It looked like a white flag. The San Diego Padres sent struggling pitching ace Andy Benes to the Seattle Mariners last month in a trade clearly intended to improve the prospects for a new stadium initiative in Seattle. The intentions of the Padres, however, were not quite so clear.
Were they giving up on 1995 and -- once again -- dumping high-salaried players the way they did with Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff? Or were they just giving up on the possibility of signing Benes to a long-term deal?
The answer came in the aftermath, when the club won 13 of its next 20 games and moved back into contention in the National League West. Now, it's the only divisional race still worth watching, and the new-look Padres are close enough to make things interesting for long-suffering fans in San Diego.
"We didn't view it as a rebuilding situation," said manager Bruce Bochy. "I can see how someone might have that perception if you're not from San Diego, but this move had nothing to do with salary the way the ones in the past did. This was a move that was best for the club. We got two good players, and we felt a change of scenery would do Andy good."
There were contract considerations. Benes soon will be eligible for free agency, and he is represented by agent Scott Boras, who tangled with Padres chief executive Larry Lucchino over Ben McDonald when Lucchino was president of the Orioles. But Lucchino insists that the deal would not have been made if the return -- reliever Ron Villone and minor-league power prospect Marc Newfield -- had not justified it in purely competitive terms.
"If we had not gotten something of real value, we wouldn't have done the deal," Lucchino said.
The trade has worked out for both teams. Benes has won two of three decisions for the Mariners, and Villone has pitched well in a setup role for the Padres. But there appears to be little connection between the deal and the club's recent surge. The Padres have been on the fringe of the NL West race all year, but they bounced back from an 8 1/2 -game deficit to pull within four games of first place.
Could it be that the departure of Benes, who was 4-7 at the time of the deal, actually improved the club? Not according to NL batting leader Tony Gwynn.
"It's been a good team all along," Gwynn said. "When we traded Benes, a lot of people thought we had thrown in the towel and started to build toward next year, but that was wrong. We traded Andy because he wasn't pitching that well. We've actually played better since then, but it's not because we traded him.
"We've had the same mind-set from Day 1. We thought we could compete, and we didn't think that anybody would run away in our division. That's what happened."
The Padres organization couldn't afford another rebuilding year. The club has not finished closer than 10 games out of first place since 1989, and a new ownership group led by chairman John Moores was intent on getting off to a good start. That much became evident when the club pulled off a 12-player deal with the Houston Astros last winter.
Outfielder Steve Finley and third baseman Ken Caminiti, the most prominent players acquired in the trade, have played prominent roles in the club's competitive renaissance.
"We had to demonstrate to the fans -- not just pay lip service -- to the concept of building a competitive team," Lucchino said. "The fundamental obligation of ownership is to field a team worthy of the fans' support. There was a perception that the team was not committed to winning, and we had to change that. It's like the old saying goes, you don't get a second chance to make a good first impression."
The club's strong performance after the Benes trade was critical maintaining that positive image in the community, and the Padres could not have done it without one of the major players from that off-season blockbuster. Finley is batting .312 and leading the NL in runs with 89. He also ranks third in the league in stolen bases and fourth in hits. In a 29-game stretch from July 23 through Aug. 21, he batted .402.
Gwynn, who is well on his way to his sixth NL batting title, is the acknowledged offensive leader of the club, but Finley has been the catalyst for the recent upturn in the team's fortunes.
"He has carried this team," Bochy said. "He has played as good baseball as anybody in either league. He's swinging the bat well, stealing bases, hitting for power, and I think he has established himself as one of the best center fielders in the game."
Finley never has been comfortable talking about himself, but he also seems excited about the brand of baseball that the Padres have been playing. He got a taste of what it was like to be in a pennant race with the Orioles in 1989, and now is hoping to take the same kind of "Why not?" spirit a step further in San Diego.
"We scrap for runs, and we've got a good pitching staff and good relief pitching," Finley said. "This is what you live for, being in the pennant race. I hope we get there. It would be good for the city."
The Padres slipped back a couple of games last week, but the three-team West race still is up for grabs. The Los Angeles Dodgers have moved to the top on the strength of their pitching and young lineup. The Colorado Rockies recently pulled out of a weeklong slide to continue a season-long power trip. The Padres are not as dynamic, but they play solid defense and deliver a good balance of pitching and run production.
Even the San Francisco Giants are not entirely out of it. They recently got third baseman Matt Williams back from the disabled list, but have a lot of ground to make up and a lot of teams to climb over to get to the top of the standings.
"The Rockies bang the ball, the Dodgers are young and explosive and the Giants can do a lot of things," Gwynn said. "I guess we're like the boring team. Pitching and defense is our bread and butter. We're not going to out-slug you. We like to play solid baseball every day. Everybody [in the NL West] brings something different to the table."
It could be an exciting finish if the Padres stay close. They play seven of their last 10 games against the Dodgers and also have three-game series against the Rockies and Giants during the final two weeks.
"I think we've turned the corner," Gwynn said. "After we traded McGriff and [Bruce] Hurst left, we were down. Now, we're doing positive things. We're playing good baseball. After all that's happened, that's important for this organization. Granted, we're not Cleveland or Atlanta, but we're playing competitive baseball. It would be great if we could get there."
The San Diego Padres won 13 of their first 20 games after the trade that sent pitching ace Andy Benes to the Seattle Mariners, in part because of a number of strong August performances. Stats are for 25 games beginning Aug. 1:
Pitcher ... ... ... ... ... ... IP ... ... W-L ... ... ERA
Doug Bochtler (RP) .. .. .. ... 15 2/3 .. ... 2-0 ... ... 1.72
Willie Blair (SP) ... .. .. ... 31 1/3 .. ... 3-2 ... ... 2.01
Joey Hamilton (SP) .. .. .. ... 34 1/3 .. 2-0 ... ... 3.15
Fernando Valenzuela (RP) .. ... 18 ... ... 2-0 ... ... 3.00
Ron Villone (RP) ... ... .. ... 10 2/3 .. ... 1-0 ... ... 3.38
Batter ... ... ... ... ... Avg. ... AB ... R ... H ... HR ... RBI
Brad Ausmus (C) .. ... ... .412 ... 51 ... 12 .. 21 .. 1 .. .. 14
Archi Cianfrocco (IF) .. .. .308 .. 65 ... 13 .. 20 .. 2 .. .. 16
Steve Finley (CF) .. ... .. .373 .. 102 .. 19 .. 38 .. 3 .. .. 17
Tony Gwynn (RF) ... ... ... .333 .. 72 ... 10 .. 24 .. 1 .. .. 9
Scott Livingstone (1B) ... .377 ... 61 ... 12 .. 23 .. 3 .. .. 13