Column: Padres reshape expectations with Manny Machado deal
SAN DIEGO — The Padres did far more than change the narrative for a team and a city when news leaked Tuesday about the drying ink on infielder Manny Machado’s reported $300 million deal.
Once complete, the seismic, unprecedented undertaking will amount to the richest free-agent deal in the history of American sports. Let that soak in for a minute. Chew on those words. Process what that signals.
This was wadding up the narrative, feeding it into a wood chipper and tossing the remains off of Sunset Cliffs.
Suddenly, San Diego pulsed. This meant miles more than a team simply landing a sports superstar. This felt, without hyperbole, transcendent. This was a sunny vacation destination screaming all that condescending little-brother stuff just might end.
San Diego finally seems ready to put up its dukes and fight. The city, through a bold and brash move by its nationally maligned baseball team, shouted that it’s willing to tackle the kind of thing that only really happens in the Bronx, in the front offices neighboring Chavez Ravine, at Fenway Park or the corner of Clark and Addison in Chicago.
“This is our 50th year of Padres baseball,” managing partner Peter Seidler said at the team’s spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz. “Ron (Fowler, Padres executive chairman) and I, we love the city of San Diego. We love sports in San Diego, but we’re also well aware of the history. There’s never been a championship for a major sports franchise in San Diego. In 49 years so far, the Padres have been to the playoffs five times. We, our organization, starting with Ron and myself, want to completely change that.
“We want our franchise to win year after year after year, and we’re going to do whatever we can rationally do to help make that happen.”
Words, suddenly and jarringly, became action. Doubters, stunned silent.
This felt so remarkably out of place and character for a city still bruised by the loss of the NFL’s Chargers. Our stadium, decaying in front of our eyes. Our sports allegiances, irrelevant or in ashes. Our collective history shared at tailgates and ticket booths, with Gwynn and Garvey and Sid Gillman, shaken to the root system.
As crazy as this might sound, the Machado deal — in terms of what it says to the rest of the country, well beyond the daily lineup card — ranks up there with the Padres building Petco Park.
One, a game-changer for downtown and a city. The other, a game-changer for a franchise and city craving something, anything to emotionally invest in without fear of Lucy yanking away Charlie Brown’s financial football.
“I think you’ve got to be sure to give ownership sufficient credit for taking this bold a move and this big a risk — because it’s both,” said Larry Lucchino, the president and CEO emeritus of the Red Sox who filled those same roles for the Padres when he orchestrated the existence of Petco Park.
“This shows a commitment to winning.”
The tea leaves had swirled, aromatic yet lacking enough proof for a city’s full and unquestioned buy-in.
There was the record deal signed by Wil Myers, followed by the deal for Eric Hosmer that dwarfed it. There was the nearly $80 million spent in the international market by a franchise that never had invested more than $5 million in a single signing, period.
Naysayers, and they’ll always be out there, will swear the Padres overpaid. They’ll predict the price tag on T-shirts and hats will balloon. They hand-wring themselves raw about what ticket prices might look like when real contending baseball arrives.
The most maddening thing will be fans flaming those kind of can’t-win arguments. Either you want the Padres to open the wallet and try, or you don’t. Either you demand real effort and financial might, or you don’t. Don’t complain, though, about the slumping payrolls of the past and the big spend now.
If anything, the persistent pessimism about the organization’s willingness to hammer the ATM in pursuit of baseball’s biggest prizes ends now.
“It says that’s in the past,” said Steve Garvey, the former Padre and Dodger who generated similar buzz when late owner Ray Kroc cobbled together enough Big Mac money to lure him to San Diego in December 1982. “It’s a statement. It’s a validation, to the fans.
“You can put all those (commitment) questions to the side now. From this day forward, move forward.”
This is what happens to the Padres and San Diego, not vice versa. The Dodgers plucked away pitcher Kevin Brown, making him baseball’s first $100 million man in late-1998. Two decades later, Los Angeles yawned, yet ended up with the Chargers. Envision the sweetness of a scene where Machado is pounding baseballs into the Dodger Stadium parking lot against his former team and your hated rival.
The script, wildly flipped.
Petco Park changed perceptions in this city. The deal with Machado, in its own way, pretzels conventional thinking about San Diego as well.
“Petco is a great rock on which to build the church,” Lucchino said. “I think Peter and Ron see it that way. If you get the right kind of ownership, leadership, facility, market and climate, all of a sudden, you have the key ingredients for success.
“I’d like to urge my San Diego friends to keep their expectations under control. This is one transaction. It needs to be coupled by player development, advancement and other steps.
“But it is a big and bold step, make no mistake about that.”
Machado guarantees nothing, of course, in a sport where you’re one injury away from collapse. He has skeptics to calm in terms of his hustle and presence in the clubhouse. And in a competitive sense, the Padres surely need a front-line pitcher or two to end an ugly postseason drought dating to 2006.
In a city saddled with a reputation for a paralyzing inability to get things done, the Padres decided to it was time to shatter expectations, dream big and rush into the baseball breach.
For real this time.
And now, a city’s along for what just might be a wild ride.