Cronenworth's fire still burns after he slayed the dragon

March 6th, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Standing on second base with the whole stadium shaking -- heck, the whole city shaking -- did his best to soak it in.

It was the type of moment he dreamt of as a kid -- the type of moment everyone dreamt of as a kid. And Cronenworth had just lived it.

He delivered the go-ahead two-out, two-strike, two-run single that sent the Padres to a historic NLDS upset of the Dodgers. Petco Park was a madhouse.

"You hear people say they feel like they're on top of the world," Cronenworth said. "I never really knew what that meant. But in that specific moment, that's what it felt like. ... It's almost like the game completely stopped, and you're weirdly there, watching the game."

Even then -- amidst an out-of-body experience -- Cronenworth couldn't quite grasp the scope of what he had done.

That came later. Months later.

"You realize what you did, and the impact you had on that game,” Cronenworth said. “I tried to enjoy it as much as possible when I was in it. But looking back on it, seeing the effect that you had not just on the game, but on the city and bringing people together, that's something I'll remember more -- seeing fans and how they reacted, not just that night, but even throughout the offseason."

It hit home most in February, when Cronenworth spent FanFest weekend in San Diego. That Friday, he toured the city, making stops at various neighborhoods and charities. At each stop Padres fans thanked him profusely. A day later, he took in FanFest -- more of the same.

Since Cronenworth arrived at Padres camp, he said, he has overheard kids referring to him as the guy who got that hit against the Dodgers. The image -- Cronenworth rounding first base, letting out a roar and spreading his arms -- adorned the front page of the next day's San Diego Union-Tribune with the headline, “Dragon Slayers.” Cronenworth estimates he has signed a few hundred copies already.

"When it happens, in the moment, [fans] don't get the chance to say, 'Hey, that was awesome,' directly to the player," Cronenworth said. "To see them say, 'Hey, thank you for the hit,' or 'Hey, I'll always remember that hit for the rest of my life,’ you start to realize what it meant to the fans and the city of San Diego."

It meant, as Cronenworth would come to realize, a heck of a lot. On Monday, the Padres play the Dodgers in the Cactus League. They’ll do so viewed largely as equals -- two contenders for the NL West, for the NL pennant, for a World Series title.

Without that hit? Who knows what the narrative is. The Padres lost all six of their regular-season series against Los Angeles last year. They’ve spent a dozen straight seasons looking up at the Dodgers in the standings.

Frankly, for much of the Padres’ existence, they’ve lived in the Dodgers’ shadow, a fact that grated on fans in San Diego for decades. Then Cronenworth delivered the knockout blow in Game 4 of the 2022 NLDS. Little brother finally punched back.

"It's not just [Padres-Dodgers]," Cronenworth said. "In that series, I think we realized how good we actually can be. We can look at that series, the whole playoffs -- I think we, as a group, we were starting to realize what we could do. If anything, that gives us this momentum to move forward this year, and continue, hopefully, to play like that."

The Padres had stormed back from a three-run deficit by the time Cronenworth strode to the plate in the seventh inning that night -- 's double down the line providing the spark and 's single to right tying the game. The pivotal at-bat featured more than enough drama:

• Cronenworth digs in against Yency Almonte. He watches ball one. Then Dodgers manager Dave Roberts emerges from the dugout to call for lefty reliever Alex Vesia. (That was later revealed to have been a miscommunication; the Dodgers meant to call for Vesia prior to the at-bat, but Almonte missed a sign to throw to first base.)

• The count goes 1-2. Then, Soto takes off for second base and stops halfway, hoping to draw a throw. No throw comes, and Soto shuffles irreverently into second.

• Then, Vesia hangs his 2-2 slider. Cronenworth’s swing is compact and smooth. He laces it to center field. Two runs score, and Cronenworth takes second on the throw. The Padres have a lead they won’t relinquish.

At long last, the Padres had slayed the dragon, and Cronenworth was in for a lifetime of adoration in San Diego. But he has begun to notice a line of demarcation where that adoration ends.

When the Padres played the White Sox earlier this spring at Camelback Ranch -- a facility shared by the Dodgers -- the parking lot attendant wore a Dodgers hat. Cronenworth pulled in and noticed that this time he didn’t need any credentials.

“Yeah,” the security guard groused. “I know who you are. Park over there.”

Further proof of a moment that altered the landscape of baseball in Southern California.

"Maybe now,” Cronenworth said, laughing as though he would be truly honored, “I'll get booed at Dodger Stadium.”