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San Diego Padres: Hell’s Bells and Heath Bell

Whenever true baseball fans discuss the San Diego Padres, they attribute many things to the team from America’s Finest City.

It could be the fact that they have never won the World Series. It could be their ballpark and how its mere size could host the entire Wild Animal Park. Some people will eagerly point to Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre himself. Cynics will recall the old brown uniforms and how the Friars couldn’t have looked more ridiculous in hot pink or if they all took the field in San Diego Chicken costumes.

One thing that has not been connected to the Padres has been that disease that befalls many franchises at some point, which is an overwhelming need for a closer.

In fact, you’d have to hire an archaeologist to dig for any evidence that the Padres were ever in need of one. 

There was Rollie Fingers featuring his handlebar mustache, Goose Gossage with his Fu Manchu, Craig Lefferts and his mad dash from the bullpen, Cy Young award winner Mark Davis, cigarette smoking Rod Beck, Trevor Hoffman and Hell’s Bells and finally, Hoffman’s direct descendant, “Blow me away” Heath Bell.

Whatever the baseball fan may or may not list concerning the woes of the San Diego Padres, an issue with the closer has never been one of them. It’s a mechanism that’s been as automatic as the sun setting in the West or tourists flocking to Pacific Beach. Although I will not bother with the stats here, there is little doubt that San Diego ranks near the top for converted save opportunities over its history.

Enter Heath Bell, heir apparent to legend and all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman.

Now in his fifth year with the Padres, Bell needed to wait until the tender age of 31 and Trevor Hoffman’s virtual dismissal from the Padres to flex his muscle and pump his mid-90s heat past baffled hitters in late innings. Through it all, Heath Bell never complained, raining numerous accolades on his now retired predecessor.

When his chance finally arrived in 2009, Heath Bell ran with it.

He is the direct opposite of Trevor: Whereas Bell throws a heavy fastball, Hoffman’s would have had trouble cracking a windshield. Hoffman’s out pitch would be the change-up, no doubt his ticket to Cooperstown when five years will have passed. Bell gets batters with heat or his curve. Fans marveled at Hoffman’s physique, whereas Bell at times resembles a float at Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

What both players do have in common is a 41-game save streak, tops in franchise history.

Bell’s streak came to an end last night at Petco, courtesy of a two-run throwing error by third baseman Chase Headley, who threw away Heath Bell’s shot at history.

If there is one thing that might trump Heath Bell’s ability, then it is his character. The undisputed leader of the Padres’ bullpen (dubbed the “Penitentiary”), Bell showed a tremendous amount of class following the game, citing the two batters he’d walked earlier in the inning as the key for the streak buster rather than Headley’s obvious spike of the baseball.

It’s hard not to root for a guy like Heath Bell.

A San Diego county native, Bell ironically made his debut against the Padres, pitching two innings with three strikeouts for the New York Mets in 2004, seven years after he’d been drafted. In 2006, he would get his big break when the Mets traded him to the Padres where he would become their setup man in the eighth inning before Hoffman would close games out.

As guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Ozzie Smith before him can attest, being a star in San Diego ultimately has the predictability of what happens to a target when Seal Team Six breaks into your house.

With Heath Bell making a whopping $7.5 million this season, his continued employment in San Diego beyond the season is as likely as the city of San Diego purchasing snowplows for weather related emergencies.

No matter which way the ball bounces, San Diego is fortunate to have a player like Heath Bell; a leader, a tremendous athlete and a class act.

The city will certainly be a worse place without him.  

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San Diego Padres and Petco: The Blunder by the Bay

31 years after the Summer of Love, Major League Baseball decided to stage a little summer smoochfest of their own in 1998.

This would find full grown adults in colorful clothes who would consume illegal drugs to their hearts’ desire, all under the approving eye of both the owners and the commissioner. McGwire in Cardinal red would amicably bump chests with Sosa in Cub blue, and all was right with the world.

The Padres would win their second National League pennant. Never mind that they would be swept by the pinstriped Yankees in the series. Although this may have been the Summer of Love: MLB Edition, the fine print clearly stated that although peace may guide the planet, MLB would not assume liability if this did not rid said planet of evil empires.

Padres ownership would eventually try to ride the success of the 1998 pennant to the acquisition of a new state-of-the-art home that would be built in downtown San Diego, courtesy of voter approval and the ensuing taxpayer money, if the constituents were successfully duped. With management’s mission finally accomplished, it was time to stick it to the ballparks’ opponents and to the one class occupying the next rung above them on the social ladder: Padres fans.

No one will forget the fire sale that immediately followed the vote, sending the grand majority of our  pennant winning needle heads to a place where they could be adequately compensated for their services. Caminiti? Bye, bye. Greg Vaughn? See ya. Kevin Brown? Can’t pay you, maybe the Dodgers? Steve Finley? Adios.

Back then, people were furious. Long before people actually knew there was a ’98 Summer of Love.

But hey, at least there would be the new ballpark in a few years as a souvenir. Whereas New York had the House that Ruth built, San Diego now had Petco Park, the House that Roids built.

To be fair here, this was the beginning of a downtown revival. If there were ever doubts about whether San Diego was America’s Finest City in the last century, there are arguably none now.

An area that had formerly been known for its old dilapidated warehouses and its streets that made Skidrow look like Main Street in Disneyland had received a facelift without the Hollywood plastic surgeons and the Botox. More than ever, it’s not hard to see why San Diego tourists fall in love with the city.

Of course, the only people who would get fleeced in the deal were Padres fans.

Besides the aforementioned firesale all but eliminated any chances they might have remotely had of defending the pennant in ’99, management quickly figured out years later that they had blundered again.

Suddenly the Q (I still refer to it as the Murph) didn’t seem like such a bad place and felt like a launching pad compared to Petco, baseball’s answer to the Grand Canyon that required rocket launchers to send balls over the fences. Players, in particular popular lefthanders like Ryan Klesko and Brian Giles, complained how their numbers had decreased along with their earning potential. Now it appeared the juicers that had left San Diego were needed back in the worst way. 

To be perfectly clear here: there are certainly fair weather fans that will only come off the beach and stow away their surfboards if a superior product is served. These are the fans that come in droves in September once they see the Padres have a realistic chance of winning. These are still the fans who would not shed a tear over their fish tacos if the Padres left town. When the Friars do have a chance that late in the season, you can even see the seagulls on Ocean Beach Pier wearing Pads caps.

But then there are the diehard fans, the Padres fans who are as fiercely loyal to their team as any fans in the nation. Each and every one of these can personally take credit for the literally unheard of supersonic boom that reverberated throughout the city during the 1984 and 1998 playoff runs. These are the fans who have been to the games through numerous miserable 100 loss seasons, especially during the Kroc years.

These are the fans who seem to have a lifetime subscription to Fleeced Magazine.

And they deserve better.

In 1998, management claimed they would need the new ballpark for the added revenue, that they could only remain competitive with the additional luxury boxes and that ownership in its current form was picking fish bones out of the dumpster to survive. 

Fast forward to the year 2011. The Padres rank near the bottom of the pack in payroll, the new revenue has been lost somewhere in the vast power alleys of Petco and free agent players will scour Japan and Cuba for professional contracts before watching their careers take a Greg Louganis-like dive into obscurity in a place like Petco. Did management ever consider having people hit a few balls before measuring for the new ballpark? Maybe checking the winds and the air humidity? How about tossing a few feathers up in the air?

After all, who besides the fans would care? Remember them? The people who buy the tickets?

All we can offer them is subpar product featuring retreads and costing less than 40 mil?

To ownership and management, we can only tweak the lyrics from a different song of the 60’s.

All we are saying is give the fans a chance.

They deserve that much.

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