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It's All in the Game - Still...

FLASHBACK: When the Chicago Cubs came to San Diego a few weeks back to play the Padres, veteran Union-Tribune sports scribe Chris Jenkins waxed nostalgic. It had been a quarter-century, he reminded us, since the Padres had defeated the Cubs to ascend to their first-ever World Series appearance. A handful of stars from that pennant-winning Padres team of yesteryear— including Steve Garvey — were on hand for the 25th anniversary of the legendary series. They were talking baseball players. I was thinking about the mesmerizing effect it had on San Diego’s baseball fans.

If you check the standings as the Pads approach the All-Star break, the chances of a 2009 World Series appearance look bleak. Too bad; San Diegans could use a World Series this year. But “Oh, Doctor!” how we needed it back in 1984. San Diego had not been having a banner year. By October, we had lived through the scandal of the massive ripoff that was the J. David Ponzi scheme. The brutal killings of two young police officers. The indictment of a once-promising young mayor. The massacre of schoolchildren at the San Ysidro McDonald’s. Diversion was definitely in order.

Of course, the Padres team that boasted Garvey and Tempe, Flannery and Bevacqua, Nettles and Show was a glorious one. But our citizens were up to the challenge, too. We were the underdogs going into that championship series with the Cubs, and we relished our role. Baiting by the outtatown media helped, too.

Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko took his potshots from 2,000 miles away, calling Padres fans “lousy wimps” and “laid-back surf rats” who couldn’t appreciate the magnitude of what was happening. When Royko’s syndicated tirade was picked up by the Escondido Times-Advocate, the newspaper invited readers to respond in print. But when editors transmitted the responses to Royko in Chicago, the columnist was not amused. An aide phoned the paper to warn that Royko might pull his column from the T-A. Editor Will Corbin beat him to the punch. He phoned the Chicago Tribune syndicate to advise that the T-A would no longer publish Royko’s column.

Royko, of course, missed an opportunity to see his Cubs in the World Series. The Padres’ playoff comeback sent the Cubs packing and brought the Detroit Tigers to town. Along with the world media. Jim Murray, a very fine sports columnist from up the road in Los Angeles, tried to pick up where Royko left off. But Murray was not from Detroit; his Dodgers were not in the series, and neither was Murray’s heart. What he did was sell a lot of Los Angeles newspapers in San Diego the first day, and then lose the L.A. Times a lot of subscriptions in San Diego the next day.

Of course, the Eastern media were simply clueless about San Diego. The Padres earned only one photo in Newsweek’s special World Series section: a nice shot of Garry Templeton at bat. But most readers wouldn’t know it. The caption said, “National League batting champ Tony Gwynn.” NBC World Series broadcasters Joe Garagiola and Vin Scully talked to a national audience about a hometown controversy. They allowed as how it would be a “shame” if the city took San Diego Union sports editor Jack Murphy’s name off the stadium. Thirteen years and $18 million later, the city sold Murphy’s name off the stadium.

Accident-prone former president Gerald Ford turned up for the Padres’ first World Series game at home, and nobody was hit by a pitch. Maybe that’s because Ford took the ball he was given and handed it to veteran American League umpire Ed Runge to throw out the first pitch. Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton was caught in the stands by TV cameras — one of the few spectators not engaged in the relatively new phenomenon called “The Wave.”

Kurt Bevacqua was the home-run king of the first series game, but Steve Garvey was still hanging on to the hero status he had earned during the playoffs. One enamored Garvey fan — an attractive young woman — spent the night waving a sign with her spiritual message: GOD LOVES US ALL — BUT HE LOVES STEVE GARVEY JUST A LITTLE BIT MORE.

The series was pretty much downhill from there. The Tigers beat us good. But it really wasn’t about whether we won or lost. We won. When the Padres came home from Detroit in defeat, tens of thousands of orderly San Diego fans turned out to cheer them. Detroit fans celebrated their victory, too. They burned a couple of cars during a street riot.

And somebody in Chicago finally found something nice to say about us. Chicago Tribune sports writer Phil Hersh, who took his share of shots at San Diego during the playoffs, wrote when the series was all over: “This is a story of a whirlwind romance, of how a town and a team that had avoided each other for years suddenly fell in love. The courtship was brief, and the relationship may not last, but the San Diego Padres and their city are having an affair to remember.”

It’s good to remember.