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Padres Have Sunk Quickly in the West

Tony Gwynn may eventually need to have his left knee replaced. For now, coming back from his sixth surgery on the knee at 40, he is cautiously optimistic of extending his Hall of Fame career.

Of course, the San Diego Padres will grasp at any reason for optimism. In the high-priced neighborhood of the National League West, they have moved to the outskirts and are considered a lock to finish last.

There are so many negatives being laid on the Padres, so many dire predictions, that Bruce Bochy, the generally stoic manager, laced his opening address the other day with fire and brimstone, reminding the team of Gideon’s upset of the Midianites a few seasons ago.

“It was the best speech I’ve heard in 20 years,” Gwynn said. “The guys were ready to march through a brick wall.”

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It will take more than rhetoric, however.

With construction on their new stadium still in legal limbo and the 2003 opening in doubt, the Padre payroll has been reduced $14 million to $37 million, less than the Dodgers will pay their rotation and about $25 million less than the division’s next lowest payroll.

The devaluation affects the Padres in all areas.

The projected outfield has no proven power. The league’s worst defense may now feature utility players at both shortstop and second base. The rotation is anchored by the surgically repaired duo of Woody Williams and Sterling Hitchcock. And the veteran players, who would like to have a shot at winning, are trying not to become discouraged.

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“We’d obviously feel better if we were increasing the payroll than decreasing, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt,” third baseman Phil Nevin said. “A lot of us feel we can still compete, but a lot of things have to happen. The younger arms have to maximize quicker than they might otherwise and we can’t have any letdowns, especially from the guys being counted on like myself. We’ve got to be out there every day and at the top of our game, and we have to have the younger guys step up.”

The 1998 National League champion, the team that included Steve Finley, Ken Caminiti and Kevin Brown, has long since been broken up. The Padres are trying to rebuild through their system, to be ready when the new stadium is, if it is, but the most recent reduction may have cut into hope as well as dollars.

Do Nevin and his veteran colleagues understand?

“It’s not our place to understand,” he said. “It’s not our money being lost. We’re not the owners. From our perspective, you’ve got to spend money to make money. You’ve got to put a quality product on the field to make people come out. They obviously feel people will come out no matter what.”

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Gwynn’s view is less caustic than Nevin’s. He has been the good soldier for two decades in San Diego. His 20th year with the Padres makes him only the fifth player in league history to spend that many years with the same team.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed [by management’s direction],” Gwynn said. “But when you’ve been around as long as I have, you realize that these things happen, especially in a small-market situation.

“I also know that the best years we’ve had recently [the 1996 division title and ’98 pennant] have come when no one expected us to do anything, and that’s the kind of thing we’re hanging our hat on. I mean, the club’s situation is a lot like my own. It’s going to be a test mentally and physically, but there’s nothing like a good challenge, and there’s a whole bunch of challenges out there. Every team in this division has a big payroll and established stars. We’re the only team people can look at and say, ‘Who are these guys?’

“Well, if the only thing we’re going to do is sit here and compare rosters and payrolls, there’s no sense even being here. We still have a shot, and it’s up to the guys in this [locker room]. There’s no expectations, so it’s an opportunity to stick it in people’s face. When a team can rally around something, you never know. No one thought the [Chicago] White Sox would win their division last year, or the [Oakland] A’s would be as good as they were.”

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Gwynn has picked up Bochy’s beat and is obviously ready to march through that wall. The question is, will his knee permit it? He had loose cartilage removed, the ends of the leg bones and his kneecap cleaned on June 27. It’s down to bone on bone, and doctors drilled micro-holes designed to stimulate new cartilage growth. Replacement surgery may be required at some point, but Gwynn shrugged and said, “If I’m not playing, why would I need it?”

How much he will play this year, if at all, is uncertain. His playing time has continued to decrease. He appeared in a career-low 36 games last year before opting for another surgery. He went back to the bench after delivering a pinch-double in Cincinnati on June 22 thinking, “That could have been my last hit in the big leagues.”

It was his 3,108th, giving him a .323 average for the season, the 18th consecutive year he had hit .300 or better, a league record. He has won eight batting titles, tying Honus Wagner for the league record. Only Ty Cobb (12) won more.

Gwynn is realistic.

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“This is not about coming back and playing every day,” he said. “It’s not about coming back and being the total player, winning another batting title. There’s not any numbers I want, and I don’t need to win another batting title. Those days are gone because I’m not going to be out there every day. I’ve got 3,000 hits and done everything I can do as an offensive guy. It’s just that I still love to play and I want to play, that’s what it comes down to. But if it all ends today, I think I could walk around with my head held high and feel good about what I’ve done.”

Although Cooperstown is the next stop, Gwynn and agent John Boggs had to battle this winter to stay in San Diego, rather than Gwynn becoming another of those transient players, ending his career in Cleveland.

If his knee now symbolizes Padre instability, his contract reflects the club’s direction. He will receive a comparatively modest $2 million, with $1 million of that deferred without interest. If sound and playing regularly, he can make considerably more, depending on plate appearances. An escalating scale starts at $1,500 for each plate appearance between 101 to 200, then goes up to $10,500 for each between 401 and 600, and tops out at $15,000 for every one over 601.

“I wanted to stay and the Padres wanted me to stay, but we each had to play our little games,” Gwynn said. “It’s part of the business. I was honest with [Cleveland General Manager] John Hart from the start and he was great about it. They basically had a slot for me if it didn’t work out in San Diego, but my preference was to stay in the National League [and not end his career as a designated hitter]. Once I signed, the business part of it was all behind me and I could start focusing on the things I need to do. There’s no bad taste. I’m happy to be back.”

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How far back? It’s too early to say. Gwynn estimates that he had his knee drained 15-20 times between the start of spring training last year and the June operation. There has been no fluid buildup and no swelling since he began his rehabilitation regimen. He has been taking batting practice and hitting in the cages. He passed one test Tuesday by running hard on the bases, but he has yet to do any cutting in the outfield. Doctors have recommended that he not stand around, if he can avoid it. Get his work in and get off his feet.

“We’re taking it slow and trying to be careful,” he said. “The goal is to get me from April to October, not February to October. It’s not the way I’d like to do it, but I understand.

“The hitting part, I think I can be as good as I’ve ever been because this is as good as I’ve ever been in camp. I can sit on my back leg [his left], and my balance is a whole lot better. Defensively, I’ve got some work to do, but I think I can be serviceable, especially the way I’m going to be used. I’m not going to play every day, and I’ll be coming out in the late innings of games we lead.

“I mean, we’re probably not going to get an accurate picture until they let me do everything I need to do in the exhibition games. Right now, all I can say is that I’m happy to be here, happy to continue my Padre career. Now, we just have to find out exactly what that means.”

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