I paid a visit to Chicago last week for three reasons:
- To escape the lack of extreme heat and humidity prevalent in San Diego this time of year; it was becoming downright comfortable back home
- To avoid hearing any mention whatsoever of the Padres, who are actually a figment of San Diegans’ collective imagination; I’ve been thinking the team should change its name to Snuffleupagi
- To watch the Cubs and Astros play at Wrigley Field, one of baseball’s great temples, and to be reminded that there are at least two teams even worse than the Padres; there is nothing quite so liberating as witnessing awful baseball while not caring one bit about the outcome
Speaking of which, while I was away, the Padres traveled to Miami and swept the Marlins. The Padres, who generally have trouble scoring runs, broke out in a big way. They outscored the Fish, 23-6, during the three-game series.
Padres center fielder Cameron Maybin, acquired from Florida this past winter for a couple of relievers, led the charge. Maybin went 9-for-15 with a double and five stolen bases. He also robbed former teammate Logan Morrison of a home run on Thursday.
Meanwhile, I met up with a few former colleagues at Hardball Times — Chris Jaffe, Harry Pavlidis, and Dave Studeman — to watch the Cubs and Astros play on Friday afternoon. I had been warned of triple-digits heat (temperature, not velocity), but it never materialized.
Game time temperature was 77 degrees, with some cloud cover. It was more humid than back home but very pleasant. Our seats, upper tank on the third-base side of home plate, couldn’t have been better.
The Cubs won, 4-2. As if to make me feel more at home, Houston loaded the bases with one out in the second and third innings, and managed to score a total of one run. I chuckled.
Beyond the history of Wrigley Field and its beautiful view of the Chicago skyline, what struck me most was the size of the crowd, listed at 39,855. Two teams “battling” for last place in the National League Central, weekday afternoon game, heat wave, threat of thundershowers?
I was amazed at the turnout and said as much to Harry, who expressed disappointment at the empty seats. According to the team’s official web site, Wrigley Field holds 41,160.
Petco Park holds 42,445, but as I told Harry, it almost never gets that full. Maybe on Opening Day, or when the Yankees or Red Sox come to town every few seasons.
In fact, the Padres have broken 40,000 at home five times in 50 dates this year — three against the Giants, one against the Dodgers, and one against the Phillies. As we lamented when the Giants came to town last week, several teams draw more of their own fans to Petco Park than do the Padres.
“Because they’re having a bad year?”
No, that’s just how it is in San Diego. I always get strange looks when explaining this to people from cities that support their home team. It’s like we’re speaking different languages.
After the final out was recorded, most of the fans (less than the number announced, which represents tickets sold) stood around for a few minutes and sang “Go, Cubs, Go.” People wore Cubs gear and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get home. They acted like they were glad to be out at the ballpark, supporting their team despite its poor showing this season.
I am pleased and saddened to see a city embrace its team in such manner. Pleased because this is as it should be… saddened because San Diego doesn’t have that relationship with its teams and probably never will.
When I told Harry about the current season ticket numbers (10,300 as of March 2011), he again couldn’t believe it and wondered why. Then I explained that the new ownership group has worked hard to expand the fan base and that this actually represents an improvement over 2010, when the team sold 9,100 season tickets.
Whenever I broach the subject with San Diegans, I am met with defensive assurances that if the Padres spent more money (how much?) and won more games (how many?), folks would support the team. This is usually where the argument ends because they have proven my point without even realizing it, and no amount of further discussion benefits anyone.
On the bright side, because nobody really cares, the pressure on a young player like Anthony Rizzo isn’t as great as it would be in many other markets. Replacing a team’s franchise player isn’t an easy task for anyone, let alone for a 21-year-old with 50 or so games above Double-A.
But Rizzo and his silly numbers at Tucson forced the Padres’ hand. And, as young hitters sometimes will do regardless of their talent, he struggled mightily in his first exposure to big-league pitching.
This was a known risk at the time but one deemed acceptable by the front office. If either of the two imported veteran stopgap options — Brad Hawpe or Jorge Cantu — had done anything, the temptation to push Rizzo might not have been so great.
As it now stands, Rizzo will be viewed by some as a disappointment, as yet another example of a young hyped player that failed to deliver on his promise (or on the promises made by others on his behalf). This is an unreasonable stance to take, of course. History is littered with players who struggled on first arriving in the big leagues.
Some of them never make the necessary adjustments and see their careers fizzle faster than you can say Shawn Abner. Others, like Ozzie Smith, end up in Cooperstown. In San Diego, we have seen young players who “failed” with other organizations come here and thrive — Phil Nevin and Adrian Gonzalez immediately spring to mind… Maybin looks like another.
The upside to sending Rizzo back to the minors is that now he can try to fix whatever is broken in a less demanding environment than the big leagues. Yes, the pressure to succeed in San Diego is lower than the pressure to succeed in other markets, but it does exist.
The downsides are twofold: First and foremost, Triple-A pitching isn’t big-league pitching. We know that Rizzo can dominate the PCL. There is nothing left for him to prove at that level. And in a hitter’s paradise, such as that found in Tucson, even poor process can lead to favorable outcomes (Dante Bichette sends his regards).
I’m not suggesting that Rizzo has poor process, just that in such an environment, it’s almost impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff simply by examining the numbers. They are not a reliable indicator of future performance elsewhere, particularly when “elsewhere” involves facing the world’s best pitchers in a ballpark that destroys left-handed batters.
A secondary concern is that in shuttling Rizzo back and forth between San Diego and Tucson, the Padres risk eroding the young man’s confidence. Given Rizzo’s background (he has survived Hodgkins Lymphoma), I like his chances to emerge unscathed, but you never know.
In Rizzo’s place, the Padres have recalled Kyle Blanks. He and Jesus Guzman, whose Triple-A success has followed him to the big leagues thus far, will split time at first base.
Blanks started the season rehabbing from last July’s Tommy John surgery at Double-A San Antonio, where he hit .282/.353/.475 in 44 games. He moved up to Tucson when Rizzo came to San Diego and, as hitters will do, abused PCL pitching to the tune of .351/.421/.716 in 35 games.
Blanks has played some outfield, but his future is at first base, although probably not in San Diego. With Rizzo having been drafted by the current Padres front office and acquired for the face of the franchise (“Hey everybody, look at what we got for Gonzalez!”), it’s difficult to imagine Blanks being a part of the long-term plan. The Padres must hope that he plays well enough in the second half that they can move him this coming off-season to address areas of greater need.
Meanwhile, Guzman gets a chance to show what he can do at this level. He is likely too old to become a regular but could be a useful weapon off the bench. Those are handy to have, especially at his price.