Franchises at Birth:  The Expos and the Padres (Part Two:  1971-1974)

When we left our young friends last time, both newborn teams had taken encouraging steps forward following arduous 52-win first seasons. The Padres had improved by 11 games in year two, and the Expos by a remarkable 21 games, and moreover the Expos in both of their first two seasons had enjoyed healthy attendance.

The Expos: Year Three

The 1970-71 offseason was the second consecutive year in which Expos general manager Jim Fanning executed no major transactions. Clearly he felt that the team’s path to improvement should follow Gene Mauch’s nurturing of the young talent (particularly the young pitching) already on the roster. But Fanning did make one trade: on December 30, 1970, he sent Dave McDonald, a 27-year-old first baseman who’d played in a total of nine major league games, to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for second baseman Ron Hunt. The gritty, irascible Hunt was not quite 30 years old, was an eight-year major league veteran, a two-time All-Star, and an on-base specialist.

Whatever reasons the Giants had for making this deal, rather than a “trade” it can be more accurately termed a “giveaway.” Hunt wasn’t a nice guy, but he was a very fine ballplayer, and Montreal essentially got him for free. He plugged what had been an offensive sinkhole at second base and provided the Expos with an important ingredient they’d lacked: a top-notch OBP man in the leadoff spot. (Indeed, in 1971 Hunt would shatter his own modern major league record for times being hit by a pitch, with a staggering 50, a mark which has never since been approached.) Despite major problems in left field (where the 32-year-old Mack Jones broke down with injuries) and shortstop (where weak-hitting glove specialist Bobby Wine had remained the incumbent since the Maury Wills trade in June of 1969), with Hunt on board (and, well, on base) the Expos’ offense in 1971 was the best the team had yet produced, placing seventh in the 12-team league in runs scored and eighth in OPS+ (with 95).

Twenty-seven-year-old Bill Stoneman, who’d previously shown great stuff but the inability to consistently harness it, broke out in 1971 with a tremendous year, the best yet from a Montreal pitcher; he won 17 games, was second in the league in innings, and third in complete games and strikeouts. Much of the rest of the Expos’ staff regressed (including 1970 Rookie of the Year Carl Morton), but overall the 1971 Expos held the major gains they’d achieved in 1970. They surpassed the Phillies, and finished in fifth in the NL East Division, with a record of 71-90. Montreal fans continued to fill up funky little Parc Jarry, to the tune of 1.3 million. It was a good third year.

The Padres: Year Three

Buzzie Bavasi had assumed the role of President of the San Diego franchise, and turned over the VP/GM role to Eddie Leishman. Following the Padres’ encouraging improvement of 1970, Leishman swung one major trade over the winter, and it was a doozy: right-hander Pat Dobson, who’d stepped forward as the anchor of the Padres’ pitching staff in 1970, was traded along with 28-year-old right-handed reliever Tom Dukes to the Baltimore Orioles. In return, San Diego received right-handed pitchers Tom Phoebus, Al Severinsen, and Fred Beene, and young shortstop Enzo Hernandez.

This was a most curious deal from the Padres’ perspective. Leishman apparently felt that Phoebus would replace Dobson, or perhaps be an upgrade. But while Phoebus had once been a potential star, he’d developed a tender arm and had regressed in both 1969 and ’70, and at the age of 29 no longer appeared capable of a full-time starting workload; Dobson meanwhile was the same age as Phoebus, and had put together an outstanding workhorse performance in 1970. Dukes was nothing special, a journeyman reliever, but neither were Severinsen or Beene: at 26 and 28 respectively, together they had a total of 19 games of major league experience; the realistic upside for either was what Dukes was already providing.

The key to the trade was Hernandez. The Padres were sorely lacking at shortstop, and if the 22-year-old Hernandez could step in as a quality major leaguer, the deal would make sense. But there was little in Hernandez’s meager resume to inspire confidence: in four minor league seasons in the Houston and Baltimore organizations, he’d shown nice speed (stealing 14, 7, 26, and 17 bases), but a featherweight bat, hitting .187, .225, .249, and .271 with a combined total of four home runs. Only 102 of his minor league games had been as high as the Triple-A level.

The deal failed utterly. Phoebus bombed, and neither Severinsen nor Beene had anything substantial to offer (indeed Beene was simply cut by the Padres in the spring of 1971 and returned to the Baltimore organization). Manager Preston Gomez gave Hernandez the San Diego shortstop job, and left him there come what may. What came was a steady flow of soft groundouts; Hernandez proved to be adequate defensively, and a highly effective base stealer, but his bat never approached acceptability. Deployed as the full-time leadoff hitter in 1971, the rookie produced a .295 on-base percentage, an OPS+ of 61, and 12 RBIs (yes, 12 RBIs) in 618 plate appearances.

Hernandez’s futility at the top of the lineup was emblematic of the Padres’ ‘71 season. The offensive improvement they’d demonstrated in 1970 vaporized. Right fielder Ollie Brown’s hitting regressed, and center fielder Clarence Gaston’s imploded (as his great 1970 performance would prove to be a flash-in-the-pan). Only slugging first baseman Nate Colbert remained a consistent run producer, and the team’s OPS+ sagged to 88.

The Padres were saved from complete disaster by breakout performances from two of their young pitchers, 23-year-old hard-throwing right-hander Clay Kirby, and 26-year-old control artist left-hander Dave Roberts, both of whom emerged as first-rate starters. But the team’s record was a dismal 61-100, they were still buried deep in last place, and their attendance—which had shown small signs of life in 1970—declined to 557,000, barely more than half of that of the next-lowest in the National League. The Sporting News Baseball Guide’s summary of the San Diego franchise’s third season concluded with this ominous paragraph:

Failure at the gate brought rumors the Padres would move to Washington D.C., Toronto, or New Orleans, but after listening to offers, co-owners C.A. Smith and Buzzie Bavasi announced the Padres would remain in San Diego for at least another year.

The Expos: Year Four

Through all the Expos’ ups and downs in their first three seasons, the one positive constant was star right fielder Rusty Staub. By far their best player (producing 27, 30, and 32 Win Shares in 1969, ’70, and ’71), and by far their most popular, “Le Grande Orange” could have been elected mayor of Montreal in a landslide at any moment of his choosing. The notion of trading Staub seemed unthinkable.

But Fanning thought of it anyway, and on April 5, 1972—while the first-ever modern-day players’ strike was forcing the postponement of Opening Day—the 28-year-old Staub was traded to the New York Mets. In return the Expos received three young players, all highly touted but none with extensive major league experience: 25-year-old outfielder Ken Singleton, 21-year-old shortstop Tim Foli, and 23-year-old first baseman-outfielder Mike Jorgensen. The deal was a shock to Montreal fans, and an enormous risk, but before the season was over it was becoming apparent that it would turn out well for the Expos. All three newcomers proved to be decent-to-excellent ballplayers (though, interestingly, with three very different skillsets), and outstanding as Staub had been, the Expos were better off with this youthful trio instead.

Their first season sans Le Grande Orange was another in which the Expos essentially held their own in terms of results, this time going 70-86, and again finishing in fifth. The pitching staff was the team’s strength in 1972. Stoneman backed up his great ’71 season with another fine year as the ace, and 21-year-old rookie southpaw Balor Moore impressed with 161 strikeouts in 147 innings, but breakthrough performances from two scrap-heap reclamation projects were the most notable:

Mike Torrez, overweight and personally troubled in 1971, had nearly slumped his way out of baseball: after being discarded by St. Louis and sent to the minors in June of that year, he posted a Triple-A ERA of 8.16 in 75 innings (think about that). But in 1972, at the age of 25, under Mauch in Montreal the huge, hard-sinkerballing Torrez got his act together and suddenly became a dependable, durable major league starter.

The “R” in WAR
How a person can be a hero by being a zero.

Mike Marshall had bounced around several organizations, gaining more reputation for oddball opining than effective pitching. But Mauch maintained faith in him, and at the age of 29 in ’72, his third season with the Expos, Marshall blossomed. Finally mastering his wicked screwball, the right-handed Marshall smothered left-handed hitters to the tune of a .160 batting average and a 483 OPS, and emerged as one of the best relief aces in baseball.

The Montreal offense encountered a general slump in 1972, inhibiting a climb in the standings. But thanks to the Staub trade, it was a younger and deeper lineup than before, and overall the team gave reason to anticipate improvement. Montreal attendance in ’72 was down a bit, but it was still healthy at 1.1 million (9th in the National League, 12th among the 24 major league teams). Things were continuing to proceed positively for the Expos.

The Padres: Year Four

The Padres’ decision to trade their best pitcher for a package of young talent following the 1970 season hadn’t worked out well at all. Yet a year later, they essentially did it again: in December 1971, new Padres’ GM Peter Bavasi (Buzzie’s son, who’d taken over when Eddie Leishman became gravely ill) traded Dave Roberts to Houston for three minor leaguers (infielder Derrel Thomas and pitchers Bill Greif and Mark Schaeffer). This was a baffling move: the Padres were a very young team, struggling mightily to become competitive and build a fanbase, and here they were surrendering one of their best players, whom they’d patiently nurtured through his hard-knocks development phase, in exchange for yet more undeveloped young talent. To be fair, both Thomas and Greif were better prospects than Enzo Hernandez, but at ages 21 and 22 respectively, and without any substantial major league experience, they weren’t likely to be ready to help the Padres improve in the near term.

They weren’t likely to, and they didn’t. Both Thomas and Greif were handed regular jobs with the 1972 Padres, and both floundered. San Diego in ’72 put yet another extremely young ball club on the field, with decent long-term potential but little capacity for present-day competitiveness. Colbert had a terrific season, placing second in the league in home runs and fourth in RBIs—but his 111 RBIs accounted for nearly a quarter of the team’s last-in-the-league total of 488 runs scored. The ball club was also last in the National League in ERA+, and in defensive efficiency, and in wins. Their attendance in 1972 was slightly improved, to a bit over 8,000 per game, but that too was still last in the league.

Four years into their life, the Padres had made precious little headway. The closest to first place they’d finished had been 28 ½ games, and the closest to next-to-last had been 10 games. There was now no conclusion to draw but that the Padres were a distinctly failing franchise, and their very viability was now widely questioned.

The Expos: Years Five and Six

In 1973, the Expos attained genuine competitive respectability, finishing very close to .500, at 79-83, in fourth place in the National League East. Indeed, in that exceedingly up-for-grabs division, Montreal came quite close to attaining a genuine championship, finishing just 3 ½ games behind the first-place Mets, and coming to within a half-game of the top spot, with a record slightly above .500, as late as September 16th.

The Expos’ major stride forward in 1973 was particularly impressive given the significant setbacks they suffered. Stoneman, the durable and often brilliant pitching staff anchor of 1971-72, encountered serious arm trouble and suddenly lost any semblance of effectiveness (and would never regain it). Moore, the exciting flamethrowing rookie of 1972, regressed as a sophomore. But the pitching was replenished by 28-year-old right-hander Steve Renko, rebounding from a terrible ’72 to record his best season, and 23-year-old rookie right-hander Steve Rogers, a mid-season callup who looked to be the best pitcher the Expos had yet employed. Moreover, Marshall had another great year in the bullpen, establishing new major league records for appearances (92) and relief innings (179), and placing second in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

And the Montreal offense perked up from its listless 1972 performance. The 26-year-old switch-hitting right fielder Singleton emerged as a star, displaying the high-average, good power, exceptional on-base breadth of skill that had been Staub’s signature. Ron Fairly, the steady veteran who had been shifted to left field to allow the Gold Glove-winning Jorgensen to take over at first base, delivered his best offensive season at age 34. Third baseman Bob Bailey produced his best full-time performance at age 30. Second baseman Hunt, 32, was poor defensively but came through with another season of outstanding on-base production. Shortstop Foli, 22, remained a very light hitter but was terrific with the glove. For his contribution, the “Little General” Gene Mauch was voted Major League Manager of the Year.

In 1974 the Expos sustained the progress they’d made in ’73, replicating the 79-victory, fourth place finish. Positives in ’74 included strong rookie seasons from 22-year-old catcher Barry Foote and 20-year-old starting pitcher Dennis Blair.

But one move the Expos executed between 1973 and 1974, while it worked out reasonably well on its merits, was an ominous portent of decisions to follow: in December of ’73, Fanning traded relief ace Marshall to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for veteran star center fielder Willie Davis. The deal was a reasonable value-for-value swap, as Marshall had generated 22 and 23 Win Shares for the Expos in 1972 and ’73, while Davis was generating 25 and 23 for the Dodgers, and in 1974, Davis had a fine year in Montreal, producing 20 Win Shares (while Marshall would earn 21 for the pennant-winning Dodgers in the most remarkable of his iron-man performances). But the trade was questionable from two perspectives: first, while fair, the swap was fairly pointless, filling a hole in center field but creating one in the bullpen (that the Expos would fill with some success in ’74, but they certainly had no other relievers of Marshall’s caliber). Second, it was a move that couldn’t possibly succeed in the long term, given that Davis was 34 years old in 1974, and would certainly begin to decline soon.

It was a trade that suggested the Expos were losing patience with their steady-but-slow ascent in the standings. It was more of a deal for a deal’s sake than a soundly reasoned executive decision. The Expos would soon make more such deals.

The Padres: Years Five and Six

The hapless Padres went into their fifth season giving the familiar youth-and-little-else formula one more try. Yet again, it failed to yield results. In 1973 San Diego enjoyed good years from several of their youngsters, but suffered counterbalancing setbacks from several others, and overall the drearily customary pattern prevailed: they presented neither competent hitting, fielding, or pitching, and remained stuck deep in their basement rut.

Before the ’73 season was halfway through, Padres’ ownership threw in the towel. Principal shareholder C. Arnholt Smith announced on May 27 that he intended to sell the franchise to a group that would relocate to Washington, D.C., for 1974. The deal was never finalized, though, and the ball club played out a long unhappy season clouded by uncertainty and financial distress, with San Diego fans (not surprisingly) providing the lowest attendance in the major leagues.

With the status of the franchise in complete limbo, in a two-week period in late October and early November of 1973 general manager Peter Bavasi made a startling sequence of transactions. Freely spending the money of a yet-unknown new owner, who would be fielding the team in a yet-unknown city, Bavasi boldly endeavored to remake the roster overnight into one studded with big-name, high-salaried veterans. Three of the Padres’ best young talents were traded away (pitchers Clay Kirby and Mike Caldwell, and outfielder Jerry Morales), and in their place came first baseman Willie McCovey from the Giants, second baseman Glenn Beckert from the Cubs, and outfielders Bobby Tolan from the Reds and Matty Alou from the Cardinals. Whatever would become of the franchise in 1974, it wouldn’t be the same old (young) team.

In January of 1974, the next bombshell went off. The Padres would be staying in San Diego, and their new owner would be none other than high-profile, outspoken McDonald’s tycoon Ray Kroc. Bavasi’s imprudent, go-for-broke autumn dealing spree had proven to be just the impatient new owner’s style.

So the Padres began their sixth season with a brand-new sense of excitement and expectation. But things didn’t go exactly as hoped; they dropped their season-opening three-game series in Los Angeles by scores of 8-0, 8-0, and 9-2. Arriving in San Diego for their home opener, before a hopeful gathering of 39,083 (just 22 fans shy of the largest crowd yet to attend a Padres’ home game), events turned still more sour. In the middle of the eighth inning, the Padres were being pounded again, 9 to 2 by the Astros, and Kroc himself commandeered the public address microphone and bellowed, “Ladies and gentlemen, I suffer with you. . . . I’ve never seen such stupid baseball playing in my life.” This quintessential 1970s moment was completed by the fact that as Kroc spoke, a streaker ran across the field.

New beginnings can get little worse, and yet this one did. Kroc’s tirade failed to spark the team: they went on to lose that game 9-5, and the next two as well, both of those by scores of 9-1. The 1974 Padres would lose 13 of their first 16 games, by a combined score of 109 to 35, and were on their way to yet another dead-last dud of a season. Of the veteran acquisitions, only McCovey had much to offer; the rest were variations on the theme of Washed Up. The 1974 Padres were simply horrible. They were lucky to post their final record of 60-102, as their Pythagorean mark was a frightful 51-111. They were last in the major leagues in runs scored, runs allowed, OPS+, and ERA+, and second-to-last in errors, double plays, and defensive efficiency. Their pitching staff’s ERA+ of 77 was, in fact, the lowest of any major league team since the 1954 Philadelphia Athletics posted a mark of 75 (worse than any coughed up by the legendarily bad early New York Mets staffs), and has never been surpassed since (though the 2004 Cincinnati Reds matched it).

It was a ghastly, rotten year for the Padres in every category except one—and in a sense that category is the most important of all: attendance. Despite the ball club’s wretched on-field performance, Kroc’s arrival, and his repeated vows (and known capacity) to spend whatever it would take to transform the Padres into a winner, at last captivated the San Diego fans. The Padres in 1974 drew more than a million fans, far and away the most in their young history, good for eighth in the National League—and perhaps most dramatically, slightly more than the attendance of the Expos. Perhaps the ever-bumbling Padres were on the verge of some manner of success after all.

Next Time

Years Seven Through Twelve, 1975-1980

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