Padres' home stand Stadium: First-place San Diego wins games, but Lucchino & Co. need to win votes, too, to revisit Camden Yards past.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN DIEGO -- The guy on the motorcycle looks vaguely familiar. Replace the leather jacket with a three-piece suit and he would be a dead ringer for former Orioles president Larry Lucchino.

Upon closer examination, it is Lucchino, pulling up to the offices of the San Diego Padres like some upscale Hell's Angel.

Times change, people change, though not usually this much. The uptight Washington lawyer Larry has been replaced with the new laid-back Larry, who has helped put the Padres back on the map and is busy trying to reinvent San Diego as a baseball destination.

The whole Padres organization looks vaguely familiar. Several ranking members of the Orioles' front office followed Lucchino to San Diego, where they have adopted the California lifestyle and are trying to make it dovetail with the management philosophy they brought with them from Baltimore.

It must be working.

The Padres are comfortably in first place in the National League West. They are a team with a solid mix of youth and experience, a good team chemistry and a mission. They have four more months to persuade the residents of San Diego to build them a new stadium that would all but guarantee their ability to field a competitive team into perpetuity.

Even the situation looks familiar. The Padres play in functional, football-friendly Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley, but their future in Southern California apparently depends on the construction of a semi-publicly funded, state-of-the-art ballpark downtown.

Who better to spearhead that effort than Lucchino, who presided over the construction of Camden Yards and the Baltimore baseball renaissance that accompanied it?

"I do want to do this one pretty badly," he said. "I'd love to be part of something out here like I was out there. Who has been lucky enough to have a second chance with a second ballpark a chance to apply all the experience you got the first time around?"

He is not in this alone, of course. Lucchino is second in command to Padres majority owner John Moores, whose community-oriented ownership approach and easy management style have made him popular with both the fans and the players. If any club can persuade a community to help finance a stadium in this new age of tight municipal budgets and skeptical fans, it is the Padres, but it still is going to be a tough sell.

The team and local government officials are working now on a referendum for the November ballot. It probably will be ready in time for the filing deadline in August, but there are no guarantees. If the effort does not proceed on schedule, the Padres will be a candidate for relocation.

Conspiracy theory

Of course, that would spawn an easy conspiracy theory. Lucchino, the erstwhile Washington lawyer, would be in a position to bring the franchise to the East Coast and plunk it right down in his old back yard -- Northern Virginia.

He could return triumphantly and go head-to-head with former boss Peter Angelos for a piece of his old market.

Sounds so logical, until you talk to friends of the new, laid-back Larry, who have watched him embrace the Southern California lifestyle and doubt that he is all that eager to get back into the Washington rat race.

Lucchino, still flush with his 11 percent share of the $173 million sale price of the Orioles, bought an ocean-view home in scenic La Jolla and has told associates he doesn't ever plan to sell it, even if the Padres move out of San Diego.

He really does, on occasion, ride a BMW R-1100 motorcycle to work and appears far less driven than he was during the years he ran the Orioles for owner Edward Bennett Williams and later Eli Jacobs, but he remains a fiercely competitive businessman who must know how difficult it would be to compete for fans in the Baltimore-Washington area.

No, he badly wants this stadium initiative to succeed, enough to spend much of his free time speaking to virtually anyone that will listen to the club's appeal for political support.

Recently, Lucchino and Moores even played hosts to a two-hour meeting/dinner for a newly formed women's civic group. Baseball may look like a boys club, but this is one time that everybody needs to be on board.

Pivotal year

The team is making its case. The Padres got off to a terrific start and have held their place at the top of the National League West standings in spite of a rash of injuries that ravaged the offensive lineup in May.

"We understand that it's a pivotal year," said manager Bruce Bochy. "There are no guarantees that a winning season is going to get us a new stadium, but we want to do our part."

The success of the Padres in 1998 probably won't be the deciding factor, but the team has reached the postseason only twice -- reaching the Division Series in 1996 and going to the World Series in 1984 -- and that was so long ago that it might be helpful to give the fans, the politicians and the Chamber of Commerce types another taste of the national spotlight before the November election.

Playing major-league baseball is difficult enough without the added pressure to sell the city on a new ballpark, but the players know what's at stake and they have joined the fight on two fronts -- on the field and in the community.

"I think there is [extra pressure]," Lucchino said. "I think the players are certainly aware of it and have behaved beautifully, getting off to the great start we did and being as involved as they can be while doing their jobs on the field."

But even the players know the hard truth that the tide of public opinion has turned against public stadium financing since the Orioles and several other teams moved into their plush new homes.

"I sit here and wonder if it's going to be enough," said future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, whose stature and outgoing personality have made him a central figure in the massive public relations effort. "Is our style of play exciting enough to get what we're looking to get? The bottom line is, the lease [at Qualcomm Stadium] runs out in 1999. If we don't get the vote, there is a chance we'll be someplace else. I hate to think about that, but you just have to keep playing good, exciting baseball."

Gwynn is doing his part. He's batting .336 and could be on the way to a record ninth National League batting championship. The pitching staff has been very productive, from the solid performances of starters Kevin Brown (9-3) and Andy Ashby (10-5) to a string of 32 successful save opportunities by closer Trevor Hoffman that dates to last August.

"We don't have the firepower of a Mark McGwire or three Cy Young winners like they have in Atlanta," said pitching coach Dave Stewart, "but hopefully, we've got enough to win the division."

It certainly looks like it. They recently held off a strong challenge by the defending division champion San Francisco Giants and hold a 13 1/2 -game lead over the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. The Padres need to get their offensive lineup healthy and their starting rotation intact. Their future in San Diego may hang in the balance.

"All we have to do is go out and play," said Ashby. "San Diego fans are unbelievable. They never give up on you. It's a great place to play. If we do what we're supposed to do, everything will fall into place."

Lucchino's vision

If everything does fall into place, the Padres could move into a downtown ballpark in 2001. The facility will be erected in the South Embarcadero area and be accessible by the city's new trolley system. Sound vaguely familiar?

"I love Camden Yards," Lucchino said. "It's a hell of a ballpark. We knew when it was being built that we loved it. We didn't know it would light a fire around the country. But we don't want to build Camden Yards West."

The team already has enlisted a group of architectural firms to submit drawings of the proposed facility, but the design of the ballpark -- if the referendum is approved -- will be a collaborative effort that includes significant input from local fans.

"It's a very different situation, I have to keep reminding myself of that," Lucchino said. "Too often, people try to replicate later in life what they did earlier in life. San Diego is a different place and the timing is very different. The same principles apply, but it's a different place and very different architecture."

Look for stucco and Spanish tile instead of Baltimore brick, but don't look for a dramatic departure from the stadium trends of the 1990s. The Padres are looking for a nouveau-traditional ballpark that accents the community and creates a revenue stream sufficient to put a competitive club on the field every year.

All they need now are the votes.

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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