The San Diego Padres had lived a lifeless existence since their founding in 1969. The first thirteen years saw one winning season and no finishes higher than fourth in the six-team NL West. The front office made the decision to hire Dick Williams and three years later the hire bore great fruit, as the 1984 San Diego Padres became the first team in franchise history to reach the World Series.
Williams made his mark in managing when he led the Boston Red Sox to a surprise American League pennant in 1967. Williams then went to the Oakland A’s, where he won the World Series in 1972 and 1973, before leaving over disputes with owner Charlie Finley.
After a disappointing three-year run with the California Angels, Williams then turned the Montreal Expos into a contender from 1979-81. There was no doubting his managerial skill, he quickly made an impact in San Diego, going .500 each of his first two seasons.
The cornerstone of the lineup was a 24-year-old rightfielder by the name of Tony Gwynn, destined for the Hall of Fame and one of the great pure contact hitters of all time. 1984 was Gwynn’s third year in the league. He finished a with a .410 on-base percentage, won the batting title and finished third in the MVP voting.
Gwynn was the star of a lineup that was otherwise fairly pedestrian. Left fielder Kevin McReynolds hit 20 home runs and slugged .465, but the OBP was low, at .317. Second baseman Alan Wiggins was a nice contributor, who ran well at the top of the order and had a .342 OBP, but he was far from a star. Terry Kennedy at catcher and Carmelo Martinez in left were mostly unproductive, as was shortstop Garry Templeton.
The Padres had made two high-profile veteran acquisitions at the corner infield spots over the past two years. Steve Garvey, the first baseman and key part of the Los Angeles Dodger teams that won three pennants and a World Series from 1977-81, came to San Diego in 1983. And for the ’84 season, the Padres got Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles, a part of four pennants and two World Series championships from 1976-81.
Garvey and Nettles brought veteran cache, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for consistent offensive productivity. Garvey was able to drive in 86 runs, but had a poor stat line of .307 OBP/.373 slugging percentage. Nettles hit 20 home runs, but his numbers were .329/.413, nothing that would grab anyone’s attention.
The starting rotation had nice consistency, but lacked a clear ace. Eric Show won 15 games with a 3.40 ERA. Mark Thurmond won 14 games with a 2.97 ERA, while Ed Whitson also won 14 and had an ERA in the low 3s. Tim Lollar’s ERA was under 4 and he won 11 games.
I don’t write this to knock the Padre players, in spite of how it appears. Rather, I point out that to achieve the heights they did is a testament to team cohesiveness, the excellence of Gwynn and the managerial skill of Williams. And nowhere did the skipper get more mileage than out of his bullpen.
San Diego had acquired another veteran of the Yankee championships, closer Goose Gossage, who saved 25 games with a 2.90 ERA. Craig Lefferts and Greg Booker were both excellent in long relief. And Dave Dravecky was one of the unsung heroes of this team. He started 14 games, appeared in 36 more, logged 156 innings and finished with a 2.93 ERA.
The Padres got out of the gate quickly in 1984, starting 14-5 and were a game and a half up on the Dodgers, who had won the division in 1983, and over the previous seven years finished first four times and competed the last day of the season in two others.
The teams played eight games after the hot Padre start and the Dodgers won six, including two shutouts. It looked like nothing major had changed in the landscape of the NL West.
San Diego was muddling along at 21-20 on May 22, when they won 12 of 15 and moved into first place on June 9. It’s safe to say no one was anticipating that the Padres would never let it go. The Dodgers, along with the Braves, who were managed by Joe Torre and had won the NL West in 1982, were still close in San Diego’s rearview mirror. But neither would ever pass the Padres.
On June 11-12, San Diego swept a two-game home set from the Braves. They trailed the opener 4-3 in the ninth, but with two outs, McReynolds and left fielder Bobby Brown each hit RBI singles. The second game was tied 6-6 in the twelfth, when Wiggins walked, stole second and scored on a single by Nettles. The NL West lead was nudged up to three games.
Later in June, San Diego went to Los Angeles and finally started to turn things around against the division’s traditional power. They won two of three, with Garvey tormenting his old team with seven hits in the series. A strong month of July was capped with a home sweep of Los Angeles, including shutouts from Dravecky and Thurmond.
The lead had soared to 8 ½ games on Atlanta, and 13 on Los Angeles, who was collapsing hard. Any hope the Braves had of getting back in the race was squelched when the Padres managed to split four games in Atlanta in early August and hold serve. The margin would never be closer than 8 ½ the rest of the way, and San Diego’s 92-70 record would mark them as the only NL West team to finish over .500.
Even more memorable moments were ahead in October. The Padres met the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series, and after losing two in Wrigley, San Diego rallied for three straight wins at home (the LCS was in its final year as a best-of-five affair), including a walkoff home run by Garvey in Game 4 and seventh-inning rally in Game 5.
The World Series didn’t go San Diego’s way. It’s this organization’s fate to run into great teams on the occasions they reach the Fall Classic. It happened in 1998 when they had to deal with the 114-win Yankees, and in 1984, the Padres ran into a 104-win Detroit Tiger team that dominated baseball from wire-to wire.
San Diego’s two trips to the World Series have arguably paired them up with the two best teams of the free agency era that started in 1976. This one in 1984 ended with a defeat in five games at the hands of Detroit. But nothing could take away what Williams, Gwynn and some team cohesion had brought to a previously lifeless franchise.