Without 1998, San Diego might not be experiencing 2022
“If we wouldn't have had success that year, Petco Park may not exist.”
Fans waving a sea of yellow towels. Fireworks and tension with every pitch. The San Diego Padres playing deep into October.
Tuesday’s start to the NLCS might have looked a lot different—and taken place elsewhere—if not for the last Padres team to make a long playoff run.
Without 1998, San Diego might not be experiencing 2022.
That year’s Padres team was built meticulously over a span of five seasons to complement Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre, who’d been with the team since the 1980s. Trevor Hoffman was acquired in a 1993 trade that sent Gary Sheffield to the Marlins. Andy Ashby came from Colorado. Joey Hamilton rose through San Diego’s farm system to become a steady starter. Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley were plucked away from Houston in 1994. Bip Roberts was sent packing for first baseman Wally Joyner. Greg Vaughn was acquired in 1996 from Milwaukee. Quilvio Veras and Sterling Hitchcock came over from trades with Florida and Seattle.
And then the Padres went all-in during the 1997 off-season, acquiring ace Kevin Brown from the World Series champion Marlins. Brown would be a free agent after the 1998 season.
There was urgency for the Padres to win, and now.
Weeks after the end of the 1998 season, San Diego voters would be considering a ballot measure, Proposition C, to approve a ballpark and ensure that the Padres would stay in the area for decades to come.
If the vote failed, the Padres could wind up leaving town.
PROP C AUTHORIZING REDEVELOPMENT AND A BALLPARK. Shall an ordinance be adopted authorizing the City of San Diego to enter into agreements to redevelop an area of downtown, and construct a multiple use ballpark, provided that: 1) the City's participation requires no new taxes, is capped, and also limited to redevelopment funds and an amount equivalent to certain hotel tax revenue; and 2) the San Diego Padres guarantee substantial private contributions, pay all ballpark construction cost overruns, and play in San Diego until 2024?
Owner John Moores wanted to make the team profitable, and the public funding could help balance the books, especially since the team’s contract with Qualcomm Stadium was coming to an end. The proposed ballpark was the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization project.
“There was a lot on the line, and we'd taken our payroll to an all-time high,” former Padres GM Kevin Towers told me in a 2015 interview of the Padres’ $53 million payroll.
“We knew we were probably going to take a (financial) loss, but we knew that for Proposition C to go through, we needed to probably go very deep into the playoffs, and for baseball to continue to exist in San Diego, we were going to need a new venue. Qualcomm was old, and probably wasn't going to work long-term.”
Executives also suggested at the time that approval of Prop C could help to sway free agents to play in San Diego.
"Free agents are looking for long-term stability in a franchise and for significant remuneration," president/CEO Larry Lucchino told reporters in 1998. "Both of those are made more possible by the success of Prop C."
Baseball’s playoffs are the ultimate crapshoot, as this year’s Padres and Phillies teams can attest.
The all-in 1998 Padres survived a gauntlet of tough teams in Houston and Atlanta to reach the Fall Classic for only the second time in team history.
On the heels of the World Series run, the city had Padres fever at the perfect time.
Prop C ended up passing by a 60% to 40% margin—the vote that led to Petco Park’s creation. It was a jubilant moment. The Padres were staying in San Diego!
“That ‘98 ballclub and guys like Ken Caminiti played a large part in Petco Park,” Towers told me. “Without that ‘98 club, if we wouldn't have had success that year, Petco Park may not exist.”
But as it turned out, some of the key players instrumental in the team’s success—and crucial to the approval of Prop C—wouldn’t be returning.
Brown signed with Los Angeles to a seven-year, $105 million pact, a figure the Padres were nowhere close to matching (San Diego begrudgingly offered Brown $60 million).
Moores at the time called the signing "a truly tragic day for baseball," suggesting the small market Padres wouldn't be able to compete with deep-pocketed teams like the Dodgers.
Caminiti returned to the Astros, Finley joined the Diamondbacks, and Greg Vaughn was traded to the Reds.
The defending National League champs—fielding a team featuring the likes of Reggie Sanders, Phil Nevin and George Arias—sunk to fourth place in the standings at 74-88.
The fire sale was disheartening for players. They weren’t ready to see the nucleus of the 1998 team broken apart.
“That was the hardest thing I think I ever went through in baseball,” Greg Vaughn told me in an interview for my book on Caminiti.
“I would have took less money to stay there … I felt like in ‘98 I did everything I could and everything the right way to deserve to come back. And I get traded. It was like a slap in the face to me. I didn't understand.”
The situation left a bad taste in Finley and Caminiti’s mouths, too.
“We were lied to, just like the public,” outfielder Steve Finley told reporters in 1999.
Lucchino pushed back at Finley’s accusation at the time, calling it “ludicrous” and “misguided” and saying “A vote for Prop C was never a promise to return every free agent we had. It was a vote to keep baseball in San Diego.”
Caminiti was more pointed in his criticisms of Lucchino.
“Larry Lucchino has no people skills. He’s the money man. He’ll do anything for money. It’s around the whole clubhouse. Larry puts a damper on things. A lot of people there are unhappy,” Ken told Bloomberg News Service.
The team’s downturn was also disappointing for fans who believed that the passage of Prop C would ensure that the Padres would field a competitive team.
“I just kept waiting and I kept waiting and I kept waiting and I kept waiting for them to replace them,” Padres fan Andy Bartsch told me. Other players cycled through in the coming seasons, some better than others. Ryan Klesko. Brian Giles. Mark Loretta. But the magic wasn’t the same, even after Petco Park, a jewel of a ballpark, opened in 2004.
The team plunged into an abyss after the Padres allowed the Giants to steal away manager Bruce Bochy after the 2006 season. While Bochy won three championships with a division rival, San Diego went 14 years without reaching the playoffs.
After all of his success, Bochy still wished he had had another chance to win with the core of that 1998 team.
“You know, there's things that you look back at in your career that you wish you could have changed, and that was one of them for me,” Bochy told me two years ago. “That 1998 team, if we could have kept it together, we were good. We were really good. I mean, we had some men on that team. Brown and Caminiti and Vaughn, Wally Joyner, everybody. Quilvio Veras, Finley ... I remember talking to (Giants GM) Brian Sabean when I first came up to San Francisco in 2007, and we're talking about that ‘98 team, and he said, ‘you know, we looked across the field in spring training at your club. We knew you guys were gonna win this division.’
“I would've loved to have had another couple of years, you know, cause I think that window was still there for us to get back. But unfortunately, it didn't happen and we ended up dealing with some really difficult years.”
Just like the park’s construction, the team’s rebuild took a long, long time.
The Padres finally have a team befitting of that ballpark, a team that matches the energy and excitement of 1998. And breaking through in 2022 offers opportunities to look back. Prior to Tuesday’s Game 1, Vaughn, Finley and Tony Gwynn Jr. threw out the first pitches, a celebration of the Padres’ last great playoff team.
Thankfully for this year’s squad and for San Diego’s long-suffering fans, there’s no vote to stress about—and the Padres’ core is under contract for years to come.