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Sinking fast in the West? Padres say it's just not so

The defending NL champs lost some star power but still have a $48-million payroll.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 1999


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Kevin Towers, leaning back on a bench in the visiting manager's locker room, smoothed out a rough spot on his cowboy boots as he tried to explain what has happened to the San Diego Padres.

Manager Bruce Bochy and reporters listened, which is more than Padres fans are doing.

The city's newspaper frequently runs letters to the editor slamming Towers, the team's general manager, and the Padres. Fans are smarting over what many believe is another fire sale by a defending National League champion.

The Florida Marlins one year. The Padres the next.

But Towers is not buying the comparison. He even is critical of the notion that, like the Marlins, the defending NL champs are having a fire sale. Rightfielder Tony Gwynn is on Towers' side.

"They just gave guys away," Gwynn said. "We're at least getting guys in return."

But look at who is gone. Third baseman Ken Caminiti, the 1996 NL MVP, and centerfielder Steve Finley signed richer deals with Houston and Arizona, respectively. Kevin Brown, an 18-game winner, signed with the hated Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Padres also traded 13-game winner Joey Hamilton to Toronto, and Mark Sweeney and Greg Vaughn and his 50 home runs to Cincinnati.

Still ...

"Our payroll to start the year is a franchise record $48-million," Towers said. "That's what is bothering me. We are not having a fire sale."

But fans feel duped, especially after voting for a new stadium last year. The vote was held during the pennant drive.

"I feel sorry for the fans," pitcher Andy Ashby said. "I hope they don't take it out on us. I'm sure they feel like, "So we got them their stadium, and now that they got what they want, the heck with the fans.' But that's not the way it is."

Towers defends every move. He said he offered Brown $60-million for six years but could go no higher: "Remember, we are still a small-market team, and people forget that."

Plus, he said, it would have made no sense to mortgage the team on a contract for a 35-year-old pitcher.

As for the others who were offered raises before being traded, Caminiti is 36 and has been injury prone, and Finley, 34, hit .249 last season as his average dropped for a third straight year.

In their place are players Towers thinks are superstars in the making: George Arias and Ruben Rivera.

The trades brought in Woody Williams from Toronto and Reggie Sanders and Damien Jackson from Cincinnati.

The Vaughn trade raised the most eyebrows. Vaughn did hit 50 home runs last year, Towers said, but fans wanted to run him out of town the year before after he hit .216 with 18 home runs.

Towers essentially is gambling that Sanders, faster and a better defensive player than Vaughn, will return to his 1995 level -- .308 average, 28 homers, 99 RBI -- and that Vaughn will return to his 1997 form.

Gwynn, though, said he doesn't understand the Vaughn deal. "Fifty home runs," he said, "is 50 home runs."

Even Rose Lucchino, the 82-year-old mother of Padres president Larry Lucchino, called her son for an explanation.

Still, Bochy agrees that the Padres are not the Marlins.

"We made some changes, but it wasn't so much our decisions as the players' decisions. That's part of the game," he said..

"We aren't going to lose 100 games."

Now if only the Padres can convince their fans of that.

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