|Cameron Maybin and the Padres have the worst record in the NL, but that's only one problem. (US Presswire)|
SAN DIEGO -- "Ladies and gentlemen, I suffer with you. ..."
If there were a real, live owner of the San Diego Padres these days, maybe he would sound something like that.
Instead, John Moores, who tried to dump the team but was sucked back in, is around the ballpark only slightly more than Ray Kroc, the beloved old owner who is credited with saving baseball in San Diego. And Ray Kroc has been dead since 1984.
It was a thoroughly exasperated Kroc who infamously (and comically) picked up the public-address microphone during the Padres' home opener in 1974 and began a tirade with those words, smack in the middle of a game with the Astros. Maybe it wasn't one of his proudest moments, but it was one of the most honest in club history.
The Padres will do that to a man. Drive him to do out-of-his mind things. The ballclub's past careens almost exclusively between lovably wacky and nail-chewing exasperation.
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Now, less than a month into a 2012 season already draining out to the ocean, the Padres are back in the theater of the absurd.
With ownership in flux since early in 2009, gorgeous Petco Park has become Bleak House, and the Padres like something straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. They are baseball's orphans.
Looking for shelter during his divorce and for a way out of game he became increasingly disenchanted with, Moores agreed to sell the team to Jeff Moorad in March 2009. Without the cash he needed, Moorad "purchased" the team on a sort of down payment plan, the way you might buy a Toyota Corolla. He would make payments over a period of years and ultimately take full control of the club.
Poised to do just that this winter, Moorad dramatically backed away at the 11th hour when it became clear baseball's other 29 owners were poised to reject his bid. Among other things, as a former agent, he had developed too many enemies among baseball's lords.
So the club fell back to Moores, who almost immediately retained a couple of investment bankers to advise him for what is now his second attempt at selling the club within four years.
Meanwhile, attendance has plummeted from the early days when Petco opened in 2004, the team is off to one of its worst starts in history at 5-14 and, depending upon which estimate you believe, up to 42 percent of San Diego County cannot even get the Padres on television.
That's because a startup channel -- Fox Sports San Diego -- currently is at an impasse with a couple of the area's major providers, Time-Warner and AT&T U-Verse.
The club is thoroughly frustrated with the impasse but has no choice but to sit on the sidelines and wait. Meantime, the longer the hometown Padres are unavailable to at least several hundred thousand people in their own county, the closer the episode is to taking its place in club lore alongside Roseanne screeching the national anthem between games of a doubleheader (1990) and Goose Gossage furiously decrying the removal of beer from the clubhouse years ago by accusing Joan Kroc -- Ray's widow -- of "poisoning the world" with her McDonald's hamburgers (1986).
"We want our games to be available to all of our fans," says club president Tom Garfinkel, who was brought in by Moorad and now remains in charge as the team has unexpectedly -- and uneasily -- reverted back to Moores. "That's one of the goals of this television contract, and we expect they will be.
"We are disappointed that Time-Warner has chosen not to carry our games right now."
The flip side of the current frustration is that the television contract reportedly will pay the Padres roughly $1 billion over 20 years. Garfinkel says that the club payroll -- currently the lowest in the majors at $55.2 million -- will increase accordingly when the television money begins kicking in.
But increasingly disenchanted and untrusting Padres fans were told similar things by Moores when he was lobbying for a new ballpark. And after the Padres payroll peaked at just over $73 million in 2008, a club record, Moores headed for divorce court and slashed it in '09 to $43 million.
During that period, between 2007 and 2009, the Padres are said to have lost $30 million in ticket revenue, suffered a self-imposed public relations disaster by coldly running franchise icon Trevor Hoffman out of town and lost 99 games in '08.
Attendance declined from a peak of 3.016 million in Petco's '04 rookie season to a low of 1.922 million in '09. Last summer, it inched back up to 2.143 million, still a decrease of some 30 percent from '04.
Moores long ago went underground, and though he did pop up for a conference call earlier this month, he has been mostly a recluse. Fans have become increasingly angry and alienated.
But having dealt with the Dodgers' fiasco over the past year, and with Oakland's unsettled stadium situation and Tampa Bay's struggle to attract fans, commissioner Bud Selig says the state of the Padres is not a concern to him.
"It isn't," he says. "John Moores has stepped back in and has worked very well with the minority partners. He is in the process of selling the club."
Though Moores has been a ghost and has taken almost zero accountability for his trail of broken promises (real or implied) and poor stewardship, Selig says the Padres are not adrift.
"John Moores owns the club," the Commissioner says. "And Tom Garfinkel is running the club.
"It's very clear."
The Padres this spring have signed three young players to long-term deals: outfielder Cameron Maybin (five years, $25 million), catcher Nick Hundley (three years, $9 million) and pitcher Cory Luebke (four years, $12 million). So you might say has been business as usual for the Padres. Though "usual" has become a relative term for this franchise.
Meanwhile, if the declining attendance and non-existence to an enormous portion of the county on TV seem like a death spiral, Selig remains confident the heartbeat is louder than it might appear. Even if, at their current early pace, they project to decline to 1.951 million and threaten '09 for Petco's lowest attendance.
"They're still averaging almost 25,000 a game," Selig says. "That doesn't sound like apathy to me. It's early in the year. They're trying to work out the TV problem. I know they will, eventually."
Selig notes that there are six teams with worse attendance than the Padres, and the numbers bear that out: Oakland, Kansas City, Baltimore, Seattle, Cleveland and the White Sox all are drawing fewer than San Diego's 24,095 per game.
Truthfully, that the Padres are invisible on nearly half of the county's television sets might not be a totally bad thing, given their start.
They lost one game to the Dodgers despite taking 10 walks (plus a hit batter). They've lost while striking out 18 times, also against the Dodgers. They've bunted into a (disputed) triple play. They've played abysmal defense, committing a major-league high 22 errors. Their pitchers lead the majors with 86 walks (through Wednesday), and it's not even close -- the Dodgers and Blue Jays, next closest, check in with 72.
Through 19 games, these Padres rival those 1974 Padres (6-13) for bad starts. That was the club that provoked Kroc, and one of the more outrageous moments in a history stocked with them.
With the timing of a professional comedian, just after Kroc told the San Diego Stadium crowd of 39,083 that he suffered with them on that April night in '74, a streaker hopped over the fence and scooted across the outfield.
That only enraged Kroc even more, who shouted over the PA system, "Get him out of here! Throw him in jail!"
Then the owner returned to the matter at hand, continuing over the PA system, among other things, "I have never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life." And Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett weren't even the middle infielders.
Those echoes have carried across the years in this franchise, and it comes to mind all too frequently watching the Padres of 2012.
"John told me, 'Just keep doing what you're doing,'" says Garfinkel, who, among other things, is trying to win fans back by seeding the area one kid at a time. The Padres have provided jerseys to more than 11,600 area Little Leaguers
"The philosophy of investing in our future and trying to win in the present hasn't changed," Garfinkel continues. "We've invested in our farm system [which is up to No. 3 in Baseball America's annual ranking of the 30 major-league clubs this year].
"We have a deep talent base, and good TV revenues."
From the commissioner's office, Selig concurs.
"Of all the problems I have today, I'm really not concerned about the Padres," Selig says. "I don't think there is anything to be concerned about."
Eyeing even more pots of gold at the end of this new-TV-deal-infused rainbow than the $530 million price he struck with Moorad, Moores is expected by multiple industry sources to sell the club -- again -- by year's end.
Until then, for baseball's orphans, things remain purely Dickensian around Petco Park.
Great Expectations, this ain't.