Laugh if you like at the name, “Petco Park”, the San Diego Padres are getting the last laugh.
After years of being forced to play in the Chargers’ Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium, the Padres now have a gem of a baseball only ballpark in Petco Park and a contender in a team.
Since 1995, the man that has been working all manner of baseball operations has been VP and General Manager Kevin Towers. Since that time the Padres have had the same manager in Bruce Bochy, and have both won (the Division title in ’96 going 91-71, as well as winning the National League Championship in ’98 going 98-64 before losing to the Yankees in the World Series), and lost (last in the NL West in 3 out of the last 4 seasons). The losing stretch, however, appears to be coming to end as Towers made several off-season acquisitions, including Terrance Long, Ramon Hernandez, Ismael Valdez, and David Wells to complement an already solid staff.
You may ask, “Why an interview here?” Towers and the Padres have numerous connections to Oregon and Portland. First off, Kevin was born in Medford, and very nearly went to U of O. Pat Casey, the head baseball coach of Oregon State University is a former teammate of Towers. The Portland Beavers are the Padres AAA farm team, and he’s played in PGE Park before the renovation. San Diego just went through a long and arduous process of getting a new ballpark built and used HOK Sport out of Kansas City to build Petco Park. HOK is currently assisting Portland in site analysis for a possible MLB stadium. So, the question then became, “When can we interview Kevin Towers?”
In the following interview Towers talks of how he came from Medford and wound up where he is today, Greg Maddux and David Wells, the development of Petco Park, up and coming Beavers prospects, the relationship with the Portland Beavers, and his love of Oregon sports in general.
The Oregon Connection
OSC: How does a guy go from Medford, OR. to where you are today with the Padres?
Towers: Well, it is kind of a strange path. I had actually been accepted to go to the University of Oregon, that is where my father went. And I had planned on attending U of O and not playing any sport, just go and be a student. And it was about three weeks before classes were to start that I received a call from a guy named John Seeley who was a native Oregonian from Silverton, who was the head baseball coach at Mira Costa Junior college down in San Diego. He asked me if I wanted to come down and play baseball and he put me up with a host family and there were a couple other Oregonians that were down playing in Southern California Juco baseball. I loved to compete and love baseball and decided to give it a shot and went down there and was drafted by the Braves out of MiraCosta and then ended up transferring to BYU and become the number one pick of the Padres at that time. Played about eight years and scouted and became a scouting director and became a general manager. It is kind of a strange path, but it probably started with John Seeley. He has since passed and if he would not have placed that call I wouldn’t be here today.
OSC: Do you stay in touch with sports in Oregon? Rumor has it that Pat Casey, coach at Oregon State, is someone that you used to play with?
Towers: I am a definite Beaver fan, although I was going to go to U of O, I follow Oregon State baseball because of Pat Casey. We roomed together and played together in the Padre minor league system. I think he’s done an incredible job up there and I got a chance to see the new baseball facility. And I know he put together some competitive clubs.
And then Scott Spiegelberg was the assistant AD there for a long time. His brother, Barry Spiegelberg, sells advertising for Oregon State and I think Washington State. He was the best man at my wedding. And Mike Riley is also a good friend and I knew him when he was down here with the Chargers. And I knew Maureen Murphy, his secretary. So I wear plenty of Oregon State stuff.
Life as General Manager
OSC: Rumor has it that you actually conducted a trade on your wedding day, just before the ceremony. How did that happen?
Towers: I had another GM that was in the wedding party, Randy Smith, who now works for me. Randy, at that time, was the GM of the Detroit Tigers. We made a four player trade. We agreed on the players while we were waiting for my wife and the rest of her wedding party to show up at the church. We were in the back room and exchanged some names and decided after I was married we would announce it the following day and the deal was consummated.
OSC: You made some sweeping changes from the time you came into the GM position in ’95 to the end of ’96. Was it a gamble to be as aggressive as you were right away?
Towers: In this game you have to take chances. I’ve always felt that my strengths are that of an evaluator. I really didn’t come from an administrative background. I felt confident in player procurement and scouting. Kind of the way I came up in the professional ranks is in scouting. The worst trade I made as GM was I traded one of my old teammates at BYU, which was Wally Joyner, and I knew his character. And I still look at as probably one of the most important trades that I’ve made because of the difference that Wally made, how he improved the chemistry of our club and a real strong character guy into our clubhouse. And I don’t think we would have won the division in ’96 and ’98 and went to the World Series without Wally Joyner. We still remain close today and talk quite often. And I think at that point of time the organization was coming of some pretty tough years in the early ’90’s and we needed to change the complexion of the club a great deal and got a great manager in Bruce Bochy. And had some great scouts that helped me in the decision process. We had some great times between ’96 and ’98.
OSC: How excited are you for the Padres this season compared to other seasons?
It’s early in the season, but some fans have asked whether you might be considering picking up another ace pitcher at some point this season?
Towers: We will have to wait and see how the season progresses. Right now our starting pitching is kind of our strength. I would like to think that you can always upgrade. I am hoping we are in this thing in July, and we are looking to add rather than subtract like we’ve done the last five years. And if we’re looking to add, then if the right player is out there, the right pitcher is out there, whatever we think is the most important piece to make this club a playoff contender I know I will get the support of John Moore, who’s our owner. And if it’s a starting pitcher then we will be very active.
OSC: During the off-season there was considerable talk of the Padres going after Greg Maddux. Was payroll the main consideration in his case, or was it a number of factors?
Towers: I would say with Maddux we were definitely interested but he was looking at a more long-term commitment. I started talking with Scott Boras, his advisor, he was looking for a number that was closer to what he was making in Atlanta, over $10 million a year, and we weren’t going to put all our eggs in one basket. We needed to address several areas and as much as we liked Maddux, we knew we weren’t going to do something crazy and leave ourselves holes in other areas. About the time I was talking to Maddux I got a call from Greg Clifton, David Wells’ agent, and his deal wasn’t done, and it wasn’t done with the Yankees. He had expressed interest in coming to San Diego and I knew that because I had run into Wells in the winter of ’98 after they beat us in the World Series. It was in Las Vegas at a blackjack table at the time and he was all over me because I didn’t sign him at that point and time and he ended up going to New York. And he said ‘This is what you could have had.’ And he was flashing his World Series ring. So I knew the second go around I better not be stupid and take a run at him. And we were able to we were able to work something out rather quickly and it was really a very small base, a small guarantee. Everything is incentive laden, where he has to go out there and pitch for it. And it’s only one year. So when I got to looking at Wells and Maddux from a performance standpoint they were very similar guys last year. Wells may be a little bit better and I think that a left-handed starter versus a right-handed starter in the NL West, with the better hitters in the NL West – Bonds, Walker and Helton, Shaun Green, Luis Gonzalez- are predominantly left-handed. Really Wells ended up being a guy I wanted more.
Stadium Development, the Beavers and Portland
OSC: Some are calling Petco a pitchers park, but Joe Morgan made an interesting observation that due to the park being close to the ocean air, and the fact that it’s still a bit cool early in the season that the park could open up more. Now that a few series have been played in Petco, what’s your take on the field design?
Towers: I love it. Being a former pitcher myself, I love pitchers parks. It’s tough to develop pitching, just ask the Colorado Rockies. There is very little foul territory, which benefits the hitters. Big, open, spacious gaps which are going to benefit hitters and you are going to still score runs in this ballpark. It’s just mainly singles, doubles and triples. You will have to hit the ball to get the ball out of the ballpark. There will be not cheap home runs here. I think that as the season goes alone we will get a better idea of how the ball carries in the summer versus the spring. There’s a lot of redevelopment around Petco as well with office buildings and parking structures and I think as those are erected I think you will see that it will be ever so changing, season-to-season. We saw that happen at Safeco with the implosion of the Kingdome, it changed there as it did at Turner field when Fulton County Stadium went down. The first year the ball didn’t carry at all and then Fulton County Stadium went down and all of a sudden the ball started carrying. I think throughout this year it could change month-to-month.
OSC: The Portland Beavers are the AAA affiliate for the Padres. What is your view on the organization, the facility that the Beavers play in which is PGE Park?
Towers: PGE Park is beautiful. They put almost $40 million into refurbishing that ballpark. I know that park well; I have played in it myself. It was Civic Stadium then. Not only as a AAA player in Las Vegas but as a football player in high school. I know the area well; parking will always be a concern. If I had to say there is a thorn in their side I would have to say that there is nowhere to park. But the facility itself, the playing area is outstanding. I love the location — I like downtown parks. I think there are some beautiful areas that surround PGE Park. The clubhouse is great. There are a lot of good things about it.
The city of Portland is a very progressive city. Not only great restaurants but, it’s really, really growing large. I will say that it’s one of my wife’s favorite cities to go to. When we hit all our affiliates she loves to go to Portland. She just loves the city and in the summer time there is no better place. In the summer time it is outstanding and I think a lot of the parking is instability with ownership. That’s what’s been tough for us, the instability there. We love the city, we love the venue, it just makes it difficult when you hear the city is going to lock the place up and we were going to be playing at Centennial High School. That makes it difficult with one of the important affiliates in your organization. But the league has taken over right now and we’ve got a lot of confidence in Jack Cain. He’s got a lot of history and a tremendous reputation, not only in Bend, but when the Rockies [were] there. He’s got tremendous people skills and is a great communicator and somebody that I trust. And I believe they’ll get it together and that place will become a little more stable. Until then, it makes it tough.
OSC: Who can you see in the farm systems of the Padres that might be “the player” of the future?
Towers: Xavier Nady is somebody we’re very high on. They’ve had their share of injuries up there that I think have really hurt them. Nady is someone that we are very, very high on. I think John Knott is an incredible hitter. We’re really not sure what his position is as of yet but he can swing the bat. We like Castro. Chris Oxspring is a real sleeper. He’s a guy that has kind of come out of nowhere. I think he doesn’t realize how good he really may be. He’s an Australian that has four solid, above average pitches. Once he realizes how good he is, I think he’s going to be a real diamond in the rough.
OSC: As in all things sports business related, there are detractors to the concept of major professional sports and the development of stadiums. While ballparks are not a panacea, what things can you see from your experience that makes the ballpark something that a city can rally around?
Towers: I think it’s that the ballpark is going to attract people to this area. If you looked at downtown San Diego 20 years ago and where it is today with the convention center and the ballpark now with the Gaslamp district. And the condominiums that are going up with the businesses. It is really the redevelopment around an area that was really a scary area to go to and now is really turning into a place to be. I think it is going to attract tourists, people that are coming to the convention center. The ballpark is going to allow them to rather going out to eat, going to a ballgame. I think it’s a sense of civic pride. As a San Diegan, maybe in the late ’60’s you could be proud of Qualcomm, but with all the new venues that are going up, different arenas in different sports, Petco is one I think that people have a sense of civic pride in a ballpark and being a San Diegan. This is a type of ballpark that represents the city – the color of it. The sandstone was imported from India because we wanted it to reflect the cliffs of La Jolla. The bell towers is like Balboa Park. We’ve got ivy coming off of it and we’ve incorporated the Western Metals building, which is a historic building in the center city east, where the ballpark is located.
OSC: Portland has worked initially on ballpark design with HOK, who designed Petco Park. What kind of changes came about over the long period of development of the park that Portland might wish to remember should the time arrive to build one here?
Towers: Well, it’s a long arduous process. You know, the politics involved, I think there were 19 different lawsuits filed after it was voted on by the citizens of San Diego, which caused ballpark delays, which creates debts and costs. Construction workers that thought they were on the job and get laid off. It is something where you crawl before you run. This process started well before ’98. The vote was in ’98, but Larry Lachinno and John Morris started the process in probably ’96, at least started talking about it and the need for it and the reasons why. It took eight years for it to become a reality. I think that some of those that were opposed now see the benefits of it – would probably vote differently after having it erected and people have been in it. I think the key thing is that it won’t be easy even if a new ballpark is built in Portland. It’s going to take time. It is not going to happen overnight. Until it’s completed some of those that were opposed won’t appreciate it.
OSC: Do you think that Portland is MLB ready given the fact that there are no teams between the Giants and the Mariners? Would Portland be less of an effect on Seattle given it would be a NL team and Seattle is an AL team? And the nearest NL team would be in San Francisco, 300, 400 miles away.
Towers: I really don’t know if there is an “American League ” fan and a “National League” fan. I think there’s baseball fans. You get southern Oregon, which is probably more drawn to the Giants. And I would say probably from Eugene north of there is probably Mariner fans. I don’t know enough about the demographics to really know if there is enough people to support two Major League franchises, regardless of if they are National League or American League.
OSC: We’re working on MLB, and there is always that talk that if AAA is not supported there’s not really support for Major League Baseball. Do you view them as separate products or is one indicative of the other?
Towers: I think that Oregon will support professional franchises. They have done it in the past with the Trailblazers. I will say that, as somebody on the outside looking in, that what U of O has done with their program and what they have done with their facilities, and what Oregon State is about to do, I think the sports fan there is really college oriented. Track in the summer and the college athletics is really becoming big because of the success of the two college programs up there. And I think that the one tough thing Portland is going to have is that one of the most successful baseball programs being just north of you, three or four hours, in Seattle. I know Portland is a big part of the Mariners market. Seattle generates probably the third most revenue, behind probably Boston and New York. And it’s an organization that probably makes money. If you were to put a club in Portland you are going to affect Seattle. Would you be pulling fans from Seattle and would Seattle be pulling fans from Portland? It’s an unknown.