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Executive has difficult job of making fans believe that Padres’ plan has legs

Ron Fowler, executive chairman of the San Diego Padres, chats with former manager Bud Black during a game in 2012.

Ron Fowler, executive chairman of the San Diego Padres, chats with former manager Bud Black during a game in 2012.

(Andy Hayt / Getty Images)

Ron Fowler took in two openers last week. In San Diego, on Monday, he watched his baseball team lose by 15 runs. In New York, on Wednesday, he represented major league owners in the first round of negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

The large-market owners gripe about how much money they hand over to small-market teams that might not even try to win. The small-market owners gripe about how large-market teams exploit economic loopholes so ruthlessly as to make a mockery of parity.

Fowler, the executive chairman of the Padres, is chairman of baseball’s labor committee. That makes him the man at the bargaining table charged with persuading the players’ union that the owners are united.

That might not be Fowler’s toughest job this year. He also has to persuade San Diego fans that the Padres know what they are doing.

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The season could not have gotten off to a worse start. Three games, at home, against the Dodgers and the Padres did not score.

Outfielder Matt Kemp, peppered with questions from reporters, got a little tired of repeating his refrain.

“It’s three games,” he said. “It’s what I said five questions ago.”

In an era when losing big has become the preferred way to rebuild now and win big later, pitcher Tyson Ross felt compelled to say the Padres had not embraced that strategy.

“Everyone shows up looking to win,” Ross said. “No one is coming in here trying to tank.”

Was it only one year ago that optimism overflowed, bordering on giddiness? The Padres had imported Kemp, fellow outfielders Wil Myers and Justin Upton, catcher Derek Norris, starter James Shields and closer Craig Kimbrel.

Dave Roberts, now the Dodgers manager but then a Padres coach, lives in San Diego County. He said he could not recall the locals getting so enthused about the Padres since their last World Series, in 1998.

“I was guilty,” Roberts said. “I was drinking the Kool-Aid.

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“You learn. The team that wins the off-season doesn’t necessarily win the season.”

The Padres won 74 games last year, three fewer than the year before.

Kimbrel and Upton are gone. The Padres’ opening-day roster included 17 players not on the opening-day roster last year. The big three pitchers — Shields, Ross and Cashner — could be flipped for prospects in the coming months.

And what did Roberts sense from Padres fans as he made his way around town over the last few months?

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“It is another year of anticipation,” he said, “as opposed to last winter, when it was more excitement and optimism.”

It is difficult to fault the Padres for trying to win last year. They have not been to the playoffs in 10 years. They have not won a home playoff game in 18 years.

But it is fair to ask about the plan. Fowler and his ownership group took over the Padres in August 2012, three months after Mark Walter and his ownership group took over the Dodgers.

“When we came in, did we expect the Dodgers to be doing what they’re doing?” Fowler said. “Probably not.”

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That comes off a little naive, given that Walter and Co. had just bought the Dodgers for more than twice the previous record sale price for a major league team. On the other hand, nine days after Fowler and Co. assumed control of the Padres, the Dodgers assumed $500 million in contracts to get Adrian Gonzalez from the Boston Red Sox, the first big step toward last year’s $300-million payroll.

“I think the surprise was how aggressive they were,” Fowler said. “The Dodgers blew past the [New York] Yankees like Grant through Richmond.”

The Dodgers have the money to win and restock their farm system at the same time. The Padres have to choose one or the other, as Fowler appeared to indicate in a 2013 interview with The Times.

“They’re not looking for flash and dash here,” Fowler said then. “They have seen it over the years. They have seen fire sales. What I think the people are looking for is a consistent, winning tradition — that hasn’t been here in quite some time — and to do it in a judicious, reasonable manner.”

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In 2014, the Padres hired A.J. Preller as general manager. As Fowler tells it, Preller thought the Padres’ pitching was good enough that the team could boost its offense and make a run at the playoffs in 2015. The offense turned out to be better, the pitching much worse, the defense weak.

“We felt it was worth the risk of going for it,” Fowler said. “It was very difficult for me to approve the contracts, but we did, I did, and it was a disappointing year.”

So, one year after trading prospects for established players, the Padres are doing the reverse. They’re about to embark on a spending spree in Latin America, settling in for the long and presumably lasting rebuild.

“Success this year for me is being at least at .500, and building to where we’re competing with the big blue machine up north,” Fowler said.

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“We can significantly improve the ballpark. We can significantly improve fan experience. But, ultimately, fan experience comes down to wins.”

Fowler was not willing to say when Padres fans might expect their team to return to the playoffs.

“First we have to get to .500,” he said. “Once we get to .500, I’m going to worry about that.”

The Padres have a grace period, because the All-Star game is in San Diego this summer. For all the angst about the disaster last summer and the retrenchment last off-season, the Padres’ season-ticket sales are up this season, Fowler said, to between 12,000 and 13,000. That puts the team on pace for its highest attendance since 2007.

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Next year brings nothing guaranteed, except the Padres in San Diego. That could provide the Padres with another grace period too, because nothing would unite the town behind the Padres more deeply than the Los Angeles Chargers.

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter: @BillShaikin


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