Better Without Us 

Major Garrett

This much is true.

It’s much better to have your magic number instead of being part of some other team’s magic number.

The last time the Padres had a magic number Trevor Hoffman and Mike Piazza were on the roster. They are in the Hall of Fame now. It has been that long.

We know this season is an unrecognizable mess. I won’t list all the absurdities. I predicted them all here.

Here is the one thing I missed and it’s important for the Padres and for San Diego.

The team has been better off without us. Yes. Better without fans at Petco.

I know that is heresy. Management will not agree. Players will not agree. Announcers will not agree. Not publicly anyway. Fans who read this may want to pour beer over my head – or worse.

Hear me out.

I have been a Padre fan for 52 years and know what it requires.  The list includes: stubbornly staying with a terrible team; inviting derision from friends (even fellow San Diegans); rationalizing front office indifference; making excuses when good players leave and rusty replacements arrive; stitching hope from straw, paying good money for something that feels like group therapy or voluntary torture.

All Padre fans bring this emotional baggage to the park. Even the newest ones haul a tinge of preemptive gloom to the game. We veterans practically have to buy an extra seat for our anticipatory angst.

We just know things are going to get ruined. We don’t know how. We just know the crushing is coming and our dreams (small ones….just be competitive) will be dashed.

This year’s club has been relieved of this knot in Petco’s collective throat. The players have had the rare pleasure of being the only voices in each other’s heads. They are the fans. They clap.  They wave.  They pound their chest.  To hear them alone cheer for one another has been an unexpected, delicious and delightful joy.

Baseball is a lonely game, full of silence and concentration. Players stand alone.  Bat alone.  Run alone.

The noise in their head can be louder than any in the stadium. They can get edgy or amped up. Fans can fuel them or squash them.  They can only turn to their teammates — cohere or fray.

It’s never easy for trade-deadline arrivals – even those coming to good teams. It could have been a special challenge this year. The Padres are, let us be honest, still trying to figure out how to win — how to exude confidence and command respect. That’s not an easy clubhouse mentality to construct. And yet all the new arrivals have melded seamlessly…..at least in part….because we weren’t there.

Yes, Mike Clevinger’s home debut would have attracted a sell-out crowd. But nobody was there for his first start. Only his team — his new team. That cleared things up. We didn’t get in the way — not emotionally, not physically. There was no judgement in the stands, no nervous doubters to win over, no rapid-fire rejection when that first home start went sideways (3-run first). Clevinger and new catcher Austin Nola shook things off and the Padres bounced back to win 14-5.

I’m not saying the Padres wouldn’t have won the game.  I’m not saying “Slam Diego” wouldn’t have been better together. I’m just saying there is something to be gained from our absence — this team has been allowed to form, grow and take on new players faster and better because they are all they have.  Slam Diego has been fun for them up close.  Our distance might have made it easier because we didn’t muck up their rhythm or their sense of possibility.  Let’s face it.  Fans can be bothersome and distracting.  When it comes to we Padre fans, this year has powerfully proven – to me, at least – that our psychic mess of defeatist anxieties has been better left at home…where we are…and not at Petco to pollute this club’s winning frame of mind.

That will pay huge dividends when this ungainly season of 7-inning doubleheaders, phantom extra-inning runners, expanded rosters and universal DH mercifully ends. We know in our hearts this is not Major League Baseball. It is extended spring training soon to be followed by warped playoff formats played in alien ballparks with contrived safety bubbles.

None of it is real. Except the TV money and our willful ability to suspend disbelief.

What we can believe in is the Padres club taking shape before us and without us. It is a damn good club. It does many things well.  It works the count, steals bases, hits to the opposite field, takes walks, runs the bases aggressively, plays accountable defense and shortens the swing with two strikes.

All of this is happening and happening faster because we are not there. Jayce Tingler is working his managerial mojo without distraction. His coaching staff is center stage. There’s no preening or pretending. No stars. No also-rans. There is a team. Gelling. On its own.

We all saw it Sept. 20 when we clinched a playoff berth. I almost wept. This team was together. Tight. Reliant and reliable. When injured and surgery-lost Kirby Yates came out for hugs you knew he was missed, beloved and respected. Fans would have loved to have been there. And the players would have loved to blow kisses and toss uniforms into the stands.

But it was — even if you think I am nuts – better without us.

When next season arrives and Petco, we hope, is bursting at the seams, the Padres will be ready as never before. This year it will have built a new mentality — a Padre way — with bonds fused in a solitary stillness only baseball players can know and revere.

We can cheer them knowing we still need them to be good, but they don’t need us to be better.

Major Garrett was born and raised in Clairemont, is Chief Washington Correspondent for CBS News, host of “The Takeout” & “The Debrief” podcasts 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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