Winning and attendance have been major problems for the expansionist Padres this season. The problems are directly related. The Padres haven’t been winning because they don’t have the established players to compete in the National League. And a major reason for their modest attendance has been the anonymity of the young, inexperienced club. Buzzie Bavasi took a calculated gamble when he decided to draft with the future in mind at the National League expansion draft last fall. He knew the Padres wouldn’t win much for the first couple of seasons, but figured a policy of building around promising, young players was the best. Unlike Montreal, which went for established players, San Diego set a course for the future with fuzzy-cheeked youngsters. The average age of the Padres’ original 30 drafted was 24.
Bavasi hoped San Diego fans would go along with his youth movement. How many Padre baseball fans had heard of names like Nate Colbert, Johnny Sipin, Tommy Dean, Ed Spiezio, Ivan Murrell, Clarence Gaston, Van Kelly, Larry Stahl, Al Santorini, Steve Arlin, etc. until this season? The only “name” players on the San Diego roster when the season started were Tony Gonzalez, Al Ferrera, Dick Selma, Al McBean, and Johnny Podres. Of those five, only one remains – Ferrera.
“I’m convinced we’re right in going with the kids,” said Bavasi when the season started. “I hope our fans will be patient.” The fans have been patient, but they’ve been few in numbers. For the first 36 dates in San Diego, the Padres drew 353,487 – an average of 9,819 per opening. At that rate, the club would draw less than 800,000, the figure Bavasi listed as the “break-even” point in the first-year operation. Privately, Bavasi is somewhat disappointed at the reception accorded major league baseball in San Diego, but he’s not pushing the panic button.
San Diego is unique among the expansion cities. Major league baseball is no novelty in California’s third largest metropolis. For over ten years, San Diegoans have been able to travel 120 miles up the coast to Los Angeles to watch major league action. And with the Angels’ move to Anaheim, some 90 miles north, it was less than a two-hour drive to see big league baseball. So, when the Padres went major, there wasn’t a rush to beat down the gates at San Diego Stadium. Probably the most disappointing aspect of the Padre attendance has been the failure of the Dodgers and Giants to draw big here. The attendance for the intra-state series rivalries have been about half what Padre management had expected.
If it’s an consolation to Bavasi and the rest of the Padres during these days of empty seats, it can be pointed out that San Diego’s first major league team, the Chargers of the American Football League, weren’t welcomed either with filled stadiums when they first came to town. But, slow, steady growth, spurred by winning, interesting teams, has mad the franchise successful. It’ll take patience from both the Padres and fans if major league baseball is to succeed in San Diego.