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Beauty Is Only Skin Deep, but Winning Goes Deeper

Popularity, according to my desk-top dictionary, is defined as being liked by many or most people.

In a superficial sense, such as in the world of entertainment, traits which lead to popularity lead also to success. Good looks, for example.

Good looks do the Padres no good. In the world of sports, success leads to popularity. Not much else will do it.

The Padres could have Mel Gibson playing first, Clint Eastwood at third, Michael Jackson at second and, for that matter, Morgan Fairchild in center field. If they played baseball like Rodney Dangerfield or Bob Uecker, folks would yawn and light their barbecues.

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However, the Padres have certainly turned the key to popularity hereabouts. They have done it by winning. In baseball, it’s the old-fashioned way--and the only way.

Sometime early Tuesday evening, a turnstile clicked at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium and the one-millionth fan of the 1985 season passed into the outer concourse.

No fireworks, drum rolls or red carpet celebrated the arrival of that millionth fan. After all, he--or she--was expected. The Padres had sold a million tickets before this season started.

“We tried to do projections before the season started,” Padre President Ballard Smith said earlier Tuesday, “and we figured we would get to a million by our 30th home date. We’re right where we expected to be.”

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Smith and Co. will not exactly put Nostradamus out of business, but Tuesday night was the Padres’ 30th home date of the season. They needed a crowd of 15,953 to hit a million, and they got that many long before the tailgate parties ended.

Drawing a million fans is not exactly new to the Padres. With the exception of 1981, the strike year, they have done it every year since the late Ray Kroc bought the club in 1974. They were drawing a million long before they got around to playing like a million.

How many times during those lean years of sub-.500 seasons did you hear someone wonder out loud just what the Padres would draw if they ever put it together on the field? How many franchises would draw more than a million for four consecutive years in which the local side finished a total of 137 games out of first place?

I can remember it being said that baseball could not possibly draw in San Diego, not with the ocean to the west, Mexico to the south, mountains and desert to the east and a giant military base to the north. It may not be surrounded by water, skeptics said, but it is still an island.

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Even last fall, on the eve of the National League Championship Series, the national media was poking fun at San Diego’s image. It was almost as if the Padres’ ticket outlets were at health food stores, roller skate rentals, lifeguard stands and quiche emporiums.

Interest in the Padres--at least attendance--was not a wire-to-wire phenomenon in 1984. Through the middle of June, Opening Night, giveaways and the Dodgers drew all of the 35,000-plus crowds and the other games drew modest gatherings averaging 18,027. They would get their million, but the mania was missing.

On the 30th home date a year ago, with the Padres one-half game out of first and Houston in town, attendance was 11,799. The same teams drew 9,922 the day before and 11,087 the day after.

When the Padres hit a million last year, it was on their 43rd home date on June 29. The crowd was 45,468, and neither the Padres nor the St. Louis Cardinals had much to do with it. It was the Chicken’s 10th Birthday Party.

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Ultimately, the Padres would draw 1,983,904 during the 1984 regular season, interest building until it hit a crescendo for that unforgettable playoff series with the Cubbies and the World Series with Detroit.

The Padres have not had to worry about interest building through the 1985 season. It has been as if the 1984 season never ended, and the postseason frenzy carried throughout the off-season. It probably helped that the Chargers did absolutely nothing distracting during the fall.

And so the Padres, who had to prove they were really that good in 1984, had to do nothing except what they did a year ago. That was a lot, of course, but they have continued to win now as they won then.

With the Dodgers in town, followed by Cincinnati and Houston, the Padres have seven more dates this home stand. Ballard Smith expects attendance to swell to 1,250,000 before the team leaves town next Wednesday.

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“We’ve already sold over two million tickets,” Smith said. “Our projections are that we will draw 2.5 million.”

If the Padres continue to average just under 34,000, they will draw 2,685,000. To put that in perspective, only five franchises in baseball history have drawn more in any one year.

Thus, the Padres are now trying to project when they will hit two million. At the current pace, they will hit that magical number on Sept. 1. That will be the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend, and the Montreal Expos will be in town.

“That’s a goal we started talking about five years ago,” Smith said. “That’s a goal we have dreamed about.”

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No, Smith said, there will be no way of knowing exactly which fan will be Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. Two Million.

“We might pick out somebody symbolic to throw out the first ball,” he said, “but we’d like to do something with broader appeal. Whatever day that might be, we’ll probably give away something commemorative.”

The way things have been going, both on the field and in the stands, the Padres will not limp over that two million mark with a cozy gathering of 11,000. Whatever the Padres decide to distribute, they better have plenty.

“And,” Smith said, “I think we’re still building. I’m not so sure this will necessarily be our peak year.”

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It all depends on popularity, of course, and we know what bring about popularity.


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