McIlvaine makes mark very quickly with Padres

March 03, 1991|By Bob Nightengale | Bob Nightengale,Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO -- Letters of protest continue to filter into his office. Whispers swirl behind his back. Former employees, players and agents have taken their jabs.

So even after fleeing the streets of New York for the beaches of Southern California, Joe McIlvaine still is waiting to discover paradise.

In less than five months on the job as executive vice president and general manager of the Padres, McIlvaine has stirred up more folks around these parts than anyone since Roseanne Barr.

Thirty-one Padres front-office employees, scouts and coaches have been fired. Roberto Alomar, an excellent second baseman, and Joe Carter, perhaps the most popular player in the Padre clubhouse, have been traded. All-Star catcher Benito Santiago is so enraged by salary negotiations that he threatens free agency after the 1992 season. Big-name free agents were not pursued.

And, no one in his right mind is predicting that the Padres will finish higher than fourth in the National League West.

"I don't think I'll be running for mayor any time soon," McIlvaine said.

McIlvaine, 43, realizes he has an impressive list of adversaries. This is a community that abhors change. And here's a stranger, apparently dismantling the local franchise.

"I don't think it helps, either, that I'm perceived as being from New York, even though I spent 21 years of my life in Philadelphia and eight years in Florida," McIlvaine said. "I don't think people take kindly to New Yorkers."

Even so, McIlvaine refuses to allow hostilities to hinder his decision-making. Whatever people think, he's here to give this city a winner.

The only time he has allowed public sentiment to influence his judgment was in his recent deal with All-Star outfielder Tony Gwynn. He gave Gwynn a $12.25-million contract guaranteed for three years, even though McIlvaine really wanted to guarantee only two.

"He certainly has shown he's not afraid to take a chance," said Bill Lajoie, who retired a month ago as the Detroit Tigers' general manager. "He came in there and made a lot of changes very quickly. I think he surprised some people in this industry with some of the big moves."

McIlvaine appeared perfectly content during his 10 years with the New York Mets, joining them in November of 1980 as their scouting director and becoming their vice president in charge of baseball operations in 1985. He was told that he would be the man eventually replacing Frank Cashen as the Mets' chief operating officer and was willing to wait.

But on June 18, 1989, the day the Mets traded Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the Philadelphia Phillies for Juan Samuel, McIlvaine's world began changing. It turned out to be a horrible trade for the Mets, and the tabloids reminded everyone daily.

Never mind that McIlvaine was the same guy who had virtually stolen Howard Johnson, Sid Fernandez, David Cone, Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling, Walt Terrell, Bob Ojeda and Kevin McReynolds in trades. In New York, you're only as good as your last trade.

"Our manager [Davey Johnson] was pleading with me for two years to get rid of [Dykstra]," McIlvaine said. "We had two center fielders, and it was like he wanted [the front-office] to solve his problems. I'll admit it was a bad trade, but it's like everyone had forgotten what we had done in the past. It didn't seem fair."

Said Al Harazin, Mets senior vice president, "The criticism was not only harsh, but it was cruel. Joe took it hard. I think the '86 championship team had become mythical in a way, and trading someone off that team -- and not being able to repeat again -- there was a lot of frustration."

McIlvaine was sitting with scouts in Philadelphia the weekend of September 7-9, when he was informed that Tom Werner, the Padres' new managing general partner, had been refused permission to interview him about the Padres' general manager's job. McIlvaine was outraged. Sure, he had turned down plenty of other job opportunities, but he at least wanted the courtesy of being allowed to interview. He wanted to talk to Cashen.

"I went in the next week and told Frank that I'd like to be considered for the job," McIlvaine said. "He was taken aback. I think he was hurt because he thought I was going to be the one taking his place in New York.

"The Mets offered me a three-year contract because my contract was up in December, but I just wanted to check this out."

The Padres already had interviewed about six candidates, but none had McIlvaine's qualifications. They were delighted that he agreed to be interviewed. He took a flight to Los Angeles two days after Jack McKeon was fired Sept. 23 and was picked up at the airport by Werner.

"Quite honestly, I was coming out to interview them," McIlvaine said. "I needed assurances that they wanted to win. I knew I could get the job if I wanted it.

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