FRANCHISE OF THE YEAR: SALUTE THE SAN DIEGO PADRES, AMERICA
In a powerful statement to smaller cities throughout baseball, the Fightin’ Friars refuse to let “market conditions” define their existence, going all out in acquiring Juan Soto and aiming for glory
Let the Dodgers or Yankees or Mets win the World Series this fall. They are supposed to win, based on massive resources and empirical status in America’s two mega-markets, and they’ll never inspire the whole of a nation that resents consortiums, hedge funds and pinstripes.
But the Franchise of the Year — a distinction perhaps more important in times when the business of baseball trumps who receives “a piece of metal,” as commissioner Rob Manfred called the World Series trophy — already has been decided in early August.
Parade in Pacific Beach!
After-party in Tijuana!
Turning the presumed advantages of market size and revenue streams on their hackneyed heads, the San Diego Padres are spending fortunes and making blockbuster moves normally expected from teams in Los Angeles and New York. We all should love them for that, too. Having executed the biggest midseason deal in major-league history — for generational force Juan Soto, among a flurry of blurry acquisitions including elite closer Josh Hader, slugger Josh Bell and a useful Brandon Drury — the Fightin’ Friars obliterated the traditional crutch used by gutless teams in smaller places.
They don’t downsize. They don’t rebuild. They don’t trade young stars for kids. They don’t punt on multiple seasons and blame market conditions. The Padres are gunning for a championship, dammit, with Soto and Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. and the rest, which might require beating the Dodgers, Mets AND Yankees in October.
“The atmosphere here is they want to win — not just go to the playoffs but win a World Series,” Hader gushed when his head stopped spinning. “That’s a contagious atmosphere to be a part of.”
“We feel like we’re going to put up a show and it’s going to be really fun to watch,” said Tatis, who soon will return from a broken left wrist. “It’s really hype to be over here.”
“I mean, he’s Juan Soto. He does what he does every day, every year,” Machado said. “Top of the game right now.”
There are 26 metropolitan areas larger in TV market influence than San Diego, which is wedged between Pittsburgh and Baltimore for Nielsen data purposes. The area’s population has grown to 3.2 million, not a behemoth, ranked near Minneapolis-St. Paul, Tampa Bay, Denver and St. Louis. The NFL Chargers fled to L.A. more than three decades after the NBA Clippers took the same Interstate 5 escape route. The natives are blessed with a near-perfect climate, a surf-and-snorkel lifestyle and days that aren’t spent in freeway traffic, unlike the bulging metropolis two hours to the north. The pressure to win a sports championship simply doesn’t exist, despite the fact no local franchise has won one, at least since the Chargers snagged the American Football League crown in 1963. It’s still possible San Diego’s biggest contribution to popular culture is Ron Burgundy, and if you’re too young to get the joke, he isn’t worth looking up.
Through it all, the city has stayed classy and continued its romance with the Padres, the one team that stuck around. And because fans have bought more than 20,000 season tickets, which pushed the team value to $1.6 billion (17th in the majors), City Hall is letting the Padres develop the area around gorgeous Petco Park. Nothing but love is in the air, which has prompted the team’s chairman, Peter Seidler, to approve player payrolls higher than incoming revenue. Seidler is betting on San Diego, the way it should be in sports, and he doesn’t care about the size of the city or that it’s tucked away in a southwestern U.S. corner, bordered by the Pacific Ocean and Mexico. He’s too busy envisioning a World Series, and to enable the dream, he empowered an absolute lunatic as his president of baseball operations and general manager.
A.J. Preller is his name, and the initials must stand for Always Jacked. The way he does his job, he thinks L.A. and New York are the small towns. Once Seidler and the ownership group gave him the OK to make the Padres title-competitive, he hasn’t stopped dealing and spending. Machado got $300 million. Tatis got $340 million. Last weekend, hometown ace Joe Musgrove got $100 million for the hell of it. And now, in a coup that pisses off MLB’s old-guard owners and announces Preller’s intentions to conquer the world, he packaged five of the prospects he so aggressively hones … and outbid the Dodgers and everyone else for Soto.
“You’re talking about a 23-year-old player who won a World Series, won a batting title, is a perennial MVP candidate, at that age,” said Preller, who grew up collecting baseball cards and now collects superstars.
Can the Padres win the Series? “Ooooh. We definitely have the talent, and we have the team to do it,” Tatis said. “Now it’s up to us to put the work out there and make it happen.”
Opponents, including the Dodgers, will face an unforgiving onslaught: Tatis, Soto and Machado at the top of the batting order, followed by Bell. Hader provides ninth-inning lockdown. Musgrove and Yu Darvish front a rotation that includes Sean Manaea and Blake Snell. The Padres won’t be favorites to win it all, but they’ll be the talk of the sport the next two months and then some, assuming they land one of the National League’s three wild-card berths. Certainly, they’ve created anxiety in Chavez Ravine, where baseball boss Andrew Friedman figured he had a beeline on Soto — thinking he could raid the Washington Nationals as he did a year ago, when he acquired Trea Turner and since-departed Max Scherzer.
He was trumped by Preller, who controls one of the best pure hitters since Ted Williams — any objections? — at least through the 2024 season. The initial expenditure will be little more than $60 million, but if Soto loves his new home, what stops the Padres from entering free-agent bidding that will start at $500 million? This is where you think Seidler and Preller, at some point, will realize they’re in San Diego and must be realistic about a Soto/Tatis/Machado future. “Ultimately, we’re looking at it as three years, three pennant races with one of the best hitters, maybe the best hitter in the game,” Preller said. “That’s a long time. … We’ll have time to figure out down the road the long-term commitment. (We) have wanted to do that with elite players, elite people, he’s one of those.” Clearly, Seidler doesn’t care about profit margins like his cost-conscious MLB brethren. Whatever happens in the end, the Padres will be eminently fun to watch, as the most exciting team in a sport that needs conversation pieces. Football is kicking in, yet those Fightin’ Friars are dominating sports talk.
“We set the bar very, very high, and one team exceeded it and that's the deal we made,” said Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, involved in a tragic teardown three years after a World Series triumph. “Props to the San Diego Padres. They're not afraid, and ownership's not afraid and A.J. Preller's not afraid and they were aggressive and we made a deal that you call historical.”
What’s fascinating is that Seidler is the grandson of Walter O’Malley, who moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to L.A., and the nephew of Peter O’Malley, who maintained the Dodger Blue culture that emphasized family over money and elevated the late Vin Scully — a moment of silence, please — to icondom. Now, after watching the likes of Fox Corp., Frank McCourt and the current Guggenheim ownership use the Dodgers as a profit machine — to varying degrees of success — Seidler is attempting to out-Dodger the Dodgers as the Padres’ lead investor. He has stuck by Preller, who hasn’t reached the playoffs in a full season, while the payroll exploded from $95 million in 2019 to more than $200 million, MLB’s fifth-highest in April. After this week’s deals for Soto, Bell, Hader and Drury, that number will soar toward $220 million.
Consider it a staggering statement from what usually has been an irrelevant player in the sports world. Seidler runs a private-equity firm worth more than $3 billion, but make this clear: Steve Cohen, Hal Steinbrenner and the Guggenheim boys, he is not. It’s exactly why he is so endearing.
If we’ve learned nothing in this world these last three years, it’s that life should be experienced with verve and nerve. The San Diego Padres, of all teams, want it all. Why the hell not try?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.