SAN DIEGO — Xander Bogaerts faced a dilemma. He had just unboxed a custom pair of spiffy brown cleats with yellow accents that popped. And as he sat at his locker handling them some four hours before his first opening day with the Padres, he asked someone standing nearby a colorful question.
“Do you like white or brown laces?”
Across the game, most others on this day were treading carefully into the new season, wondering about more weighty issues. Where will the runs come from? Is there enough depth in the bullpen for the impending six-month grind of the regular season?
But these Padres are different, set apart by an enormous payroll, vivid swagger and unique team colors.
From the visitors’ dugout this weekend, they were unrecognizable to the Colorado skipper, Bud Black, from when he managed in San Diego. Then, from 2007 through 2015, his Padres wore blue. And they were a deteriorating franchise overseen by an owner, John Moores, who for all intents and purposes had checked out. His other businesses and a messy divorce were occupying much of his time.
When Black managed the Padres to a surprise 90-win season in 2010, contending for a playoff spot through that season’s final day in San Francisco, he did so with a team payroll that had been chopped to $37.7 million. It ranked 29th in Major League Baseball, nestled between the Oakland Athletics at No. 28 and the dead-last Pittsburgh Pirates.
The cumulative payrolls of Black’s first four teams in San Diego ($213 million) did not even add up to the franchise’s estimated payroll this season ($237 million) — by far a franchise record.
“I’ve never been in those shoes. You know, those higher payroll teams,” Black said, smiling. “So I don’t know what that’s like.”
According to Spotrac’s estimates, only the Mets ($335.9 million) and the Yankees ($268.9 million) are spending more on their team payroll to chase a World Series title this year than the Padres, now controlled by the owner Peter Seidler. Seidler and Ron Fowler, who stepped down after the 2020 season, led the group that purchased the team from Moores in 2014.
As the superstars Bogaerts, Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Joe Musgrove were introduced before Thursday’s opener, the sellout crowd of 45,103, many of whom had lost interest in baseball while watching the team divest itself of the 2007 National League Cy Young Award-winner Jake Peavy, the slugger Adrián González and the future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman, stood and roared.
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When the introductions were finished, there was an aggregate of 37 All-Star Game selections standing along the first-base line, or residing somewhere on this star-spangled roster. Nelson Cruz (seven All-Star selections), Machado (six) and Yu Darvish (five) led the way, with Bogaerts and closer Josh Hader chipping in four each.
“I wish I’d have had some of these teams when I was here,” said Peavy, who was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 2009 even after signing for a hometown discount of $52 million over three years. He was in town to throw out the season’s ceremonial first pitch before being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame later this summer.
“San Diego is on fire,” Peavy added enthusiastically.
Different days, different times.
“I remember when I first came into the big leagues, everything was different here,” said Rockies outfielder Kris Bryant, who debuted with the Chicago Cubs in 2015, two years after they made him their first-round pick out of the University of San Diego. “Different coaches, different players, different field dimensions.
“Everything has changed.”
That includes the expectations. After bouncing the Dodgers last October before losing to Philadelphia in the N.L. Championship Series, the Padres will play the most anticipated season in franchise history. All four games this weekend sold out, setting a new club attendance record to open a season. Fervor is so high that in the late innings of Thursday night’s 7-2 loss to Colorado, there were even a smattering of boos from this mostly sunny and optimistic fan base — and then more as the Padres dropped to 0-2 on Friday night.
Nevertheless, the club announced before the season’s third game Saturday that infielder Jake Cronenworth had signed a seven-year, $80 million extension.
Another day, another whopping check.
“Baseball is a weird sport,” said Machado, a voice of experience, before the season’s first pitch was thrown. “Over 162 games you have ups, you have downs, there are a lot of highs, a lot of lows, a lot of streaks. It goes both ways.
“But with these guys in here, we have a lot of tools in the box.”
In Bogaerts, a key part of Boston’s 2018 World Series triumph, and in Soto, who helped lead Washington to a title in 2019, the Padres have two players with recent championship pedigrees on whom they are counting to be influencers.
“If I’m going to compare it to a team that I was privileged to be on previously, it would be that one,” Bogaerts said of the 2018 Red Sox team that won 108 games and rolled through a postseason that culminated with a five-game World Series breeze over the Dodgers. “That ’18 team, we were that much better than every team in the league. And with the expectation, we went out and we delivered.”
Bogaerts delivered on Saturday night by smashing a two-run, first-inning homer to help push San Diego to its first win of the year. He homered again on Sunday as the Padres won a second straight game to split the series with Colorado, an N.L. West rival.
As with any worthwhile influencer, there was a clear and pointed message in his comments: The actual delivery of a well-appointed blueprint is never a guarantee. Charlie Blackmon, Colorado’s designated hitter, has witnessed many significant changes in the N.L. West since his rookie season in 2011, including the various permutations in Petco Park.
“They’re a good team, but this is the big leagues and every night you’re facing All-Stars,” Blackmon said, adding: “A few years ago, San Diego went for it and had a bunch of big contracts and had to blow it up. It’s not necessarily a sustainable model, what we’ve seen so far. So it makes you wonder.”
Specifically, he was referring to 2015. That was the first full season for A.J. Preller, then the general manager, now the president of baseball operations, always the aggressive architect whatever his title. Preller traded for the All-Stars Matt Kemp, Derek Norris and Craig Kimbrel and signed free agent pitcher James Shields that season. The Padres started slowly, fired Black in June, finished 74-88 and started all over again after finishing 68-94 in 2016.
The payroll reached a then-Padres record $108.3 million in 2015 and $99 million in 2016. The 90 wins in 2010 with a payroll a third or so of those remains the most victories for the club in any season since San Diego’s 1998 N.L. pennant-winning team.
“That was maybe the most fun we had, that group of players,” Black said of a team led by González and infielder David Eckstein that squeezed 14 wins each out of starters Clayton Richard, Jon Garland and Mat Latos. “What a great year that was. That was a ton of fun. Those seasons are special because nobody expects you to do anything, and then you do it.”
Now in his seventh season in Colorado following eight summers and part of a ninth in San Diego, Black was named as the N.L. Manager of the Year in 2010. As usual, he has another underdog team now in Colorado, with the Rockies’ $166 million payroll in the middle of the pack, just above the league average of $148.6 million.
“Those are the shoes that I’ve been in,” he said. “And I love being in those shoes because it is a great challenge.”
Across the diamond, the Padres’ embarrassment of riches extended all the way to their shoelaces.
“Brown looks like a funeral,” Bogaerts said, assessing the brown-on-brown scheme, sorting through his decision.
He eliminated switching out to yellow laces (“too wild”). Finally, he opted for white, and relaced them himself.
“I know white is going to get dirty,” he sighed.
He knows staying completely clean is an impossible ask, anyway. No matter the size of the team’s payroll, part of the beauty of a season is that, at some point, all must pick themselves up and shake off some dirt.