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Sadness, Tension, Bad Feelings--and Then a Title

Under the managing of Dick Williams, the Padres won their first and only National League championship in 1984. He tells of his Padre years in his soon-to-be-released autobiography, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” written with Times Staff Writer Bill Plaschke. The Padre chapter is called “McNightmare.”

With my talented but unusual team intact, our 1984 year began on a down note when owner Ray Kroc died on Jan. 14. He had been sick, and his death was not unexpected, but it still shook those who knew him as a man who both loved and respected the game and its importance in society.

He had bought the team in 1974 when it was moments away from being moved to Washington, D.C. He put his bleep on the line then, and he kept it on the line every day by promising that his players would try--or else.

As complacency swept through the game, he became angry. Like me. Ray Kroc and I thought alike and cared alike.

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True to my history, the more we won, the more I expected us to win. The safer we were in first place, the more I demanded and the tougher I grew.

The first thing to return was my temper. Not that it had ever left, but true to my pennant race personality, I exchanged “mad” for “fighting mad.”

Nothing illustrates that more than what happened Aug. 12, a Sunday afternoon in Atlanta. Sickos will remember it as a day when baseball became a war game, pitchers became gladiators, batters became targets, and one manager was tagged as evil.

In our Saturday night game, Alan Wiggins had bunted twice for base hits, which the Braves thought was rubbing it in. Wiggins came to the plate to start the Sunday game, and Pascual Perez’s first pitch hit Wiggins in the back.

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Rule Number One: If a pitcher is trying to hit you, he throws directly behind your back.

Rule Number Two: When Rule Number One is in effect, get the guy. In this case, Perez.

And so before my team took the field, I said loudly, “We know what we’ve got to do.”

It ended in a 5-3 Braves victory, but most will remember two brawls, three hit batters, five arrests of fans, eight brushback pitches and 16 ejections.

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I’ve been sorry for many things in my career, but my only regret about that “Battle of Atlanta” was that Atlanta Manager Joe Torre ended up looking like the good guy.

This was cemented a couple of days later, when Ballard and McKeon informed me about my $10,000 fine and 10-day suspension.

“Both managers got the same punishment?” I asked.

“Uh, no,” Ballard said. “Torre only got three days and $3,000.”

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In 1984, while I didn’t drink as much as in previous pennant races, it was worse because this time my so-called notoriety placed me in the public eye. This led to one problem that was made public and blown out of proportion. It may even have helped cost me my job.

We played in Houston on a Saturday afternoon, and I ended up walking into our hotel bar before dinner. Among others sitting on a stool laughing and joking was Carmelo Martinez, our young outfielder.

“Maybe you’d hit better than .237 if you didn’t spend time down here,” I said.

Yeah, I know, it came out sarcastic. Martinez brushed me off with a wave of the hand, which at that point was like waving a red blanket at a bull. I repeated it again and again until Martinez stood up as if to challenge me.

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Thank goodness my coaches pulled me away. I wanted to anger Martinez, but not past the point of common sense.

Shortly after the incident, Norma received a phone call at home. It was from my favorite club president, Ballard Smith. Here is how she recalled the conversation.

“I want you to tell Dick he has to stop drinking,” Ballard said.

She answered Ballard as much in confusion as in anger.

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“How can I tell him to stop drinking if I never see him drink?” she asked. “I know when he’s drinking too much. I’ve gone through hell with it. But this is not one of those times.”

Before a stunned Ballard could get in another word, Norma added a final rejoinder: “If I told Dick that you called, he’d quit on the spot.”

On the other end of the phone there was silence. Norma said it was then that she knew that was exactly what Ballard Smith wanted. He wanted me gone.

Later, we found out it was so he could give the job to Jack McKeon. Why would McKeon want my job? And in the middle of a pennant race? The longer I was there, the clearer it became. As anybody who’s ever bought a “Trader Jack” baseball cap will attest, the man has a stadium-sized ego.

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The race finally ended on Sept. 20. We beat the San Francisco Giants in the afternoon and then went to Goose Gossage’s house and waited for Houston to lose to the Dodgers that night.

Finally, amid the tension and bad feelings and everything else that pops up during six months of devoting everything to victory, we were able to relax. And how.

Joan Kroc walked in that night and shouted, “Well, dammit! We did it, didn’t we? Dammit!”

As soon as the splashing started, Jack McKeon actually left the party and sat in his car. It was truly unusual behavior for someone who turned out to be a shark.

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All told, it was quite a night.

Excerpted from “No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Life of Hardball,” by Dick Williams and Bill Plaschke. Copyright 1990 by Dick Williams and Bill Plaschke. To be published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.


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