A Lot of Character and a Lot of Characters
Nearly a quarter-century after the team’s exhilarating first appearance in a World Series, the San Diego Padres’ class of ’84 recalls the chemistry and the character that made them a part of baseball history
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DRIVING FROM YUMA, ARIZONA, to Palm Springs for the Padres’ final spring training game of 1984, Alan Wiggins and Tony Gwynn shared a thought. Given their team’s forlorn history, it seemed more flight of fancy than possibility.
“I remember Alan saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could get to the World Series this year?’ ” Gwynn recalled on an afternoon 24 years later. “And me nodding, like it was a reasonable suggestion.
“We were young—kids, really. But we’d made the major leagues, so anything seemed attainable. Realistically, though, we had a first baseman [Carmelo Martinez] playing left field, two inexperienced guys [Kevin McReynolds and Gwynn himself] in the other two outfield spots, an outfielder [Wiggins] at second base, no proven third baseman and starting pitching that wasn’t going to blow anyone away.
“We did have leaders. [General manager] Jack McKeon had added Steve Garvey the year before and signed Goose [Gossage] in the fall. Both were proven winners. And when we reached Palm Springs, there sat our third baseman. Graig Nettles had just been acquired. I said to Alan, ‘He might be the piece we’re missing.’ ”
They also had a manager, Dick Williams, who insisted the game be played correctly and had his young talent on a fast track toward that goal.
“Several of us had been playing all nine innings during spring training games, which was unusual,” Gwynn says. “And he was on us for every mistake. I listened, because the last thing I wanted was to have that man upset. And because of him, I learned to play the game.”
Gossage says, “That team was better than most people realized, a nice mixture of veterans and guys coming into their own. Most fans didn’t appreciate Garry Templeton because he made everything look so easy, but he was the best shortstop I ever saw. McReynolds had a ton of talent; if he’d had any passion for the sport, he’d have set records. We didn’t have a hammer among the starting pitching, but four guys won in double figures [Eric Show, 15-9; Mark Thurmond and Ed Whitson, both 14-8; Tim Lollar, ll-13]. The bullpen was solid.”
Far from explosive when contrasted with the steroid-boosted totals of recent seasons (Nettles and McReynolds led in home runs with 20 each, Garvey in RBIs with 86), the offense drew life from its ignition system.
“I still can see those two running,” Gossage says. “Wiggins would lead off with a walk or slap the ball into a hole, steal second, and Tony would drive him home. We’d be ahead 1-0 before the other team settled in.”
Statistics support Gossage’s memory. In that breakout season, Gwynn’s batting average soared to .351. Wiggins drew 75 walks and stole 70 bases.
“All they were really lacking before that season began were a third baseman and closer,” says Gossage, “and they got two good ones.”
Nettles and Gossage brought more to the mix than a solid glove and a frightening mound presence.
“They brought attitude, an expectation of winning,” recalls Terry Kennedy, the starting catcher. “They’d been with the Yankees, so they knew how to handle pressure. Just watching them helped our young guys relax.”
They also brought humor. “My locker was near Puff’s [Nettles], and I spent most of the summer doubled up, laughing,” says Gwynn. “It was infectious. They even had T.K. [Kennedy] smiling, and he’d been our official gloom-and-doom guy.
“The looseness, the attitude carried over to the playing field. Goose would tell us, ‘You guys get a lead, get it to me, and I’ll take you to the promised land.’ Usually, he did.”
TALES OF HOW the boys of that summer tormented one another are spread throughout the recollections. Thurmond remembers that he and pitcher Dave Dravecky—watching as Gossage entered the clubhouse in the early afternoon, made his way to the bathroom area and locked himself in a stall—would take turns dumping a glass of cold water over the top of the closed door. Considering Goose’s size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and intimidating mound demeanor, these could be classified as acts suggesting either courage or suicidal tendencies.
“When we traveled, two things were certain,” says Gwynn. “Goose would be wearing his prized cowboy boots, and we’d be listening to Willie Nelson.” He then recounts details of a trip to St. Louis—beginning with a bus ride from the airport, during which Gossage slept, and reserve outfielder Champ Summers, seated nearby and chewing tobacco, spit the juice on Goose’s boots. Following a game several days later, Summers pulled on a pair of “royal blue pants” and left the locker room without realizing that Gossage had cut away a broad section of the rear. “That was quite a sight,” says Gwynn.
Concluding a conversation in his office at the Lakewood Country Club in Colorado, Lollar suggests, “If you talk to Eddie Lee [Whitson], ask if he’s had any $100 cab rides recently.”
During the late autumns of those years, Gossage hosted elk-hunting parties on a 40,000-acre ranch he owned near Cañon City, Colorado. Regulars included reserve catcher Bruce Bochy, pitchers Lollar and Andy Hawkins, and—on one occasion—Whitson, who strayed from his assigned trio and soon found himself lost, on a cold, windy, rapidly darkening afternoon. Eventually locating a narrow, rural road, Whitson stood alongside, holding aloft a $100 bill until a native driving a Ford Pinto took the bait.
Finally delivered to the lodge where his teammates were merrily supping and sipping, Whitson was in no mood to be badgered, which, of course, happened anyhow—until he exited the room, his anger evident. Calm had been restored the next morning until Bochy, watching as Whitson headed for the door to begin a new day’s hunt, yelled, “Hey, Eddie Lee, got your cab fare?’
“That ripped it,” Bochy recalls. “I don’t think Eddie ever hunted there again.”
Says Garvey, always the erudite analyst: “That was an interesting team—one that had a lot of character and a lot of characters.”
Bochy remarks, “There were factions in the clubhouse. After Show, Dravecky and Thurmond were found to be members of the [ultra-conservative] John Birch Society, Wiggins constantly challenged those guys and their politics—Show, in particular. Those were lively discussions, but nothing hostile. Somehow, we coalesced.”
The Padres of ’84 rode a favorable early West Coast schedule to an early division lead and survived a mid-season slump to win the West. They overcame an 0-2 deficit to capture the National League Championship Series, adding another chapter of gloom to the Chicago Cubs’ desperate history in the process, and—during the franchise’s first World Series appearance—were bludgeoned in five games by a powerful Detroit team. The signature moment would be Dick Williams approaching the mound in the eighth inning with the Tigers leading, 5-4, two men aboard, first base open and Kirk Gibson, already responsible for significant damage, at the plate. Williams ordered an intentional walk.
“But I own this guy,” Gossage yelled. “Let me pitch to him.” Williams relented.
“Dick reached the dugout and turned around just in time to see the ball Gibson hit disappearing into the upper deck,” Gossage said, during a lengthy conversation at his home late last fall. “I think that’s the last time he spoke to me.” If so, the silence ended early this January, when Williams phoned to congratulate Gossage on becoming the third member of those 1984 Padres to be elected to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame within two years. Gwynn was inducted last summer. Williams will join Gossage on the Cooperstown stage next July.