Buddy Black, the long-tenured manager of the San Diego Padres, developed a habit of speaking in measured, defensive tones during his post-game interviews. He has usually responded to media comments in painful expressions, like a man with heartburn after devouring a chile relleno. Really, it’s been hard not to hurt for the guy. In his eighth season at the helm in San Diego, he has only two winning campaigns and is in the final year of a contract extension. Things were not looking good.
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Those were the old days.
Since the non-waiver trade deadline expired and the month of August began, the Padres have played with added inspiration and the mood in the clubhouse has become more festive. The team has a record of 17-11 since the All-Star break, primarily due to some timely hitting that has staked the starting pitchers to some early run support. Black has never had the luxury of filling out a lineup card that would instill fear among opposing hurlers. But now the skipper has some options that has made him a bit less edgy. He has some hungry guys who play the game the right way. The long-awaited Latino invasion has finally arrived in a city only a few miles from an international border.
Hispanic talent that has been historically missing in San Diego has increased in recent years. Shortstop Everth Cabrera, first baseman Yonder Alonso, catchers Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera plus super sub Alexi Amarista have all made contributions to the club’s limited success. Even bullpen specialist Alex “Wild Thing” Torres has made a fashion statement by wearing a padded, prototype cap on the mound. The Padres have made some new acquisitions, though, that are starting to put them over the top.
Starting pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne, 27, a crafty Cuban with a style similar to Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, has been a welcome addition to a strong rotation. Despite his success with the Havana Industriales, one of Cuba’s most storied teams, Despaigne’s lack of electric stuff didn’t impress many scouts during tryouts after he defected to Mexico. That enabled the Padres to swoop in and ink the right-hander to a minor league deal. Despaigne, a serious gum-chewer (no bubbles) who wears a crocked cap a la Fernando Rodney, has worked 60 innings in 10 starts with a compiled ERA of 3.28. He ususlly pitches deep into games and even flirted with a no-hit performance a few weeks ago.
Another new warrior is Yangervis Solarte, picked up in the Chase Headley trade with the New York Yankees. Since traveling coast to coast, the energetic Venezuelan has notched a solid slash line of .282/.370/.423. Solarte also can flash the leather at second and third base as well as the outfield, giving his team some extra defensive moves to ponder. Another swap that made sense was picking up power-hitting Abraham Almonte from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Chris Denorfia. Both are speedy outfielders but Almonte, 25, is under team control through 2019. Denorfia is 34 and was headed for free agency. Solarte and Almonte are also switch-hitters, which is also a versatile commodity.
Look, I know Odrisamer Despaigne, Yangervis Solarte and Abraham Almonte are not household names, even in Latin America. And veteran Padre broadcaster Dick Enberg gets tongue-tied each time he must announce their presence on the field. But these guys blend in with the mix and compete with no fear, because they appreciate the opportunity to prove they belong in the big leagues.
Just a few days ago, another positive scenario developed with the Friars. One of the organization’s top pupils, Rymer Liriano, became the first graduate of its Dominican academy to make it to The Show. Liriano’s promotion took a slight detour when Tommy John surgery on his right elbow put him on the sidelines for over a year. The 23-year-old outfielder bounced back quickly, however, and was hitting .432 in 62 plate appearances at triple-A El Paso when promoted.
All this LatinoMania has influenced ownership in San Diego to make changes at the highest levels. After firing General Manager Josh Byrnes, the Padres were expected to hire Yankees executive Billy Eppler to fill that void. Instead, the gig went to A.J. Preller, the sidekick and college pal of Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels. Why? Because the Long Island native has a solid track record for sniffing out extraordinary Latino talent. Chasing prospects in the Caribbean was one of Preller’s main responsibilities for a decade with the Rangers, 200 days out of the year. He taught himself Spanish on the fly by conversing with the locals, and the Texas “treasure trove” of Latino stars speaks for itself.
Preller’s pet project was the Rangers’ Dominican training facility, which is not as plush as the Padres complex but has reaped better harvests. It is also rumored that the Padres, the only MLB franchise with a Spanish nickname and mascot, might try to open up more scouting missions in Mexico. That’s an idea that San Diego has hashed over before Preller, 35, was even born. Teams must answer to a different set of rules down there, and it ain’t easy, even for a gringo who speaks the language.
Still, the Padres seem like they finally get it. The injury bug still bites, with Cabrera and Alonso on the DL and Solarte barely recovering from an oblique strain. This is a club, though, that no longer gets shutout almost every other night. The fans are showing up, even at games that don’t offer a free promotion. Thanks in part to the Hispanic invasion, baseball has become exciting again in the border city, at least in a frugal sort of way.
The future looks bright, perhaps even for Buddy Black.