Would Commissioner Werner really be a "Padres-esque disaster?"

Rob Neyer

Rob Neyer

So I’m going to do something I’ve often jumped on other writers for: Using a straw man. At least it might seem that way, since I’ve lost the original reason for this column...


But I’ll ask you to trust me when I say I’ve seen at least two notes from fans questioning the credibility of Tom Werner as a potential Commissioner, because he practically “destroyed the San Diego Padres” or somesuch during his tenure as owner in the early and middle 1990s.

What really happened back then, though? Here’s a summary from Wikipedia, which seems accurate enough:

The reduction of the team's player payroll, known as the Fire Sale of 1993, began on August 31, 1992, when Craig Lefferts was traded to the Baltimore Orioles. In the offseason, Randy Myers and Benito Santiago were allowed to become free agents, Tony Fernández and Mike Maddux were dealt to the New York Mets and Jerald Clark was selected by the Rockies in the expansion draft. Even though he made a run at the Triple Crown the previous year, Gary Sheffield was sent to the Marlins on June 24, 1993. Less than a month later on July 18, defending NL home run champion Fred McGriff was shipped to the Atlanta Braves. Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris were moved to the Rockies on July 26.

The trade of Darrin Jackson to the Toronto Blue Jays on March 30, 1993, resulted in a class action filed against the Padres. During the previous December, the team sent a letter to season-ticket holders assuring them that the maximum effort would be made to retain Jackson. They reneged on its pledge after Jackson won a $2.1-million arbitration award in February. Refunds were offered to ticket holders involved in the lawsuit.

Darrin Jackson would play for another few seasons, but his only good season came in 1994 as a part-timer with the White Sox. Tony Fernández wasn’t nearly as good in his 30s as he’d been in his 20s. Mike Maddux was essentially a replacement-level reliever after leaving San Diego. Jerald Clark’s first season with the Rockies was his last as an every-day player. Randy Myers would be wildly overpaid as a free agent, and Santiago’s best seasons had come in his early 20s.

Craig Lefferts? The Padres got Ricky Gutierrez from the Orioles in that trade. Gutierrez would spend a dozen years in the majors, most coming after the Padres sent him to the Astros in the deal that netted Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley. Lefferts won the grand total of five games after the Padres traded him to the O’s. Five.

Which leaves Sheffield and McGriff.

To be sure, neither of those deals worked out brilliantly for the Padres. In toto, the Padres received Andres Berumen, Trevor Hoffman, Jose Martinez, Vince Moore, Donnie Elliott, and Melvin Nieves. That’s who the Padres got for two Hall of Fame-quality hitters in (roughly speaking) their primes. Granted, Hoffman’s probably in the Hall of Fame himself someday, too. But a great relief pitcher and a bunch of also-rans isn’t enough for Sheffield and McGriff.

But was that Werner’s fault, or general manager Randy Smith’s? The Padres were coming off a couple of (roughly) .500 seasons with the players they had. Keep (and pay) McGriff, and spend a lot more money to get competitive? Or get rid of them and completely rebuild, instead?

Those were essentially the choices, and I probably would have done what Werner did.

Of course, it was fair at the time to point out that Werner and his partners were exceptionally wealthy and could have financed an immediate surge. True. But if we hold Werner to that standard, what about the rest of the owners? When Bud Selig threatened to kill two franchises because they couldn’t compete, financially, one of those franchises was owned by one of the richest men in America … and this was just a few years after that same man threatened, quite openly, to send that franchise to North Carolina if the local citizenry didn’t build him a new ballpark.

Crying poor and soliciting corporate welfare is what these guys do. It’s in their blood, and will be in the blood of any Commissioner the owners choose.

So I’m sorry, but citing Werner’s two-year stewardship of a (relatively) poor franchise 20 years ago just doesn’t tell us much about what sort of Commissioner he would be.

For a more recent clue, though? From the Times:

Werner has the support of Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, and Arte Moreno, the Los Angeles Angels’ owner, who believe that Manfred has given too many concessions to the players union and want the next commissioner to be more confrontational. John Henry, the principal owner of the Red Sox, feels that Werner’s background in entertainment qualifies him more than Manfred to broaden baseball’s fan base, according to owners and senior baseball officials.

This does set off some warning bells. Especially in the Calcaterra household:

Why, against that backdrop, some owners want to return to what they were doing from the 1960s through the 1990s and take on the union in a “confrontational” way is beyond me. The only thing that could unite the MLBPA in the way it was united a decade or two ago is to attack it. I guess some people want to do that. I guess some people don’t learn from history.

It’s gonna take quite a guy to make Bud Selig look like some jiu-jitsu master. But it looks like those who are backing Tom Werner are going to give it a shot.

I don’t think it’s as bad as all that, and I don’t believe in the Great Man Theory when it comes to baseball (or much of anything else). There are larger forces in play than who’s Commissioner, for sure.

As for being “more confrontational” ... well, it’s hard to know exactly what that means, right? Everybody wants to see the pace of the games picked up a little, right? That doesn’t happen, for the most part, because the players are recalcitrant. Everybody wants to see longer suspensions for violent behavior on the field, right? That doesn’t happen, for the most part, because the players are recalcitrant.

Which isn’t to say the solution is aggressive confrontation. Millionaires don’t generally respond well to that. But while it’s true that the union has given up some things, they’ve also gotten a lot of things. Which I suppose is how these relationships are supposed to work. I do think the players are going to push a little more in the coming years, as the revenues keep growing. And I think it’s appropriate for the owners to push back a little. But again, that’s going to happen (or not) in almost exactly the same degree regardless of who’s Commissioner. Because he’ll merely be taking orders from the billionaires who pay his salary.


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