The A’s Early Losing Woes: Nothing Compared To The 1974 Padres

It’s not how the Oakland Athletics started this season that makes them memorable, it’s how badly they started. They lost their first five by a combined score of 45-15. But as the old saying goes, it could have been worse. They could have been donning the brown and yellow of the team 47 years ago that had just been kept in San Diego by a man with golden arches.

The 2021 Oakland Athletics have become just the third team since 1974 to give up at least seven runs in each of their first five games. The other squads to give up this bounty of plate-crossings per game were the 1995 Chicago White Sox (seven games – and they won one), and the 1974 San Diego Padres, who gave up eight runs twice and nine runs four times in their first six games.

Those White Sox were ultimately meh, with no compelling story except the beginning of Terry Bevington’s managerial career, which was more memorable for its ending anyway.

But those Padres? Oh, man. Let’s dig in…

The 1974 Padres were lucky to even be in San Diego. They were scheduled to move to Washington after only attracting 611,812 fans in 1973 and the ownership bailed on them. Fortunately for San Diego, Ray Kroc stepped in with that sweet McDonalds money and saved the franchise. They were bad, yes, coming off a 60-102 season, but there was hope.

They had a somewhat promising core, with several players 27 or younger playing every day. Third baseman Dave Roberts, catcher Fred Kendall, and outfielders Johnny Grubb, and rookie Dave Winfield all hit well. Infielder Derrel Thomas and outfielder Jerry Morales were also gaining experience. Another outfielder, Leron Lee, was a disappointment in ’73, but he was just 25 and sometimes that’s how it goes.

On the mound, a pair of 23-year-olds looked solid. Bill Greif had an ugly 10-17 record but a reasonably good 3.21 ERA. Randy Jones went 7-6 with a 3.16 ERA using his sinker and slop. Clay Kirby had a bad 1973 season but he was solid in 1971 and 1972 and was just 25. The bullpen was a mess at times. The best options, lefties Mike Caldwell (age 24) and Rich Troedson (age 23) filled in as starters , and there was really no depth except for old man Vicente Romo (who was only 30 put had been pitching in Mexico since 1961).

The Padres had a new manager in John McNamara, who managed the 1970 Oakland A’s to 89 wins before being ushered out for Dick Williams. Young players, new manager, let’s roll. At least let’s not screw it up.

(Narrator: They screwed it up. Even before the calendar turned to 1974, they screwed it up.)

October 1973 was the beginning of the mess, when they swung a deal with the Giants to get Willie McCovey. It cost them Mike Caldwell. “Stretch” still put up great numbers when healthy, but he had missed a lot of games in the last two years. Also, this move displaced the Padres’ true star, Nate Colbert. Colbert had hit 149 home runs since 1969, and was a three-time All Star. Fans recognized his talent despite his relatively low RBI and runs scored totals, totally due to the ineptitude of the Padres’ offense.

Colbert had only played first for San Diego, except for an emergency inning at third in 1970. Where was he going to play? He had played some outfield as recently as 1968, but not since. He had moved to first for a reason.

In November 1973 when they moved Jerry Morales to the Cubs for Glenn Beckert, who ostensibly would fill a gaping hole at second (never mind that Thomas could play second if they moved Enzo Hernandez back to short). Beckert was 32, but was an OLD 32, slow with no secondary offensive skills besides hitting singles.

Then they traded Kirby to the Reds for Bobby Tolan, who was coming off a lousy season.. As they were getting olderr in the field, and not that much better, they now needed another arm in the rotation.

Keep in mind It did seem like the Padres were going to move to Washington and were hoping to have some recognizable names, at least, for the fans to flock…flock? I meant saunter… to RFK Stadium – in dribs and drabs (If Washington didn’t support the Ted WIlliams Senators, why would they support this bunch?). Anyway…

In January 1974, Kroc bought the team. So much for the strategy of attracting fans in a new city with recognizable names. Now they’d have to get fans in San Diego without some of their best young players, because they’d just traded them away.

During Spring Training, they waived Leron Lee, ceding more youth in favor of keeping players like Matty Alou. And bringing back a former Padre catcher, Bob Barton, to act as the backup to Kendall. Barton, though, was an old 32.

On April 5th, it was go time, with three at Los Angeles. McNamara chose Dave Hilton as his third baseman instead of the promising and ‘72 #1 pick Dave Roberts, put Colbert in left, and sat Winfield. Beckert was at second. Bill Greif took the hill. He and Mike Corkins were shelled, giving up seven runs through five. Don Sutton pitched a shutout for the Dodgers, and the final was 8-0.

The next day, Winfield was in center but didn’t last long after he crashed into a wall going for a fly. Randy Jones gave up six runs in four innings, Tommy John pitched a shutout, and the final was again 8-0 Dodgers.

For the third game, Alou played left, Thomas started at second (so much for Beckert the vet), and Jim McAndrew -a waiver claim from the Mets- started for the Padres. He gave way to rookie Joe McIntosh early on.

McIntosh’s pro career started the year before after being drafted from Washington State. He made 14 starts in the Pioneer League, the low short season Class A league for recent draftees. So, yeah, he was ready for the majors. Why not? The answer is: that was what the Padres did then. Roberts and Winfield went right to the big leagues from the draft. McIntosh played in short-season A. Most of the young Padres jumped from the draft and short season to AA ball at the least. Of course, the Padres had NO Class A teams of their own. They last had one in 1971.

That’s no way to run a railroad.

So, they fell behind 7-0 in game three, and then somehow scratched out two runs against Andy Messersmith. But a desultory 9-2 loss left San Diego 0-3 before their first homestand.

Facing the 0-3 Astros, the Padres may have had some hope. 39,000+ fans came out to see the beginning of the Ray Kroc era. Steve Arlin, a past star of the team trying to rebound from a bad 1973, couldn’t get out of the second inning. Neither could rookie reliever Ralph Garcia. Troedson finally stopped the bleeding, and then was pinch hit for in the bottom of the second. Four other relievers came and went, and even though they scored three runs in the 8th, they still fell 9-5 and received a PA reprimand from the owner. “I’ve never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life,” Kroc said over the stadium speakers.

Just you wait, Ray. Just you wait.

Game five featured Bernie “Not Him” Williams in center. Thomas had replaced Hilton at third. Roberts was still pinch hitting. Greif started and was chased in the 5th. Troedson was shelled as well. Astros pitcher Dave Roberts gave up just one run. Dave Roberts the pitcher finished sixth in the 1971 Cy Young Award voting… and was promptly traded. Two years later his start for the opposition was now another loss for the Padres, this time 9-1. 43 runs against in five games.

And yes, there are two Dave Roberts who were part of the early Padres history (current Dodgers manager Dave Roberts would be the third Dave Roberts to play for the Padres when he ended up in San Diego more than three decades later. He would also happen to be the manager of the team that beat Oakland 10-3 on April 5, 2021. But wait, not enough Dave Roberts for you? A fourth Dave Roberts also played for the Astros as part of three seasons in the 1960s with Houston and Pittsburgh. There were done. On to the Padres’ 1974 game six.

Game six of that season was against Houston again. Padre third baseman Roberts finally cracked the starting lineup. Colbert, 0-fer the season, started at first. Randy Jones started, and didn’t last two innings, McIntosh and Garcia also ‘contributed’. and Tom Griffin and two Houston relievers limited the Padres to one run again. And again, they lost 9-1.

Outscored 52-9 over six games, a season with some promise was suddenly spiraling out of control.

San Diego finally got a win when Arlin spun a nice game against the Giants. But the losing went on in April. The nadir was at Cincinnati on April 20th and 21st losing 11-0 and 10-1 before ‘righting’ the ship with a 7-2 win in game two of a doubleheader. The team ERA was almost six, and wholesale changes were made.

They got some help from the farm. Dave Freisleben came up from Hawaii and became their best pitcher. But they also got some harm from there too. Minor leaguers Gary Ross, Dave Tomlin, Larry Hardy and Bill Laxton came up as well and didn’t do so hot. That AAA farm team at Hawaii was more of a collection of rusting parts than a collection of players being groomed for the bigs.

Go look these players up on Baseball Reference: Ed Acosta, Hank Allen, Wade Blasingame, Pat Corrales, Ted Ford, Rod Gaspar, Gail Hopkins, Gerry Janeski, Garry Jestadt, Don Mason, and Hector Torres. Some are Padres of the past, others were just past their prime. None would make an a real impact in the majors ever again.

The sad thing was that down on the farm were Rich Chiles and Gene Locklear. Both only 24, and both could hit. Locklear was called up in July and hit well, mostly as a pinch hitter. Chiles never got the call and wound up out of baseball for a year.

Garcia went down to Hawaii, never to return. (Not a bad place to be exiled though). McIntosh was sent down on April 14th. Troedson lasted until mid-May before disappearing from the majors forever. McAndrew lasted until May 29th, then he was flat-out released. Ross was up only a month before being sent away.

Somehow, the Padres settled down for a while. They got on a roll and raised their record up to 14-16 after a 5-3 win in Philly. Then they lost 11 of 12, giving up 65 runs and losing an extra inning game by six. By the end of May the squad was 18-36 and already 20 games behind the Dodgers.

Then, San Diego woke up again. Whether it was the acquisition of Horace Clarke and pitcher Lowell Palmer from the Yankees (chuckle), or just a team that decided to be patient and let the kids play and pitch, June was a good month for San Diego.

McNamara had a somewhat stable lineup, shoehorning nine ‘regulars’ into eight spots by rotating Colbert in the outfield with Winfield, Grubb, and Tolan, and spelling McCovey at first when his knees hurt too much. Barton gave Kendall a solid backup. Hilton, Alou, and Beckert were already relegated to bench duty (nice trade there, Padres, a future all-star for an old benchy. Well played). Clarke seemed to be a superfluous addition since he only played second – and so did Beckert. And neither started.

Let’s dwell on that infield for a bit. In 1973 Roberts played third and hit well. Thomas played a lot at short, and wasn’t the best fielder. But he could play second, and Hernandez definitely could handle short. Second base was a disaster area in 1973, but Thomas could handle second. Hilton could fill in at second and third. Rich Morales, the disaster artist at second in 1973, could play all of the infield positions if needed (just don’t ask him to hit).

So, with young, promising players and competent fielders at second, short, and third. The Padres decided to add TWO aging players for 1974 whocould only play second, and knocking Thomas around the infield at first. They also did Roberts dirty by not starting him to begin the year and then yanking him in and out of the lineup. Rich Morales was still hanging around and his best position was second, and Hilton could also play second realistically. So on the roster, they had five second basemen or utility guys that could play second and Roberts could play second in a pinch. That’s smart roster construction. Winning by flooding the field with second basemen.

From 18-36, by the time July 1 rolled around they were 35-47. Stability seemed to work. They had a winning June! They didn’t lose any ground – still 20 games back. Was this the breakthrough the Padres have been waiting for?

Nah.

After a win to start July, they immediately lost six in a row, scoring just 11 runs while giving up 37. They did win six of the next eight, and pulled back to 42-55. Then the bottom dropped out, the wheels fell off, and any other pithy cliché you could recite.

Losses mounted, like 10-2 to the Mets. 14-1 and 8-0 to the Reds. 15-4 to the Dodgers. And it was only going to get worse.

Arms were swapped out again. Arlin was traded to the Indians. Mike Corkins was put on a flight to Hawaii. Dan Spillner, Rusty Gerhardt, and Mike Johnson came up from the minors. Nothing really worked, though Spillner did ok enough – better than Arlin and McAndrew, for certain.

August was miserable. The Padres won just six times in 26 games. They averaged just 2.8 runs per game and gave up 5.2. A nine-game homestand to end the month saw the club go 1-8, scoring just 15 runs while giving up 42. They lost to good pitchers, bad pitchers, good teams, and bad teams. Mostly, by three or more runs, too.

A stretch of 13 losses in 14 games straddled August and September. While the season’s gate was much improved overall, the stink of the losses affected the crowds down the stretch, both at home and away. 1,562 people in Atlanta saw them lose to the Braves. A two-game series at home against Houston drew 4,827 fans total. And the season cappers in San Francisco were both seen by under 1,500 souls in Candlestick.

The end result was a 60-102 season, same as it was the year before. Except instead of hope, there was much frustration. The squad scored the least number of runs and gave up the most runs in all of Major League Baseball (That’s…not good).

Only five players had a WAR of 1.0 or more (Freisleben, McCovey, Grubb, Winfield, and Grief). Dave Roberts, yanked to and fro in the lineup, hit .167 with an OPS+ of 43. Enzo Hernandez joined him in the tank with an OBP and SLG both under .300. Thomas and Kendall regressed significantly from 1973.

Tolan could only play 98 games due to more injuries. When he was in there he didn’t hit and was one of the worst fielders in the league. Colbert fell hard, hitting just 14 home runs and not slugging .400 while being a net negative in the field. Vets Gaston, Alou, Beckert, and Clarke were basically worthless. Beckert, especially, since his defensive range was gone as well as his offense. With all of this, the Padres still couldn’t find room to let Gene Locklear play regularly, even though he was capable and there was a spot thanks to Toland and Colbert’s struggles.

Just to illustrate how bad this team was on offense:Barton, who played just 30 games before getting hurt, finished seventh on the teams in WAR at 0.7. Not just seventh best WAR of offense – seventh best ON THE TEAM. When he was injured, an aging Chris Cannizzaro replaced him, because if you need a backup catcher, why not get one who caught for both the 1962 Mets and the 1969 Padres (Editor’s note: Canizzaro led the league twice in throwing out would-be base-stealers. He made an All-Star team in 1969, the year he hit .220).

As bad as the offense was, the real story of this season was the pitching, or lack thereof. Freisleben was the breakout ‘star’ with an ERA of 3.66 and a 9-14 record. He LED the team in WAR at 3.6. Greif lost 19 games with a 4.66 ERA. Jones lost 22 with 4.45 mark. Spillner did wind up 9-11 with a 4.01 ERA, so that was some ‘good news’. Overall, the starting pitchers were 38-85 with a 4.59 ERA. Only two pitchers, total (Friesleben and McIntosh) had ERAs under 4.00. Of course, McIntosh was sent down in April and was just recalled in September to be part of the rotation, pitch well and lose.

The bullpen was…special too. No relief pitcher wound up under 4.00. The pen somehow had a winning record (22-17), but that only demonstrates how worthless wins are as a stat, especially for relief pitchers. Their ERA was WORSE than the starters. They saved just 19 games, but had only 29 save situations. They compiled just 14 holds as well. Most of their appearances were in losses, and in low leverage situations. They were entering lost causes and doingnothing to stop the onslaught.

McNamara kept calling on the same guys or should I say, guy. Hardy, despite spending two weeks in AAA, appeared in 76 games throwing just over 100 innings. Somehow he vultured his way to a 9-4 record, but he had a 4.69 ERA and a WHIP of 1.70. In all of those games, he had two saves, two holds, and four blown saves. 57 of his appearances were ‘low leverage’, or “we’re behind by a lot and we need a pitcher or else we forfeit and that would be a bad look.”

Somehow, after all that, McNamara kept his job. (Mind you, the front office , who weren’t fired after the ownership change, were responsible for a lot of these issues). Some of the youngsters that came up in September (Jerry Turner, Bill Almon, Mike Ivie) were decent enough major leaguers, and players like Grubb, Thomas, and Kendall lasted a while in the bigs.

But Beckert was released in early 1975 and never played again. Roberts was never really the same after this season of woe (they even converted him to catcher) and neither was Colbert, who was out of baseball by 1977. McCovey had a couple of great years in his future, and some bad ones, too. Tolan washed out in a few years. And Winfield was, well, on his way to the Hall of Fame after he finally escaped.

The pitchers had middling success in the future. Jones had a nice run in 1975 and 1976 before overwork curtailed his effectiveness. Freisleben never really fulfilled his promise and was out of MLB by 1980. Greif was gone from the league by 1977. Ross and Laxton left baseball that year as well. Spillner managed to hold on until 1985, and somehow won 16 games with an over 5.00 ERA for the Indians of all teams. Tomlin was quasi effective until 1980. Hardy pitched only 18 more games after this season.

McIntosh had a promising 1975 (very similar to Freisleben’s 1974) but during the year blew out his rotator cuff and never pitched in the majors again.

But what’s really interesting are the players that called the 1974 Padres their final stop in the bigs (at least). You had old geeze vets like Clarke, Barton, Cannizzaro, and Alou. Rich Morales somehow got over 1,170 career plate appearances with a .195/.267/.242 slash line. He was done, too. Hot Rod Gaspar, a 1969 Mets hero, grabbed a cuppa joe with this team (33 games, 18 plate appearances). “Not That” Bernie Williams exited the MLB stage as well.

For the pitchers, Corkins, Palmer, McAndrew, Gerhardt (a jetliner ERA won’t get you invited back, kid), Mike Johnson, Troedson, and poor Ralph Garcia never made it back to the bigs. In all, seven of the 18 pitchers and 14 of the 43 overall players saw their last action for the Padres in 1974. Steve Arlin should get an honorable mention. He was roughed up in Cleveland and traded. He then left baseball, deciding that dentistry was his true calling.

In total, the Padres killed the careers of 15 players in 1974.

And on the farm, a bunch of those rusted parts never made it off the island. With no Class A team, why were they wasting time on Gail Hopkins or Garry Jestadt, players who were last decent in 1971? No one cares if you’re winning in Hawaii, anyway. I mean, they served mai-tais at the ballpark.

Now I doubt the 2021 Oakland Athletics will be that bad, or kill that many careers, as these wonderful Padres of 1974. However, there’s always a team or two that surprise… either being fantastic or egregious.

Will the A’s be one of those?

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