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The 1998 Padres came out ahead because they were such a tight-knit team. The players even had special nicknames — like "Cousin It," "Beetlejuice" and "Hootie."
With the Padres advancing the NLCS for the first time in 24 years, I’m taking a look back at the 1998 team. The following text is adapted from my book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever.
The Padres players did so much together — they legitimately enjoyed one another’s company. They golfed. They went out to eat. They were a family.
“That team was so close, we could get on anybody anytime during that time. Even Cammy, ’cause you couldn’t always understand him when he started talking,” outfielder Greg Vaughn said.
So they named Ken Caminiti “Cousin It” because of the way he mumbled. Vaughn was “Hootie,” due to his resemblance to Hootie and the Blowfish lead singer Darius Rucker.
“I had T-shirts made up,” Vaughn said.
Tony Gwynn was nicknamed “Gary Coleman,” Kevin Brown was “Beetlejuice,” and coach Rob Picciolo was dubbed “Gilligan” after Bob Denver’s character on the TV sitcom. Steve Finley became “Woodstock” due to his long hair, and Joyner became “Mark Messier,” due to his lack of hair.
After Wally Joyner shaved his head, some of the players started touching their bald heads together.
“Before the games, we just all had a special handshake or something. We’d touch heads or rub heads,” Vaughn said, adding, “Wally is one of the funniest human beings you’ll ever meet in your life.”
As if the Padres needed more personality in 1998, on June 20 they acquired Jim Leyritz in a trade with the Red Sox. Leyritz, a catcher and utility player who carried the inauspicious nickname “the King” (bestowed by Yankees icon Don Mattingly), had an ego like a hot-air balloon, liable to float away if it wasn’t held down by ropes and sandbags. Leyritz had a funky stance—he’d keep his front leg stiff while twirling the bat pre-pitch like he was spinning rain off an umbrella—but whenever the stage was largest, when the lights were brightest, he delivered.
Case in point, American League playoffs, 1995, Yankees-Mariners, Game 2, when his home run in the fifteenth inning won the game for New York. Or the 1996 World Series, Game 4, with the Yankees down 6–3, Leyritz took Mark Wohlers into the bullpen to tie the game, which New York would win 8–6. The Yanks didn’t lose again. He was a good guy to have on your team if you expected to play into October.
In Leyritz’s first game with the Padres, he drove in three runs. He also happened to have experience catching pitcher Sterling Hitchcock, a fellow Yankees product who had bounced between the bullpen and rotation earlier in the year. Bochy pulled Leyritz into his office to see if the King could catch Hitchcock. “I can catch him with my eyes shut,” Leyritz said, and with that, he was catching Hitchcock every fifth day.
As the King reconnected with Hitchcock, the normally outspoken Leyritz (by his own judgment) spent the first month adjusting to the clubhouse.
“I’ve never been one to shy away from trying to be one of the leaders, but I also have to watch my space here, because I don’t want to disrupt the ship that’s going pretty well,” he said of his trade to San Diego. His personality and swagger would come through in time. After he lost a bet to bald-headed first baseman Wally Joyner, Leyritz began shaving his head, too, one more element beyond his 10-ton cowboy hats and car muffler–sized belt buckles that screamed loud.
The King was the brashest backup catcher in baseball, but he could back up all the talk. You’d bring him on because you wanted to win, then tire of his oversized personality, then ship him away and immediately miss him. Which made him a perfect fit for a team entering uncharted territory.