Padres Keep Winning, We Keep Ignoring
The San Diego Padres are somewhere else, a bunch of nobodies playing ballgames while most everyone heads toward bed. Milwaukee recently was home to ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball." San Diego? It's Nome, Alaska, to the gang in Bristol, Conn.
The Padres are as anonymous as the Soviet Politburo. One of the team's colors is called San Diego Sand. Bland is what the Padres are to the greater sports world. Only baseball seam-heads could match Padres names to positions. Richard? Headley? Hundley? Adams? Hairston Jr and Hairston? For all anyone knows, they're lacrosse players.
Even San Diegans themselves seem bored. That is, unless the Dodgers are in town. Cardinals fans in San Diego, glad not to be in Missouri, made more noise than Padres fans throughout a three-game series here that ended on Thursday. Even with the red infusion, only once did the attendance eke above 20,000.
Baseball's national media, when not obsessing over the Yankees and Red Sox, cares mostly about trades, potential trades, past trades, trade talk, trade rumors, trade innuendo and trade dish.
So the Padres will become truly interesting to Big Media only if they drop out of playoff contention, because that might induce the club to trade closer Heath Bell or first baseman Adrian Gonzalez or both.
"I think a lot of the national papers are waiting for us to fall," Bell said at the start of the team's recent homestand.
West Coast Bias, for his part, is on record here saying the $38 million Padres will end up with 79 victories, and I also see them falling to third place by summer.
So what? I still recommend you watch them, if only because the San Diego dudes never loaf.
"We show up every day and play hard," said second baseman David Eckstein, a tireless chap who was the shortstop for World Series champions in Anaheim (2002) and St. Louis (2006).
Eckstein said the Padres -- who last won a playoff series in 1998 -- still have a lot of proving to do within their own market, let alone the world beyond sleepy San Diego. He's encouraged by seeing more "SD" logos on apparel of San Diegans, but said the team still has to earn back the paying customer. If the Padres (28-19) stay in playoff contention, attendance will climb this summer, he predicted.
A ballplayer who's in touch with reality, Eckstein noted the region's economic malaise and said no one should complain about San Diego's ballpark being half empty, or less, despite the team's first-place address.
"People are a little more wise in spending their money so they want to make sure there's real value," he said. "I say, 'Watch us on TV.' "
Unless the viewer is a hardcore baseball fan, the Padres may not have enough firepower, though, to woo viewers away from even stale fare such as "American Idol." Especially if the game is at Petco Park, where doubles go to die and where the team's best hitter, Gonzalez, is batting .198 this season. More subtle than flashy, Bud Black's Padres lead their division because they pitch, catch and run better than average. They've thrown nine shutouts. The latest, a 1-0 decision, numbed the Cardinals on Tuesday. Clinching a rare series victory over St. Louis, the Padres followed with a 13-inning, 2-1 victory, during which Albert Pujols assumed he'd hit a home run, then saw his drive caught 10 feet from the right-center wall.
Earlier this year, the Padres won a game at home despite getting only one hit.
I nearly fall asleep when Padres' opponents are asked about San Diego's success. They all say the same thing, and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa joined the list Tuesday. "If you can pitch like they're pitching, then you have a chance every night," said La Russa, whose team averted its first sweep in San Diego since 1995 by winning on Thursday, 8-3.
The best thing that can be said about San Diego's offense is that when the Padres finally get on base, they often make good use of their brains and their feet. Compared to the rival Giants, the Padres are the Gashouse Gang, fleet and daring. It's made a difference, because runs are usually scarce.
The Padres don't have much power, but they can hit home runs at Petco. A lot of teams can't. The Brothers Hairston are average hitters at best, but because of their right-handed pull power, they have five homers at Petco this year. That's only seven fewer than Padres pitchers have allowed there. The two solo homers off Jerry Hairston Jr.'s bat this week each beat the Redbirds. Borrowing from that playbook, Pujols roped a homer to left on Thursday.
Making a habit of getting the jump on foes, the Padres are 65-44 dating to last summer. I'll let you decide if 109 games is enough to believe in them, but it's pretty hard to luck your way to a 65-44 mark.
Eckstein said if the Padres stick to their formula, they can make it an interesting summer.
But will anyone care?