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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Padres deliver ‘big-city energy’ for invigorated San Diego

When Padres CEO Erik Greupner and his college-bound son sat down Tuesday morning at The Original Pancake House in Encinitas, the baseball executive simply sought a father-son bonding moment and breakfast.

What he discovered amid all those waffles and eggs, though, was real-time proof the seismic trade for 23-year-old superstar Juan Soto soon would change more than a franchise.

Diners had no idea the man in the cap and workout clothes already knew what was about to ripple through the restaurant.

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“When the news broke on social media, every table around us, one by one, began to talk to each other about it,” said Greupner, who was with President of Baseball Operations A.J. Preller the night before at Petco Park as the deal was being sealed.

“Next to us, a man and his wife, he said, ‘I can’t believe this. Juan Soto is a Padre. Do you have any idea how much our tickets are worth?’ ”

That’s a hint at why the Soto trade outsizes the player’s larger-than-life self, an offensive talent so off the charts he has been hailed as a modern-day Ted Williams, the San Diego son and ageless hitting gold standard.

He’s not just a one-man financial engine, creating windfalls for season ticketholders. He’s a 6-foot-2, 224-pound bundle of hope for San Diego, a city gut-punched by the cowardly exit of the NFL’s Chargers after 56 seasons. He’s a chest-puffing opportunity for a city that outgunned the game’s biggest brands, including the despised Dodgers.

In a sports sense, San Diego has been the boyfriend or girlfriend jilted again and again and again. Not one NBA team, but two — the Rockets and Clippers — abandoned the city. When the Chargers drafted quarterback Eli Manning No. 1 overall in 2004, he said he would refuse to sign in a nationally embarrassing snub.

The Padres drafted troubled local star Matt Bush No. 1 overall, instead of Hall of Fame lock Justin Verlander. They allowed Dave Winfield to drift away in free agency and traded away Ozzie Smith and Roberto Alomar, three players immortalized in Cooperstown, N.Y. Basketball legend Bill Walton, constantly injured and slowed in his hometown return, called his inability to deliver for the Clippers his greatest regret.

The trail of sports sorrow caused an Associated Press columnist to slap the grim title of “Worst Sports City in America” on San Diego in 2018.

Soto seems to represent bankable sports resurrection, even though the teams and games we follow stubbornly refuse to be predictable. He’s belief, from Coronado to El Cajon to Oceanside. He’s the promise of tangible and brighter sports tomorrows. He’s the beacon on the hill that signals San Diego has truly and finally grown tired of being tabbed Mayberry-by-the-Sea.

“Not just Juan Soto,” Mayor Todd Gloria said. “It’s a real commitment by the ownership to the team, our fans, our city. I’ve been clear to every San Diegan that we’re a big city that too often operates as a small town. We need to throw that off, move forward and embrace big-city energy.

“The Padres’ moves are big-city energy.”

Fans cheer outfielder Juan Soto during his Padres debut Wednesday at Petco Park. Adding Soto has changed expectations in San Diego.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The atmosphere at Wednesday’s Petco Park matchup with the Rockies bordered on surreal. The energy felt like a win-or-else, mid-October playoff game. Soto was met with a standing ovation and raucous cheers … while stretching before the game.

Has that happened before?

“I mean, in the playoffs yes, but never something like that,” Soto said.

The day the trade news broke, the Padres experienced the biggest in-season ticket sales day in history as giddy fans gobbled up seats remaining this season and plopped down season-ticket deposits for 2023 — pushing those totals past 20,200, a franchise record.

Greupner told the Union-Tribune that unprecedented club investments fueling rising expectations in recent seasons, coupled with the surge of excitement by nabbing Soto, Josh Bell, Josh Hader and Brandon Drury, has led to a likely season-ticket sale cap in 2023.

The Padres already were jockeying with the defending World Series champion Braves as the top two teams in baseball in terms of average attendance as a percentage of capacity. The team stood at 92 percent, pre-Soto.

“The term I use, it’s a virtuous loop,” Greupner said. “We put it out there and the fans return it. We put out more and the fans return more. We’re going to levels that, in my 12 years with the franchise, I’ve never seen before.”

The biggest question in the minds of thankful but disbelieving San Diegans: How can they keep spending, after $300 million for Manny Machado, $340 million for Fernando Tatis Jr. and big contract obligations sprinkled in between?

The Padres, once the most unlikely spenders in baseball, have become the player-grabbing buzz of the game.

Is this a short-term, money-losing proposition in the admirable pursuit of winning?

“I’ll tell you at the end of the postseason,” said Greupner, with a chuckle. “There’s a huge nut that sits out there. You can’t answer that until you know how much additional revenue you generate in the postseason.

“But I’ll tell you, every move we’ve made over the last couple of years in term of increasing the talent on the field and the increase in payroll has been returned to us. It’s too early to tell you if the math is 1-for-1 (in terms of dollars), but it’s basically been returned to us through tickets, sponsorships, retail, food and beverage.”

The franchise, for now, is making the bottom line work.

Padres outfielder Juan Soto, middle back, celebrates with teammates Wednesday at Petco Park.

Padres outfielder Juan Soto, middle back, celebrates with teammates Wednesday at Petco Park. The trade-deadline pickup rocked baseball.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Pumping money and talent into the clubhouse also has players shaking their heads in appreciation. The Soto-led revolution Tuesday proved that, in the Padres front offices, impossible is relative.

“I was actually talking to my wife, like ‘Man, I’d like to tweet a lineup from 2017 and a lineup from 2022,’ ” said Wil Myers, the longest tenured Padre who played on teams from 2015-19 that finished an average 22.4 games out of first place in the NL West.

“It’s cool to see this thing come full circle and see the changeover to an enormous-market-type organization.”

Myers marveled at a midweek game against the Rockies becoming one of the most incredible moments in Petco Park history, adding he’s played in front of 12,000 fans in similar games of the past.

The slow build now threatens to catch unparalleled fire.

“When we go out to the bus on getaway day (heading into a road trip), there might be 1,000 people out there,” Myers said. “In 2015 to really ’18, there was not a single person out there waiting for us.”

Veteran pitcher Craig Stammen said the competitive advantages are clear.

“They call it the dog days of August, but man, it doesn’t really feel like the dog days right now,” he said. “It feels like we’ve got almost a new team, where it’s opening day all over again.

“Sometimes you get let down at the trade deadline. Sometimes not signing a player, you get let down. But this was like, man, we’ve put all our chips in. It doesn’t always work out. But that (five-run) first inning (Wednesday) worked out really well.”

Fans, of course, are frenzied.

Scott Brokaw, a current Angels fan who lives outside Orange County, grew up in El Cajon while attending Padres games. He visited the Padres Team Store to pay $194 for a custom Soto jersey that will take four weeks to land because initial stocks sold out in a blink.

“That’s probably the best trade-deadline pickup ever,” he said. “I heard someone compare it to, like if you traded Mike Trout in 2015. Same sort of thing. It brings a championship-caliber team. I think it’s a team that can compete with the Dodgers, that’s for sure. Maybe they’re equal now.”

Zac Nixon and his son, Gordy, sold their Wednesday tickets before the Soto trade found ink. They scrambled to buy a set, then hustled down from Bonsall to be among the first into the park Thursday.

“The Rockies? I exchanged them for other tickets later in the season,” Zac reasoned.

Gordy emphasized the gravitational force to see and feel history at ground level.

“We blew it on Wednesday, so we had to go Thursday,” he said.

Greupner said the off-the-charts energy Wednesday has only emboldened Padres’ decision-makers to charge ahead. Along the way, they’re building fans for life by showing sports organization ceilings are for penny-pinchers and prospect-huggers.

The Padres continue to choose a far bolder path.

“If somebody is wondering how special it is, they need to come,” Greupner said. “I could try to describe to you in 1,000 words what (Wednesday) night was, but you had to be here. You had to feel it.”

San Diego is hungry again. One organization made it happen.

Pass the pancakes.

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