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How the Padres Won a City

A legacy of frustration, a football void, a pandemic, and an owner with gall led to the perfect baseball storm
Padres, hero

Moments after the Padres’ 2022 National League Division Series win against the Dodgers, Manny Machado and more than 450,000 fans let out the collective cry of phoenixes rising from the ashes of a decades-long legacy of almost.

The Padres are the most exciting sports team on the planet. If that’s not objectively true—seeing as how other continents and soccer exist—it is in our hearts. And in no way, shape, or form were us fans emotionally prepared for this. “Act like you’ve been here before,” they say. Apologies, but we can’t because we haven’t. We’re clapping a bit too loud. Laughing in nervous bursts. Fist-bumping at dad frequencies.

Because it’s been a long, grueling ride to get here.

Growing up a Padres fan was like watching the asteroid pierce the earth’s atmosphere and still raising your “Go Dinosaurs!” foam finger. Each season it felt like part of MLB’s opening ceremonies was the mathematical elimination of our team from the playoffs. Most of our modern lineups consisted of Tony Gwynn, a couple talented young players on entry-level salaries who were contractually obligated to lend us their skills for the sake of parity (a stint with us was like a tour in the Peace Corps), a once-legendary veteran doing a retirement tour on half of one healthy knee and a quarter of a rotator cuff, and some other nice chaps with gloves.

Every year, US media would flash the names of the biggest free agents. Padres fans would kiss sacred rocks, pull muscles from all the praying, promise to be better humans if the gods would just grant us just one Machado. And every year the Dodgers and Yankees outbid us with a chortle and split those stars evenly.

So, San Diego sportswriters became pros at stories about the “untapped potential” of players on our team. How, if all the stars aligned and the earth’s gravity shifted a touch and maybe there was a light intervention from Jesus, they could be legends.

One reason San Diegans loved Tony Gwynn so deeply was that he stuck with the Padres despite the inevitability of disappointment. Just like us! We were Tony, Tony was we—lighting each other’s smokes in the foxhole of small market baseball.

At some point, you start to take pride in your identity as an eternal underdog. Your heart suffers from Stockholm Syndrome. The Padres kidnapped your heart at an early age, and you love them despite rational reasons to leave a harshly worded Yelp review and pick a favorite cricket team.

And then… that just all changed in the most drastically positive way. Owner Peter Seidler, CEO Eric Greupner, and GM A.J. Preller have been consistently, repeatedly binge shopping at the superstar store. We’re the Noah’s Ark of choice for elite athletes. And it’s not just one-year rentals. Manny Machado, Yu Darvish, Xander Bogaerts, Fernando Tatis Jr., Joe Musgrove—all are signed to play for the Padres for at least the next half decade.

It’s important for new fans to know these travails, our budget legacy of almost. It’s why this moment in franchise history feels like petting puppies in the sun with a two-beer buzz after your 23andMe test reveals that you’re 80 percent Dave Grohl. Our brains are hot tubs of endorphins.

Padres, fans, paper bags

The disappointment was real. Fans donned paper bags during another 2012 loss.

Two things happened to create a historic opportunity for the Padres. First, the Chargers left to pursue their acting career in LA. The three most popular sports in the US are football (74.6 percent of Americans follow the sport), basketball (56 percent), and baseball (50.5 percent).

With the top two sports out of town, San Diego became a baseball city. The Padres had the chance to own almost every sports heart in town. Ownership probably still could’ve set attendance records without investing so heavily in the product. But if he could seize that opportunity and bring the franchise its firstever World Series win? Local babies of all genders would be named Peter for years to come.

Then a second seismic change created the perfect storm for baseball hysteria: the pandemic. For a while (felt like eons), gathering in public and cheering was deemed unsafe for humankind. And gathering with thousands of people— all of us vibing on the same thing—is one of the most emotionally powerful things we do as humans. It’s why Bon Jovi was invented. That’s why people who don’t even like a sport will go see a live game for the experience, the excited human spectacle.

And the Padres are the biggest mass cheering opportunity in the market. After years of virus-enforced isolation, the emotional release of 45,137 fans losing their shit in unison as the Padres beat the Dodgers in the playoffs… was more than baseball. It was a group reclamation of self and joy.

Whether or not you support spending hundreds of millions of dollars on professional athletes, there is no denying the market has decided that value. No matter your estimation of capitalism, its existence is not in doubt. Occasionally, frugal teams win it all, but you’d have to go back 20 years to find a champ that was bottom-five in spending (2003 Florida Marlins). If you want a sane statistical chance, you gotta be in the top half.

I don’t pretend to know Seidler’s thinking. But from the sidelines, we saw all those things converge—a fanbase that loved a team despite its legacy of apologies, the fan vacuum left by the Chargers, the pent-up need for large-group human bonding from the pandemic—and knew the Padres had a historic opportunity to become the most beloved sports team to ever call San Diego home.

All we needed was ownership with the emotional and financial fortitude to push all its chips to the middle.

And, well. Meet my son Peter.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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