Padres GM Kevin Towers Marches On
Just before exchanging vows with his wife in December 1996, the Padres general manager exchanged players with Tigers GM Randy Smith, a member of his wedding party.
"Any time you get baseball people together, especially general managers, regardless of what the venue is or what the situation is, baseball will come up," Towers said. "We started talking about players while we were waiting for my wife to show up. She was running a little late, so we decided to consumate a deal, about 30 minutes before our wedding vows."
Baseball is Towers' life. He said last winter he went on a 16-day cruise around South America and Antarctica, but still found himself on the ship every night surfing the internet for baseball stories.
"You can't disconnect from it, if you really truly love it and are passionate," Towers said.
In that sense, Towers is no different from the other 29 men who run major league clubs.
Except he's managed to keep his job longer than all of them.
In his 14th season, Towers, 47, is the longest tenured GM in the majors. (Detroit's Dave Dombrowski, has more experience, with 19 seasons as a big league GM, but this is only his eighth with the Tigers.)
"I pinch myself at times," Towers said. "All I ever wanted to do was be a big-league ballplayer. I never envisioned myself being a GM of a major league ballclub. Especially not for 13 years."
His 14th season is off to a good start. The Padres have been one of the season's early surprises. San Diego is 9-6, winning with a pitching staff that Towers has almost entirely rebuilt over the past 12 months.
It's too early to know if the Padres are for real or just an early-season mirage. Their early-season success marks as good a time as any to examine the man who has been building -- and rebuilding -- his team for longer than any other active GM.
"Kevin has an incredible passion for the job," said A's GM Billy Beane, who counts Towers among his favorite colleagues, personally and professionally. "He gets along with everybody. He's a well-liked guy, a good communicator. He's fun to be around."
Former Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta, who now works under Towers as an executive vice president with the Padres, said: "He's a very down-to-earth guy. People realize when they talk to him that he is very genuine. When people talk to him, they know they're getting the real deal. They never think he's trying to fleece them or do something underhanded. It's always above-board and honest. He gets along with everybody... I think that helps him make deals, with clubs and with agents. Those things combined make for quite a run as the GM here."
The run began Nov. 17, 1995, after a seven-year career as a minor-league pitcher, three years as a minor-league coach and scout, and two years as the Padres scouting director.
It doesn't seem like 1995 was so long ago, but that was before most Americans had any idea what the Internet was. It was before most baseball fans -- or even executives -- paid any attention to acronyms like VORP or OPS. And it was before anyone around the game gave much consideration to how these players were getting so strong so quickly.
Yes, it's been a long 13 years, with a lot of changes that have forced Towers to adapt.
He was an old school, scouting GM, by his own admission, when he took the job. He had little use for the numbers stuff.
"The scout says go get a player, so you go get a player," he said. "I didn't look into park factors, OBP, OPS. We weren't looking at trends that were important to look at along with your scouting reports."
Towers said that started to change for him when he hired a kid named Theo Epstein as a Director of Baseball Operations. He also hired Eddie Epstein (no relation), well-known in baseball circles as a statistical analyst.
"They educated me on the importance of these things," Towers said. "The more I looked at them, the more I thought 'There is something to this.' I still valued the old traditional scouts. There are things that scouts see on the field that don't show up in the numbers, intangibles a player might posess. I think think you need a balance of both."
If there is a man to bring unity to the battle between the Numbers Guys and the Scouting Guys, the new school and the old school, Towers is the guy. He is admired in both camps.
"Kevin has always been open-minded and used every resource available to him," Beane said. "There is no question Kevin likes to get his fingernails dirty and get out and see players himself, but he also has progressed with the times. He's a nice combination of both sides."
Towers is comfortable enough with the sabermetric guys -- "propellerheads," he playfully calls them -- that the Padres employ a full-time statistical analyst, not to mention the Harvard-educated DePodesta.
Of course, they all must analyze numbers now a little differently than they might have six or seven years ago, because of another significant change in the game, one in which Towers has played a central role.
When Ken Caminiti admitted in 2002 that he had used steroids, baseball began to change. When Caminiti died in 2004, Towers began to change.
"As GMs we certainly had our suspicions at the time, but there was nothing we could really do about it," he said. "We didn't know for sure. It was tough. You had to sometimes agree to multimillion-dollar contracts with players and you didn't know if they were au natural or on the juice. And that affects my life as well. All of the sudden a guy breaks down or gets off of it and you find out they weren't the player you thought they were, it can jeopardize your career.
"For me ultimately the loss of Ken Caminiti, who was truly one of my all-time favorite Padres, really opened up my eyes that it's not about the integrity of the game. It's about friends and families and kids. These guys are role models. What type of message is our game sending to college and high school players who think this is what you've got to do to be a big-league ballplayer?"
Towers was one of the most outspoken GMs regarding the steroid era, a position that landed him in front of Congress during the steroid hearings in the spring of 2005.
"I don't think (the problem) is ever completely solved," he said. "There are some smart people out there who as we speak right now are trying to come out with some designer drug that can't be tested for, that will be the new hot drug that a player will use. But we're in much better shape than we were."
Towers said that baseball is now more of "an equal playing field than it was (for) six or seven years," because of steroid testing.
He might also have been referring to revenue sharing and the luxury tax -- established at the same time as steroid testing. Baseball has gone from an era in which the Yankees won four of five World Series to one in which 18 teams have made the playoffs in three years, and seven teams have won the past eight World Series.
Even his Padres, who went from 98 losses in 2003 to four consecutive winning seasons to 99 losses in 2008, have started the season in encouraging fashion.
It is what keeps Towers' going with the same passion he had an era ago, in 1995.
"I've still got the energy, and I think the mental capacity and the passion for the game," he said. "I'm going to do it till they tell me that I can't. I'd like to have the same kind of run that Tony Gwynn had. If you could stay 20 years in one organization, that would be pretty amazing."