It’s 2011 and you are 41 years old. You are in Minnesota, sitting with your wife along the third baseline, watching the Padres lose to a below-average Twins team in interleague play. You know all of the names on the roster would be better served playing in AAA El Paso. The Twins surge ahead and the guy on the other side of your wife loses his mind, jumping out of his seat and screaming approval for the shot some Twin just rifled into the gap. Then he looks over and notices you for the first time, slumped in your seat, your brown and gold old school hat pulled low over your eyes, shaking your head. He winces, like he’s just been chastened for speaking out of turn in class.
“Hey, man, I’m sorry,” he says, holding out his hand for you to shake. “I didn’t realize you were a Padres fan. I’m sorry, bro.”
You shake his hand, force a smile, and wonder: is he sorry because he thinks he might’ve offended you with his cheering, or is he sorry because you’re inexplicably a Padres fan?
And you think: how did I get here?
It’s 1978 and you are eight years old. Your dad has somehow managed to buy into a season ticket plan that gets you to home games on Tuesdays and Saturday nights. The seats are just beyond third base and you sit right behind the opposing teams fans that travel with their team. You find the Chicago fans to be rude and loud, but you laugh at Montreal’s fans because they try to be obnoxious, but their combination of French and English trash talk is more humorous than barbed. You get to the game early and move down to the rail and watch the starting pitcher warm up. When he’s done, he sees you and nods. You try not to throw up on yourself, and nod back. He walks to the railing, tucks his glove under his arm, and signs a ball that the bullpen catcher hands him. He hands it to you and you hold onto it like it is made of glass and gold and Jesus. You take it back to your seat and show it to your dad.
“Bob Owchinko,” he says. “He’s starting tonight.”
Bob Owchinko is now right behind Dave Winfield on your list of favorite players.
“Is he good?” you ask.
Your dad laughs. “No. Not at all.”
It’s the morning of December 15th, 1980 and you are 10 years old. You go out to the dining room for breakfast. Your mom is sitting at the table, looking anxious, worried. The sports page is right next to your bowl of Rice Krispies and orange juice. You sit down in the green vinyl chair and see the headline. Dave Winfield is leaving San Diego for New York. Dave Winfield, the man who you’ve emulated every day in the driveway for the last few years, the man your mom has driven you all over town to meet at local restaurants and car dealerships, and the man whose face is papered all over the walls of your bedroom, is leaving you and the Padres for New York and the Yankees. You realize that he literally is going as far away as possible. You put your head down and cry, and you stay home from school.
It’s 1984 and you are 14 years old. You’re sitting cross-legged in front of your grandmother’s console television, leaning forward, wishing your family would be quiet. Or care. Steve Garvey is at the plate in Game 4 of the NLCS against the Cubs. You hate the Cubs because of those obnoxious fans you sit behind. You can’t believe that your team is in the playoffs, with a chance to go to the World Series. Everyone told you that it was impossible, that the Cubs and Rick Sutcliffe and Leon Durham and Lee Smith were too good, and that the Padres would be lucky to win a single game. But you’re wearing your Cub-Busters shirt and Garvey swings at a pitch over the outside part of the plate and lifts it to right. You don’t think he’s gotten enough of it, but now it’s going, going . . . and carries over the wall in right-center. Garvey is pumping his fist as he rounds first. You are jumping up and down, screaming like you’ve never screamed, and if anyone is telling you to knock it off you don’t hear them because Garvey just got them to Game 5. They’ll win it and get to the World Series for the first time, losing to a great Detroit Tigers team. But that’s okay. They’ve broken through the barrier. They are moving in the right direction. You have faith that it’ll happen again. Soon.
For over a decade, you will grit your teeth and wish for another season like 1984. Nothing comes close. The McDonald’s lady sells the team to the guy who produced The Cosby Show. You read that he has money. You think this might be the turning point. Then you learn what the term “fire sale” means.
It’s 1996 and you are 26 years old. You’re damn near done with the eight years it’s taken you to finish college. The Padres are good. They sweep the Dodgers in the season’s final series to take the division title. You are happy because the Padres are good and the Dodgers can die. Even though the team is swept by the Cardinals in the NLCS, you are okay with that. You reflect on 1984 and ignore the fact that your team has only made the playoffs twice in 27 years. They are due. Things are looking up. And Tony Gwynn is the greatest hitter you’ve ever seen and an even nicer human being with a voice that sounds like he chews marbles made of helium. It’s all coming together.
It’s 1998 and you are 28 years old. You’ve moved to Colorado from Southern California and your absence has made both your heart grow fonder and your team better. Gwynn and Ken Caminitti and Greg Vaughn and Steve Finley and Trevor Hoffman and Kevin Mothereffing Brown win 98 games and pound both the Astros and Braves into submission, winning their second NL pennant. They are rewarded with a World Series matchup against a Yankees team that won 114 games and is being talked about as one of the greatest teams of all-time. Whatever. You believe that your Padres are a team of destiny, that they have suffered long enough, that they deserve this, that Kevin MotherEffing Brown will rip out Derek Jeter’s liver and eat it if that’s what’s needed to win the series. There is no doubt in your mind. This is their year.
They are swept in four games by the Yankees.
You aren’t sure this is like the other fire sale, but Caminiti and Finley and Vaughn all leave after the ’98 season. Kevin Mothereffing Brown signs the biggest contract in history with the Dodgers. The Dodgers. You want to rip out his liver and eat it. You know what’s coming. You feel the coaster start to dive downward and you aren’t sure it’ll stop this time. In the next couple of years, you will celebrate only two things: Gwynn’s 3,000th hit and Winfield’s election to the Hall of Fame. That’s it. There’s nothing else. You can’t even see ’84 and ’98 behind you as the coaster continues to plunge.
It’s 2003 and you’re 33 years old. Your daughter is born. You get her a Padres hat. You feel sort of bad about it, but not enough to not put it on her head every chance you get.
It’s 2005 and you are 35 years old. The Padres win the NL West with the worst winning percentage ever for a division winner. You don’t care, though, because it turns out that winning is fun. They win the division again in 2006. Both years, the Cardinals eliminate them in the divisional round of the playoffs. You have relatives in St. Louis, but you wouldn’t mind seeing that city wiped off the map.
It’s October 1st, 2007 and you are 37 years old. You’re living in Texas now and it feels less like San Diego than Colorado did. But you feel more connected to San Diego than you ever have in the decade since you left because you’ve been hooked into three years of good baseball and found an online community of similar Padres freaks. The team has finished the season tied with the Rockies for the wild card, and they are in a one game playoff for the spot. The game goes to extra innings and the Padres have given Trevor Hoffman, the greatest pitcher in Padres history and who will finish his career as the league’s all-time leader in saves, an 8-6 lead going into the bottom of the 13th inning.
And, yet, you know it’s coming. You know that heartbreak will find you and them. That they can’t ever be the team that you want them to be.
You are sitting in an oversized leather chair in your bedroom, watching the Rockies come back. Your stomach is cramping and your hands are shaking. As Matt Holliday rounds third base and doesn’t touch home plate and the Rockies claim the wild card berth with a 9-8 win, you drop your head in your hands and cry. Even though you are an adult with a child and a mortgage and a job, you cry. And you will never sit in that stupid chair again because it is absolutely the chair’s fault.
It’s 2016 and you are 46 years old. The Padres open the season by failing to score in their first three games. Not a single run. It’s never been done before by any other team. The unfounded optimism that buoys you every April is immediately extinguished, replaced by the reality that your team will once again not be the team you want them to be. The last nine years have proven it to you.
But you are relieved when they score in the fourth game of the season, having feared that it was entirely possible that they might never score again. You think that maybe they can string a few games together, maybe the Dodgers will falter, maybe some of these guys whose names you don’t really know will actually be able to hit and get around the bases.
But probably not.
I am 46 years old.
The San Diego Padres are 47 years old.
Neither of us has a World Series title.