On February 24 of this year, I was driving around and listening to Effectively Wild, the seminal baseball podcast hosted currently by The Ringer‘s Ben Lindbergh and FanGraphs writer Jeff Sullivan, when a trivia question was posed (note: the episode was released on February 22; for some reason the Podcasts app says when the episode was heard, so there you go). Lindbergh asked Sullivan, who in addition to being a baseball savant is a former resident of San Diego, who the all-time leader in home runs for the San Diego Padres is. He didn’t know. Before you continue reading further, take a guess.
The name that came to mind for me was Dave Winfield. Winfield ranks fourth. I later texted some baseball-savvy friends of mine the same question, and they guessed Ryan Klesko (6th), Ken Caminiti (7th), and Adrian Gonzalez (2nd). The correct answer, one I theoretically should have known given that I had seen the name of the episode of the podcast, was Nate Colbert.
I had heard the name Nate Colbert before, but admittedly, when I looked up his Baseball Reference page later, I realized that I had been picturing Nate McLouth in my head. As it turns out, Nate Colbert is from St. Louis (he attended Sumner High School) and was the biggest star in the early seasons of the San Diego Padres. Perhaps not knowing Nate Colbert reflects on my ignorance of baseball history, but I feel extremely confident in saying this–it is really weird that Nate Colbert is a Major League franchise’s all-time home run leader. At 163 dingers, Colbert has easily the fewest home runs to lead a franchise (Luis Gonzalez’s 224 with the Arizona Diamondbacks are the second-fewest).
2018 is the 50th season of the San Diego Padres. Teams founded in the 1960s–the Angels, the Senators (now the Rangers), the Colt .45s (now the Astros), the Mets, the Pilots (now the Brewers), and the Padres are stuck in this weird purgatory where, as teams with at least sixty fewer years of history than the sixteen teams which comprised Major League Baseball for the majority of the 20th century, their list of great players cannot compete with even the most lackluster’s depth, but as teams that have existed as long as most fans today can remember, it feels like they should have richer histories.
The greatest player in San Diego Padres history by far is Tony Gwynn. This is true both by popular acclaim and by the numbers–while his reputation arguably exceeds his advanced stats, since Gwynn was a singles hitter and high batting averages tend to be a bit overrated by fans, Gwynn’s career Wins Above Replacement of 69.2 is more than double that of Dave Winfield, with 32.0 WAR. Gwynn would rank fifth in Cardinals franchise history in WAR (behind Musial, Hornsby, Gibson, and Pujols, and slightly ahead of former Padre Ozzie Smith). Winfield would rank 26th.
Tony Gwynn was a delightful player to watch–he wasn’t much of a power hitter (though he ranks fifth in Padres history, because longevity helps), but his ability to avoid striking out was astonishing. Over his career, Gwynn averaged 29 strikeouts per 162 games. In his 20-year MLB career, Gwynn struck out 434 times, fewer times than Randal Grichuk. Gwynn also had San Diego roots, having attended San Diego State University as a two-sport athlete (also playing basketball), and was one of the game’s great ambassadors.
It is wonderful that San Diego has Tony Gwynn, but unfortunately, the rest of their franchise history is admittedly a bit spotty. The closest Cardinal in WAR to Gwynn was Ozzie Smith, which, sure, Ozzie isn’t the greatest Cardinal, but he was awesome, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, charismatic, and so on. But here is the rest of the Padres’ all-time top ten in WAR along with the Cardinal whose WAR is most comparable (to make comparisons easier, I went with batters for batters and pitchers for pitchers).
2. Dave Winfield (32 WAR)–Marty Marion (31.6)
3. Jake Peavy (26.8 WAR)–Chris Carpenter (27.7)
4. Trevor Hoffman (25.8 WAR)–Bill Sherdel (25.7)
5. Andy Ashby (22.6 WAR)–Al Brazle (21.6)
6. Adrian Gonzalez (20.4 WAR)–Tim McCarver (20.5)
7. Andy Benes (20.2 WAR)–Steve Carlton (21.0)
8. Randy Jones (19.9 WAR)–John Tudor (19.9)
9. Gene Tenace (19.8 WAR)–Brian Jordan (20.1)
10. Chase Headley (19.1 WAR)–Tom Herr/Miller Huggins (19.1)
It isn’t a great indicator of the franchise’s success that the winningest manager in Padres history, Bruce Bochy, not only had a losing record, but is infinitely more famous as a three-time World Series winner with the San Francisco Giants. But despite being mostly lackluster, with only 14 winning seasons in their history, the Padres have made the World Series twice, once in 1984 and once in 1998.
True to Padres form, their legitimately excellent 1998 team has been lost to history. The team won 98 games, winning the National League West by 9 1/2 games, but were unceremoniously swept in the World Series by the 114-win New York Yankees. Greg Vaughn hit 50 home runs, a mark which normally would garner tons of attention, but ranked just fourth in Major League Baseball in 1998, and unlike Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, or Ken Griffey Jr., Vaughn never really posed any serious threat to break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record of 61.
The next season, the Padres went 74-88, fielding a team which lacked their two best players from the previous year. Their best hitter, the aforementioned Greg Vaughn was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. And more heartbreakingly, their best pitcher, Kevin Brown, signed in free agency with the Los Angeles Dodgers, in what was the largest contract in professional baseball history to that point.
To lose Kevin Brown in free agency was heartbreaking, but to lose him to the Dodgers was everything Padres fans dreaded. San Diego, as a city, has a one-sided rivalry with Los Angeles, a city which dwarfs San Diego in size and cultural signifiance. As a St. Louisan, I can relate, but at least my city dominated the baseball team from its inferiority-complex city for a long time. San Diego hates Los Angeles so much that Adrian Gonzalez, a native San Diegan who is among the greatest players in Padres history who was (involuntarily) traded to the Boston Red Sox, was booed when he returned as a Los Angeles Dodger (to whom he was also involuntarily traded).
And last year, San Diego lost its football team so that Los Angeles could put a second team in a soccer stadium. San Diego, I get it.
But the most remarkable thing about the Padres’ unremarkable history is that to some people, all of this is important and cherished. One of the dumber bits of conventional wisdom in sports is that a fan base ought to be judged by its quantity–that, say, Dodgers or Cubs (or Cardinals) fans are good because there are a lot of them at games, and that Athletics or Rays (or Padres) fans are bad because there are fewer of them. It is far easier to support a team with a huge fan base because there is an inherent sense of community; Padres fans don’t get that. For half a century, the Padres have, for the most part, given their fans almost no reason to care about them. And yet they do, because, in a sentiment which has increased with the departure of the Chargers, the Padres belong to them.