A Certain Amount of Something

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Intensity. Competitiveness. Focus.

For the first half of this season, the Padres had a tantalizing combination of all three.

At this writing, the Friars are 16 games under .500 and more of a league laughingstock than I imagined possible. As a 50-year fan of the Padres, I know how to imagine despair and disappointment. Forty-eight seasons of misery have taught me well. But I was not prepared for this season of reverse alchemy, of #HotTalentLava turned to squid ink.

The 2018 club won 66 games. As of this writing, with six games remaining, the Padres have won 70 games. A six-game winning streak (yes, I’m laughing too), would produce a final record of 76-86, a marginal improvement. Whatever the final win total, it’s a billowy squirt of under-performance.

Just like last year, the Padres are well below the league average in team batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage. We have fewer hits, runs, doubles and stolen bases than the league average. As for home runs and strikeouts, we have more than the league average. Still, the numbers are gruesome. The Friars, as of this writing, have clubbed 215 homers (league average is 211). They have also struck out 1,514 times. The league average is 1,363. In other words, we struck out 151 times more than average to hit four more home runs than average. All to score 78 runs fewer than the league average (667 to 745).

Defensively, our efficiency, error rate and overall fielding percentage are all below the league average.  Our defensive efficiency is .678, which is lower than it was in 2018. With six games to play, we’ve committed 113 errors (league average 92) compared to 100 (league average 95) all of last year.

The numbers, however, tell a fraction of the story.  The Padres gave up on themselves, their fans and their dignity. To watch the Padres in July, August and September was to watch a slow-motion descent into indifference, isolation and indolence. If you watched these games, God bless you. Because of my zany work life, I miss most games. The day after, I watch the “condensed version” on MLB.com, read the game stories and study the box scores.

The portrait that emerged this summer was of an increasingly selfish team, one disconnected from its manager and inning-by-inning separating itself from each other. By the time Andy Green was fired, the plucky club he led out of spring training had disappeared, replaced by a bored assemblage of misfits who lacked the zeal of youngsters at the Little League World Series. I watched a fair number of those games because those kids still love baseball — they don’t get lazily picked off first base; they run out grounders; they try to take good angles to balls hit to the outfield; they hit the cut-off man; they don’t forget (!) to tag runners; they go the other way with two strikes; they know how to bunt and do it to help the team; they consider a strike out a failure, not a launch angle adjustment.

Upon Green’s unceremonious ouster, I suggested on Twitter the clubhouse quit on Green. That is my conclusion. As I have said before, I am not a sports writer and possess no inside knowledge. I am a fan with a column. That is all. The players (of course) denied quitting. The eye test convicts them. We know what we saw, a rudderless clubhouse with million-dollar mega-stars whiffing and booting their way to league irrelevancy while their young and impressionable charges fell into a vortex of accountability-free loserdom.

In truth, no team quits on the manager. It quits on itself. It quits on its fans. It quits on the game.

I remember a Padre who never let that happen. Never.

His name was Dave Stewart. He was the pitching coach for one year — the last year the Padres won the National League pennant. The year was 1998 and the Padres still played at The Murph. In 1997, the club Earned Run Average (ERA) was 4.98. Under Stewart’s tutelage, it fell to 3.64.

Tutelage is a funny sounding word. It is for bookish types (like me), not baseball grinds (which I was, but a very, very bad one). Stewart would probably want to deck me for calling his leadership tutelage. Stewart embodied the three words that started this column: intensity, competitiveness and focus. He demanded the same of his staff. I cannot find a quote about this, but I remember as a fan of that ’98 club anecdotes being told of Stewart staring holes through pitchers who, their stuff slipping or in a runners-on-base jam, looked meekly toward the dugout or bullpen. Stewart’s stare and quiet fury always, as the stories went, meant the same thing: No one is coming for you. Stop looking for a bailout. Pitch better and finish the inning.

Stewart’s stare was legendary, approaching Bob Gibson’s intimidating ferocity. Stewart’s stuff was not Gibsonian but he was still a helluva a pitcher – three world championships; MVP of the 1989 World Series; four consecutive 20-win seasons; and American League Championship Series MVPs in 1990 and 1993.

ESPN studied Stewart before the 1998 World Series. Stewart said this about his post-season success. “There has to come a certain amount of something to do that. And I don’t think any of these guys on this staff have that.”

Stewart learned a great deal about competition, preparation and detail from two of that era’s great baseball teachers – Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. Stewart believed players had to imagine pressure when there was none. “By me telling them it’s a big game, I put pressure on them to do well. In practicing big games, big game performances, it puts you in a position once we get to the playoffs that they’ve done it before.”

It is commonly said all new managers must understand analytics and performance probabilities. Fine. I am equally sure managers must know something about strategy, focus, accountability, adjustability and instinct. When Padres pitchers were asked about Stew before the ’98 World Series, the most emphatic statement was “Don’t Leave!” Stewart described his role as pitching coach as his part-time job. Stewart craved a front office role and left the Padres after the ’98 campaign to join the Toronto Blue Jays’ as an assistant general manager. We have missed him ever since.

I do not know, precisely, what the Padres need in a new manager. The search has begun and it gives us something to analyze and discuss. What I do know is a team with championship aspirations lacks a front-line starter, second baseman, catcher and centerfielder. It also lacks passion. Of these deficiencies, I am most alarmed about the last. I could swallow another losing season (my esophagus is well-adjusted) if I thought the club gave a $%!@*&.

I know Stew did. Every pitch. Every inning. Every game.

Stew Tude.

Let’s get some.

Fast.

Major Garrett was born and raised in Clairemont, is Chief White House Correspondent for CBS News, host of “The Takeout” podcast and author of the book “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams and Occasional Blackouts of His Extraordinary First Year in Office.”

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