As Padres and Melvin seek first title, a perfect marriage

April 6th, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was the second pitch of the first inning of an early-spring Cactus League game against Cleveland. On the far southwest side of the valley, few Padres regulars had made the trip. Fans, for the most part, were still filing into Goodyear Ballpark on a warm Tuesday afternoon.

And Bob Melvin was already incensed.

C.J. Abrams, the Padres' top prospect, had sent a deep drive into the right-field corner. The ball appeared to hook around the pole for what would have been Abrams' third home run of the spring. But first-base ump Ed Hickox ruled it foul.

From the top step of his dugout, Melvin chirped. After the game, he objected strongly in a scrum with reporters. Those gripes came in earnest. Prior to camp, Melvin and the rest of the Padres' brass had told the 21-year-old Abrams that he might win a roster spot if he performed during camp. Abrams was doing everything he could. And now, in Melvin's eyes, he'd had a big moment stolen from him.

You better believe Melvin's new team took note.

"He challenged [Abrams] to make this team, and then he was pulling for him," said Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer, who hadn't made the trip but rather read Melvin's words later that day. "He was all-in for his guy. Little things like that can go a long way for a guy's confidence, and they make you want to run through a brick wall for the guy."

That's what the Padres are getting in their new managerial hire, says bench coach Ryan Christenson, who served alongside Melvin for the past five years in Oakland. Off the field, he's even-keeled, unfazed by much. On the field...

"He is as competitive as they come," Christenson said. "That's one of the things that makes him attractive to these players. He's going to be the first one out there, getting their back and arguing for them when it needs to happen."

The 2022 Padres never did make that big splash offensively. They fortified their starting rotation, but it's largely the same group. Instead, the biggest offseason acquisition is unquestionably the hiring of Melvin.

His arrival feels like a perfect marriage -- a championship-starved franchise and fanbase with a world-class manager who remains in search of the very same thing. Melvin has won Manager of the Year three times. He's been to the postseason seven times. He's never won a title.

"It couldn't line up any better," said Christenson. "And it's one of the things that made it attractive to me to come down here with Bob, to be a part of that group that could possibly bring San Diego that first world championship."

There's work to do first. A lot of work. The Padres finished 79-83 last year, ending their season in a 12-34 tailspin that led to Jayce Tingler's dismissal and a complete overhaul of the coaching staff. Their star players publicly feuded in late September, their pitching staff disintegrated, and by the end of it all, everyone involved was just so. worn. out.

That is distinctly not the version of the 2021 Padres Melvin remembers. Melvin's A's played the Padres in late July and early August, before that freefall. San Diego, at the time, was a presumed playoff lock.

On a Tuesday night in late July, more than 40,000 fans packed into Petco Park for a game against Melvin's A's. In his introductory press conference in October, Melvin recalled that moment. It still stands out to him.

"It was so inspiring to be there and to feel the way those fans affected things," Melvin said. "It's almost like a 10th man. You don't consider them fans; you consider them a part of what could happen for us. I'm really looking forward to that, and I think our players are, too. I don't want them to be callous to the fact that you just don't get that everywhere."

Melvin has that vision in mind when he pictures his new home ballpark. He also has that vision in mind when he pictures his new team. After falling into an early hole that night, Fernando Tatis Jr. homered, then Manny Machado homered, and the Padres were on their way to a dramatic come-from-behind victory. They led the NL Wild Card race by six games, and were squarely in contention for a division title.

Then came the freefall. Melvin has his own thoughts on the Padres' collapse. (It would be foolish not to have analyzed the situation exhaustively.) He's also not willing to share those thoughts. It's time to look forward, he says. No need to dwell.

Of course, it's wholly unfair to chalk up the Padres' 2021 collapse to the manager's chair. It was, after all, the players who universally underperformed (or got injured).

Still, those who have played for Melvin insist that his greatest skill is his ability to keep things moving in the right direction, even if it starts feeling bleak. Especially when it starts feeling bleak.

Right-hander Emilio Pagán was in the A's bullpen in 2018 when Melvin's team got off to a dreadful start in April. Melvin didn't call a team meeting. He opted for casual one-on-one conversations, player by player. The message, as Pagán recalls it: "Hey, we're fine. We're a very talented group."

Pagán, in his first full big league season, had his doubts. He, honestly, wasn't so sure. But Melvin soothed those doubts. The 2018 A's would go on to win 97 games.

"It was the way he delivered it," Pagan said. "The way he was talking, you could tell he genuinely believed it. He genuinely believed in us. There was no panicking. There was no: 'Tomorrow, we have to get here early.' ... And he was right. We were good enough. We were fine."

This spring, there was a new challenge awaiting Melvin. He inherited a new roster -- and on the first day of camp, that roster learned it had lost its superstar shortstop for the next three months. Melvin's message -- as it would have been, even with a healthy Tatis -- was about the collective. It's a roster of 26 (or 28 to start the year). But it takes an entire organization to win. That begins with stars like Tatis and Machado. It includes fringe roster players and midseason callups. The Padres players would echo Melvin's words all spring.

Of course, Melvin had a bit of an abbreviated spring with which to build those relationships. He was hired in October, the lockout began in December, and Melvin only met some of his players for the first time in mid-March. To that end, Melvin hasn't forced anything -- making an effort to develop those relationships organically on the field. His players have been wholly appreciative of the way Melvin has treated them this spring -- "like adults," one said.

"One thing that's pretty significant to me: You don't see him in the clubhouse a lot," right fielder Wil Myers said. "A lot of times, the more you speak, the less your words mean. When you have a guy like that, who's not trying to always be in here, when he does speak, you're really listening."

The Padres open their season on Thursday night in Arizona, where Melvin managed from 2005-09. His managerial career began before then with two seasons in Seattle. It was in Oakland, however, where Melvin ascended into the realm of the game's top managers.

At all three of those stops, Melvin dealt with challenges, payrolls well below those of his rivals. In the past, that may have been true about the Padres. It no longer is.

"Peter Seidler is a great owner," Melvin said. "I think the people of San Diego understand that. For the most part, it's a small market, but operates like a big market. The people of San Diego appreciate that. I'm certain players do as well.

"I've never managed a team with this type of payroll, so I'm looking forward to it."

Melvin starts Thursday, with an opportunity to deliver that elusive first title to San Diego. An opportunity -- at age 60, and 19 years into his brilliant managerial career -- to claim that first title for himself. An opportunity to do both at once, to potentially share in that joy with a franchise, a fanbase, an entire city.

"Independent of anything involving me, the city is looking for that, and you can feel it," Melvin said. "You're getting the support from ownership, putting a team together that has the potential to do that."

And, perhaps, landing a manager capable of taking them there.