Advertisement

PADRE FAN FAVORITE RETURNS : Flannery Caught Wave at End of Last Season

Times Staff Writer

Tim Flannery won’t give out the name of the place. If he gives out the name, next thing he knows, somebody is rooting around up there in a boutonniere passing out business cards and looking for building permits.

He will say it is in remote Santa Barbara County. And he will give a translation.

“The Indians used to call it Gateway of Souls,” he explained. “You get up there, and you see why. The most beautiful coastline, the most unspoiled water. . . . it’s a world we don’t live in anymore.”

It is in this Gateway of Souls that Flannery recovers his every winter. He leaves his job as a Padre infielder to spend a total of six weeks roaming the 10 1/2 miles of coastline, living in a tent. There is fishing during the day, sitting by the fire and telling lies at night.

Advertisement

But more than all that, there is surfing. It is the earthly thing Flannery loves more than anything but his family and blue-collar baseball. To hear his good friend and former big-leaguer Gary Woods tell it, it is something in which Flannery possesses magic.

“There’s a spot up there, one of the most beautiful spots on the coast, where Flannery loves to surf,” Woods explained. “We call it Flann’s Place, and every night as the sun is going down, he wants to go there. Sometimes the wind is not right, the water is not high, and it’s worthless. But it doesn’t matter to him. He’ll sit there on the edge of the water and wait and persevere. Sometimes for as long as an hour, he will wait there.

“And then all of a sudden, things will change. The wind will turn around, the waves will get big, and it will be some of the best surfing ever. It’s like Flann has the magical touch.”

So it has happened for Flannery on the baseball field. He joined the Padre organization in 1978 as a graduate of Anaheim High and Chapman College who was too small, too slow and couldn’t jump to save his shoelaces.

Advertisement

In the 12 years since, he has yet to be a full-time, full-season starter. He has a .257 career average as a platoon player and bench jockey, including a .159 career average against left-handed pitchers, better than only one big leaguer in the past 14 years. He hasn’t hit a homer since 1986--only two other big-leaguers have gone without a home run in more at-bats. And a couple of years ago, he suffered from a torn right ankle that still requires nightly icings and will never get better.

Yet within the baseball world, he has waited and persevered and refused to leave. And today, that tide has turned. In his 10th major league season, there is no Padre who receives more standing ovations, more outward shows of respect than Tim Flannery. There may be no Padre in the club’s 20-year history who has been more loved.

Fans love it that he still plays. He still gets dirty. He still yells at opponents’ pitchers and still slides on his nose.

Fans love it that, unlike bigger Padre stars of the past, they can always count on him. He has hit more than .300 with runners on base in three of the past four seasons. That includes .304 last year, when he scored eight of 10 runners from third with fewer than two out.

“The fans look at Flannery and say, ‘If he can succeed, anything is attainable,’ ” Woods said. “They say, ‘If he can play like this, than I can go home and be successful pounding my nails.’ ”

Check it out April 3 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Flannery won’t be in the starting lineup--he has never started an opener--but amid the applause for the Tony Gwynns and Jack Clarks, one ovation will stand out. If the past is any indication, the cheers for the introduction of Flannery may last a minute and seem like an hour.

And if the past is any indication, Flannery may cry.

“There have been tears in my eyes before, and I’m sure they will be there again,” Flannery said. “The fact that I have been accepted here, I don’t take that for granted. Not for one minute. Look at me, how can I take anything for granted?”

Advertisement

With Tim Flannery having recently signed a one-year contract, and with top young infielders sprouting from all levels of the Padre organization, one question is sure to be asked of him all summer.

Is this his last?

“Hard for me to answer that,” said Flannery, who will be 32 by the season’s end. “The way I’ve figured it, every summer has been my last summer.”

But if he does retire?

“This much I promise you: I’m buying season tickets over the dugout and giving our players hell,” he said. “I’ve told guys on the team, when they hear some beer-drinking loudmouth yelling at them to hustle, look up there. It’s going to be me.”

That’s OK, because most of them would listen. Even the most narrow-visioned of them could not miss the war that Flannery won last year with hustle, a victory over time and logic, one that ensured he would not be in those box seats this season.

Flannery’s long-term guaranteed contract was up at the end of 1988. The Padres possessed an option, but as late as July 1 of last season, they weren’t inclined to pick it up. Popularity and clubhouse chemistry is nice, but at the time, Flannery and his bad ankle had accounted for a .226 average and six RBIs. For the first time in his career, he had been reduced to strictly a pinch-hitting role, which he accepted by getting all of one hit in his first 15 pinch plate appearances.

His play-every-year-as-it-were-your-last line was no longer just a line.

Advertisement

“All of a sudden it was like, every at-bat was my last at-bat,” Flannery said. “I thought there was a real chance that I was gone.”

As best he could, he returned to the surf. He called his surfing buddy Woods, a Santa Barbara native whose nine-year big-league outfielding career--including stops in Toronto, Houston and with the Chicago Cubs--ended in 1986. They talked about their great winters together. And they talked about the problem.

“He called me and said he didn’t know what to do,” Woods recalled. “He told me he thought his back was finally to the wall.”

If his back wasn’t precisely at the wall, Woods’ advice pinned it there.

“I told him his problem was easy, that he had two choices,” Woods said. “I told him he could learn to pinch-hit well, regardless of the odds, or he could quit. Simple as that. Do it or quit.

“I used the word ‘quit’ a lot. I knew that would get to him.”

Did it ever. Flannery proceeded to hit .296 in July and .355 in August. In his final 11 pinch appearances, he collected seven hits, including five consecutive at one time, tying a club record. He wound up as the National League’s seventh-best pinch-hitter with a .308 average in 26 at-bats.

And that option year? It was picked up by the Padres in mid-September, ensuring Flannery one more season at $400,000.

“He proved he is still an important member of this club,” Manager Jack McKeon said. “The opportunity was there, and he went after it and got it.”

So what if $400,000 is not the major league average. Flannery has never made the major league average. For once, he and his friends said, the money wasn’t the thing.

“He looks at last year like the most important thing he’s done in his career,” said Dave Smith, Houston reliever and another surfing buddy. “He did the same thing he’s had to do every spring--make the team--but did it during the heat of the season. That’s not easy.”

Said Flannery: “I’m more proud of that than anything I’ve ever done individually. They didn’t just bring me back because people like me. Baseball is a business, they wouldn’t do that. I earned a spot. I earned this.”

Not that Flannery thinks the fans would accept anything less. That’s what he likes about San Diego, and what he thinks some more ego-conscious players hate.

“Baseball players aren’t that big of a deal to people in San Diego,” Flannery said. “All they want is an honest day’s work from them. They work eight hours a day, and they want the same attitude from you.

“Some players have it tough here because fans don’t worship them. People don’t move to San Diego for the sports, they move because of the quality of life. They have their heads screwed on straight, they know what’s important. Ballplayers aren’t larger than life. Hard, honest work--that’s what’s big.”

That and surfing, at least to Flannery.

“If you ask me, that’s a big part of Flannery’s appeal,” Woods said. “Like a large part of his audience down there, he’s not afraid to take on the water.”

At dawn of an off-day last season, Randy Ready, Padre third baseman and novice surfer, was preparing to enter the ocean when he thought he spotted a seal in the dark water. Upon closer inspection, he was wrong.

“It was just Flannery,” he recalled.

Ever since Flannery bought his first board at age 13, he has been sold. His older brother, Greg, would drive him from Anaheim to the Leucadia beaches north of San Diego, but only after he pulled weeds.

“My dad thought I was becoming a hippie, so he made me pull weeds every time I surfed to make sure I stayed straight,” Flannery said of his father, a preacher at the First Christian Church of Anaheim.

Today, although his activities have been somewhat slowed by a no-responsibility-for-surfing-accidents clause in his contract, Flannery still looks and acts every bit the surfer. His blonde hair is thinning, but his tan is still dark, and his voice still speaks in reverent tones about “The landlord.”

“You know, the great white shark,” Flannery explains. “Out there, he’s the landlord.”

Flannery doesn’t surf under the Huntington Beach Pier at midnight anymore, but “I still surf when necessary,” he said.

This means whenever he is tense. Whenever he is worried about life’s little things. Whenever he wants to be reminded of both his good fortune and fragility.

“Flann likes surfing because it can humble you,” Smith said. “In a second, it can humble you.”

Said Flannery: “You have to approach surfing like you approach pinch-hitting--you go all out and accept that fact that the result will be either outhouse or castle. Either you’ll be great or terrible. But at least you won’t have hesitated.”

“Flann attacks the water,” Ready said. “Some guys go out there to paddle around and talk, but Flann works it hard.”

Although Flannery has never been injured surfing, once off the San Clemente coast he was taken under the water by a current for what he figures was a full minute, for what he thought were his last moments on earth.

“When I finally came up, I got out of the water, put my board on my car, drove away and didn’t surf for three weeks,” Flannery recalled. “But I came back.”

Just as he always does. Just as he will keep doing for at least one more year.

“Tell you right now, if I retire, there will be no big deal made,” Flannery said with a laugh. “The fans don’t owe me anything. Tell them I’ve had a great, great, great time here. Tell them, hey, it’s been fun, I’ll see them in the water.”

Padre Notes

The Padres’ Sunday workout, contrary to what may have been implied from previous reports, is not open to the public. San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium will still be undergoing preparations for Monday’s opening night against San Francisco. . . . Opening night starter Eric Show pitched his final spring innings Wednesday, allowing the Angels two runs on five hits in five innings, en route to an eventual 6-5 Padre victory. The only thing even mildly disturbing was his four walks. In his 29 2/3 spring innings, he has walked 15, just one less than his 16 strikeouts. This works out to 4.5 walks per nine innings after he allowed just two walks per nine innings last season. “I’m not worried about my control, you don’t do what I did all of last season and then just lose it,” said Show, who finished his spring with a 3.95 ERA. “My stuff has been good, and that’s what’s important. When you lose your stuff, it becomes a lot more mysterious.” Show said that after pitching three opening days, this one won’t have him quite so worried. “I might start thinking about it, well, when I arrive at the ballpark,” he said of Monday’s 7:20 p.m. game against the San Francisco Giants and Rick Reuschel. “I’ll be excited but, you know, I’ve done this before.” . . . After the Padres took a 4-2 lead in the top of sixth Wednesday following Show’s departure, reliever Mark Grant promptly blew that lead by allowing two runs in two innings. The Padres finally won it for good with two runs in the eighth on back-to-back RBI doubles by Roberto Alomar and Luis Salazar, who played center and right fields, his fourth and fifth different positions in four days since joining the Padres from the Detroit Tigers Sunday (shortstop, third base and left field were the other three). . . . After Wednesday’s game, the Padres departed Palm Springs for San Diego, where they will play their sixth annual game against San Diego State tonight at 7:05 at Jack Murphy. They will wind up their spring schedule with weekend games in Las Vegas, against the Seattle Mariners (Friday) and the Padres triple-A affiliate Las Vegas team (Saturday) . . . Catcher Benito Santiago gave the Padres a bit of a scare Wednesday when his hand collided with Wally Joyner’s bat on a throw to second. But afterward, Santiago was lifting weights in the clubhouse and smiling. “Everything is fine, everything this spring has been fine,” Santiago said. He probably will finish the spring as the club’s leading hitter. He went two for three Wednesday to improve his average to .426. . . . There were a couple of firsts Wednesday--Tony Gwynn struck out for the first time this spring after 59 at-bats (against Angel rookie pitcher Jim Abbott) while second baseman Alomar committed his first error of the spring. The left side of the Padre infield, on the other hand, has committed 21. . . . Remember pitcher Mark Davis’ two holes-in-one on golf courses this spring? Wednesday morning, fewer than 24 hours after his latest ace, Davis shot a 16 on one hole.


Advertisement