Marked-down Padres Face Uphill Fight

June 20, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — San Diego--It is a community of rolling hills and emerald beaches . . . an area so livable that the 2.6 million residents of San Diego and its suburbs are willing to brave the Big One rather than move to a less desirable location.

So, why won't they put up with the Padres?

The struggling franchise should have the same kind of provincial appeal as the Orioles, but a variety of factors have conspired to sap the club of its financial resources and push it into the bargain basement of professional sports.

The Padres are for sale, and the price is going to shock you. Sources say that the franchise could go for as little as $74 million, perhaps in the next few days. That's $21 million less than the price tag on the two expansion franchises that recently opened for business in Miami and Denver, and it's nearly $100 million less than the ownership group led by Peter Angelos paid for the Orioles last year.

How can this be? How can a major-league franchise in populous Southern California be worth less than an expansion franchise in Colorado? The reasons are so numerous that unpopular owner Tom Werner apparently would rather dump the club than continue to deal with them.

Werner reportedly is involved in negotiations that would turn control of the club over to Malcolm Glazer, the Florida financier who recently came up short in his attempt to put an NFL expansion franchise in Baltimore. If the sale is completed at that price, it would be the most compelling piece of evidence to date that Major League Baseball no longer is the picture of financial health.

Padres officials are saying nothing about the possible sale, but they are quick to concede that the club is fighting an uphill battle on several fronts to remain a viable major-league franchise.

"We have a lot of competition, because of all the things there are to do in San Diego," said general manager Randy Smith, "and geography is not a plus."

San Diego is the nation's ninth-largest city, but it might as well have a wall built around it. There is the Mexican border to the south. The desert to the east. The ocean to the west. To the north, there are two more major-league baseball teams, one of them close enough to vie for the fans in the affluent northern section of San Diego County.

The natural and economic boundaries have made it difficult for the Padres to regionalize and, therefore, have kept them from realizing the kind of revenues (both in-house and broadcast) that support other teams in seemingly similar markets.

Perhaps a new stadium would help -- and that has been discussed -- but the Padres are locked into an ironclad lease at Jack Murphy Stadium that doesn't run out until the turn of the century.

Then there is the image problem. The club traded off superstars Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield last summer and alienated a significant segment of their core fan following.

Geography. Strike one.

Economics. Strike two.

Image. Strike three.

That's why the franchise is selling itself so cheap, but not all of those necessarily are long-term problems. The Padres were drawing close to 2 million fans per year until attendance began to decline in 1990. It dropped off sharply last year and remains soft, but history shows there are enough baseball fans in the area to keep the team viable.

"Last year was a disaster," Smith said, "but I think we're moving in the right direction. The city will respond if the product is good. We're never going to be a Chicago or St. Louis, but this city will support baseball."

The fans are going to need some convincing. The departure of McGriff and Sheffield was followed closely by rumored trade talks involving pitching ace Andy Benes, the one player the Padres might be able to build a future around. Smith insists that Benes isn't going anywhere, but the 1993 cost-cutting campaign left the fans skeptical of anything coming out of the front office.

The Padres are the worst draw in the major leagues, despite an adequate stadium and weather Baltimoreans can only dream about. The worst record in the National League hasn't helped, but marketing director Don Johnson says the major challenge is restoring public confidence in the organization.

"We've coined it 'disconnecting with the fans,' " Johnson said. "We don't feel they've gone away, but there seems to be an underlying boycott against our ownership. They [the fans] have been staying away. It has really been a challenge."

To bring them back, the club has embarked on a marketing campaign that meets the image problem head-on and addresses the criticisms of disgruntled fans.

"We went into the marketplace with real images," Johnson said. "We used two actors playing fans and being very honest about the situation. What we wanted to do was look at the situation through our fans' eyes. It's really directed at winning them back. We realize what happened last year. We're not disguising it."

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