great city,” he said, “you want first-class sports teams--and a first-class symphony.”
Not that Smith himself is likely to beat down the symphony’s doors once it settles in its permanent home. He would rather windsurf or read an adventure novel or coach his daughter’s T-ball team or even jog.
“I enjoy something like the symphony occasionally,” he said. “Linda likes things like that, and she puts up with the baseball games I drag her to.”
Linda, in fact, has a musical background. She sang in a rock band in college, and made a “comeback” of sorts when she sang one of the Padre songs which have proliferated since last summer.
“I can’t sing,” Smith said. “I just plain can’t sing.”
During a recording session, in fact, Linda sang loud and clear from the front row and Smith stayed as far as he could from the microphones and literally mouthed the words. It certainly wouldn’t be presidential to be the only off-key voice on every car radio on Interstate 8.
If Smith is no longer perceived as arrogant and pompous, he may still be a little aloof. He prefers to spent his private time with Linda and their four daughters. His limited socializing will likely be with a couple of attorneys named Howard Frank and Rick Levin.
“My closest friends are still people I went to college with,” he said. “We were all together for the first time in 15 years when we went skiing a month ago. If I was having a problem, those would be the people I’d talk to.”
One of Smith’s acquaintances is Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who has a few problems of his own. He has already gone through one trial on 13 counts of felony conspiracy and perjury, and come away with the jury deadlocked at 11-1 in favor of a guilty verdict.
Banker Murray Galinson was one of three men who reportedly met with Hedgecock and Dist. Atty. Miller. Smith and businessman Malin Burnham were the others. Not too many years ago, Ballard Smith would never have been included in such company.
“Looking back, he was trying to build an organization and he had to take some stands at the time that weren’t popular,” Galinson said. “Now he’s built an organization that is tremendously successful and people understand what he was trying to do.”
Suddenly, Ballard Smith fit.
“He fits very well,” Galinson said. “He’s known to be friendly with Mayor Hedgecock, we know he has good judgment and he’s a former prosecutor.”
Smith simply said the city has to put the affair behind it and move onward.
“We haven’t spent much time socially,” he said, “but I like Roger. I’m not going to pass judgment on what he may or may not have done, but I feel for what he and his family are going through.
And Ballard Smith resisted the notion that he has somehow become a “shaker and mover” in the community.
“I love the city,” he said, “and I can’t imagine ever living anywhere else. This is where I want to live and raise my family. I don’t want to be considered a ‘front man’ or a ‘shaker and mover.’ I just want to do anything I can to help.”
Today’s Ballard Smith, the staid and stolid executive, will make his ripples under the surface. No more storms of controversy follow in his wake.