Tag: Padres

Stewart accepts Towers’ pitch (1997)

SAN DIEGO — It took some cajoling and some soul-searching, but Dave Stewart has agreed to become the Padres’ pitching coach.

When Dan Warthen was fired one day after the season, Padres general manager Kevin Towers turned to Stewart. But Stewart, who was working as a special assistant to Towers, wasn’t sure he wanted the job.

Stewart’s stated goal is to become a GM someday, and he wasn’t sure returning to uniform fit with those plans. And he had another concern.

As a black executive, Stewart felt a responsibility to others who might follow. So he sought advise from several other minorities in baseball front offices, including Yankees GM Bob Watson, Mets assistant GM Omar Minaya, White Sox VP Ken Williams and Cub minor-league director Dave Wilder.

“I wanted to find out what the perception would be, if going back to uniform would be seen as a step back,” Stewart said Tuesday afternoon. “I didn’t want to do anything that would make it more difficult for somebody else to open doors. But in talking to everybody, they said this would help me complete the package, give me a more well-rounded background.”

Before agreeing to take the job, Stewart got assurance from the Padres that he could continue with his current duties during the offseason. He has been a valued adviser to Towers on player personnel moves, but Stewart also has a key role in the team’s efforts to increase its presence in Latin America. He has helped develop working agreements with teams in the Dominican Republic and in Mexico.

“During the winter months, I’ll still be doing what I’m doing now,” Stewart said. “I’ll be working on Latin America, working on the six-year free agents, going to the GM meetings.

“Returning to the field might give me more options. I might want to look at managing down the line.”

The Padres completed last season with a 4.98 ERA, second-worst in the National League and worst in franchise history. Towers was upset about the lack of progress made by the likes of Joey Hamilton, Sean Bergman, Andy Ashby and Tim Worrell and fired Warthen.

Towers tabbed Stewart because he would like Padres pitchers to develop some of the competitive spirit Stewart had during his prime playing days with the Oakland Athletics.

“He has a terrific presence about him,” Towers told reporters in Cleveland, where he was attending the World Series. “He has so much to teach, from the mental side of the game to setting up hitters to approaching the game well before it starts.”

An official announcement on Stewart will be made after the World Series, once final details on his contract have been worked out.

Stewart, 40, went 168-129 in 15 years with Los Angeles, Texas, Oakland and Toronto. He was 8-0 for his career in American League Championship Series play and was MVP of the 1989 World Series.

His ability and approach on the mound can’t be questioned. But will he be able to get the Padres to duplicate it as pitching coach?

For that answer, Stewart again sought advice — this time from St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, his former boss in Oakland. La Russa told him he had all the essentials to become a successful pitching coach.

“He said one of my strengths is that I understand situational pitching,” Stewart said. “I know how to approach a game and set up hitters.”

That is among Warthen’s strengths, too. But he was unable to get Padres pitchers to follow the game plan last season. And Towers was unhappy with more than that. With the exception of Ashby and closer Trevor Hoffman,  Towers found fault with the pitchers’ work ethic. That’s why he wanted a no-nonsense guy like Stewart in the job.

“Mentally, Stewart said, “now I feel I want to do this job. I want to make a difference, help these guys do what they’re capable of doing.”

Published in the North County Times on Oct. 22, 1997.

Unknown Deago to start vs. Mets (2003)

Right-hander Adam Eaton is headed to the disabled list because of a groin strain, and the Padres plan to call up a Double-A pitcher who has only six games of U.S. professional experience.

Roger Deago, a 25-year-old left-hander, will start Saturday at Shea Stadium again the New York Mets. It is expected to be a one-start assignment. Lefty Mike Bynum has the nod tonight, which would have been Eaton’s normal turn in the rotation.

Eaton was injured Sunday afternoon in a loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. He hoped he would not miss a start, but he did not pass muster during a bullpen session Thursday in Montreal.

Deago gets the nod over some more experienced Triple-A pitchers because Saturday falls on his scheduled turn to pitch. He is a veteran of Panama’s national team but had not played in the minor leagues until this year. He is 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA for Double-A Mobile this season.

“I guess scouts didn’t want to take a chance on him because he’s not a big guy and doesn’t throw hard,” said Padres farm director Tye Waller.

Waller said Deago uses a variety of pitches and must rely on precise location. Deago usually throws only 84-85 mph but mixes in various breaking balls, a changeup and a newly developed cutter. Despite the lack of velocity, Deago has 32 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings this year.

Published in the North County Times on May 9, 2003.

Padres’ Nevin preparing for a future as a manager (2002)

SAN DIEGO — Phil Nevin is at the peak of his career His $34 million contract kicks in next year, giving him financial security for life.

Yet Nevin already is thinking about his next job.

No worries for Padres fans. Nevin didn’t spend the Monday off-day poring over the want ads. He’s not going anywhere any time soon.

But Nevin’s playing days will end eventually, and he knows exactly what he wants to do then. In fact, every day he spends in uniform is training for his next goal. Every baseball experience is recorded in his mental files, ready to be used on the next job.

What is that job?

“I’d like to manage someday,” said Nevin, the Padres’ first baseman. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine my life without baseball, whether I’m playing or not.

“I think I took this game for granted for a long time. First and foremost, I think it would be fun. I love the mental side of the game. And it’s a way to give back.”

Phil Nevin in charge of a big-league ballclub? The same Phil Nevin who can turn any piece of equipment into a projectile with one flare of his temper? The same Phil Nevin who has been tossed from a game this year? The same Phil Nevin who launched into a public tirade in the dugout at Pac Bell Park last season? The same Phil Nevin who once tore apart the Astros’ clubhouse when he was demoted to the minors? The same Phil Nevin who turned a rookie’s wardrobe into ashes late last season?

Yup, the same Phil Nevin.

And to those who watch him on a daily basis, there’s nothing surprising about it.

“Let me tell you,” said Padres manager Bruce Bochy, “Nevin knows the game. He loves the game. He knows the league, the players. When I talk to him and listen to his comments, you can tell he’s got a great feel for the game.

“I think he’d be a great manager.”

Then Bochy couldn’t resist putting tongue in cheek.

“I don’t know how many games he’d stay in,” he added.

Even if it’s more perception than reality, Nevin knows his reputation as a hothead — even if it was earned mostly by youthful indiscretions — is something he will have to address once he seriously seeks a dugout job. There are a few Billy Martin types who have thrived as managers, but they are vastly outnumbered by the Tom Kelly, Walter Alston types who have the patience and staying power to deal with the bad times as well as the good.

Take Larry Bowa, for example. Like Nevin, he was a fiery player who left it all on the field. But he was a terrible manager when he got his first shot with the Padres in 1987. He lasted less than 1 1/2 seasons and had to wait another 13 years for a second chance. Bowa toned down his act, though he hardly has become milquetoast, and earned National League manager of the year honors with the Phillies last year.

“I don’t think I’d be a Larry Bowa kind of guy,” Nevin said. “No disrespect there. He’s fiery and all. But I think the important part of managing is communicating.”

One thing Bowa was not prepared for when he first became a manager was failure. For all his intensity, Bowa spent his entire big-league career as a star. He was a started in his rookie year and remained one for 15 seasons, becoming a backup only in his final season.

Nevin, on the other hand, has been humbled by the game. He understands failure, but he also has experienced what it takes to succeed at the highest level.

He came in cocky, then was knocked down. Form being a college player of the year and first overall draft pick, Nevin had to learn to survive as a utilityman just to avoid the minor leagues. He became a part-time catcher, causing him to view the game in a new way. No longer was he focused only on his responsibilities, but he came to understand what should be happening everywhere on the field.

Even after breaking out as a star with the Padres, he has remembered the tough times. He remains a student of the game. He took advantage of being around Tony Gwynn for three seasons. He bends Bochy’s ear whenever possible. First-base coach Alan Trammell, another who might become a big-league manager someday, is a big influence.

“I feel like I’ve played for some great managers — Sparky Anderson, Buddy Bell, especially the guy here (Bochy),” Nevin said. “I find myself watching the game and strategizing, playing along with what the other guys do. It’s just fun, and it keeps you in the game mentally.”

It just might keep Nevin in the game for decades to come.

Published in the North County Times on April 30, 2002.

Hoffman’s greatest role was ‘teammate’ (2011)

Great closers, it is said, are fearless, have ice water in their veins and all that claptrap.

There’s not an ounce of truth to that for the man who has saved more major league games than any other pitcher. Trevor Hoffman was motivated by his fear.

“Your teammates work hard for eight innings to get that lead,” he once said. “The last thing you want to do is come into the game and (mess) the bed.”

Not even 601 career saves erased that fear. Rather than deny his fear, Hoffman embraced it. Failure in his job meant a loss for his team, almost always, so Hoffman worked as hard as he could to minimize those failures.

To Hoffman, getting that save was his obligation to his teammates. And being a good teammate was as important to him as anything he did in baseball.

“The most coveted title that I carried was ‘teammate’,” Hoffman said at his retirement news conference Wednesday at Petco Park in San Diego. “It’s rewarding that I had an opportunity to have an impact on the people I was around as a teammate every day, striving to become better and working toward a common goal as a team.”

Hoffman’s baseball legacy is secure. His bewildering changeup ranks among the best single pitches in baseball lore. His “Hells Bells” entrance is a lasting memory, “the coolest thing in the game,” former Marlins manager John Boles once said.

The stats call for Cooperstown: 18 seasons, seven All-Star selections, the record 601 saves, a 2.87 ERA and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

Those aren’t the lasting memories for those who had a chance to share a clubhouse with him, however.

“It’s incredible what he accomplished in this game,” said reigning World Series champion manager Bruce Bochy, who was Hoffman’s manager for 13 seasons with the San Diego Padres.

“What’s even more impressive is the person that he was. I consider myself fortunate to have had Trevor as my closer all those years in San Diego. He is the best teammate that I’ve ever seen. He really looked after his teammates.”

Nobody knows that as well as Mark Merila. The Padres bullpen catcher from 1996 to 2006 and now a member of the coaching support staff, Merila was welcomed to the big leagues by Hoffman and given a sense of belonging.

Merila was a good college infielder, good enough to be a college All-American at Minnesota and a member of the U.S. national team. But he was stricken by a brain tumor during his final college season. Although treatment got rid of the tumor, Merila’s playing career was cut short, and the Padres offered the job as bullpen catcher.

Having never caught before, or been on a big-league field, Merila was unsure of himself. Hoffman went out of his way to reassure him that he belonged. Hoffman taught Merila the ropes. And after every save, he waited in the dugout until Merila and the bullpen coach made the walk back from the bullpen with the equipment bags, long after other teammates had retreated to the clubhouse.

Hoffman always shook their hands after a save, just as he had with his other teammates after the final out.

“He let us know we were part of those saves. That meant a lot,” Merila said.

“He’s played with Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn, Hall of Famers, but he treats everyone the same. Doesn’t matter if it’s me or a clubhouse attendant or Tony Gwynn, he treated us all like we are working together, and we all play a part in the success of the team.”

There were plenty of other small gestures. Fellow pitchers with the Padres, and later the Brewers, were invited to try to keep up with Hoffman’s daily work routine, his marathon-like afternoon runs.

In spring training, he called over the new faces, the ones wearing Nos. 73 or 81 or the like, for long chats to help them get comfortable with their surroundings.

In 2003, when he missed several trips while recovering from shoulder surgery, he greeted the team upon its arrival at Qualcomm Stadium with catered meals.

And there were deeper moments.

Merila had gone a decade free of cancer. But his brain tumor recurred in 2006. It grew into his thalamus and was inoperable. He tried to make it through that season, but the tumor started to affect his motor function. He was slowly losing control of the right side of his body. That meant he could catch just fine with his left hand, but he couldn’t throw the ball where he wanted to.

The Padres brought in another bullpen catcher, who worked with most of the other pitchers down the stretch as the team reached the playoffs. Hoffman would have none of it. Merila was his guy.

That was true right down to Hoffman’s final playoff appearance. As Hoffman warmed up to enter Game 3 of the 2006 National League Division Series, Merila’s return throws were erratic.

“The best catches made in that game probably were by him, jumping up to get my throws,” Merila said.

Merila tried to put a stop to it, to call in the other catcher. Hoffman told him: “Just throw it, and I’ll go get it.”

In that pressure-packed moment, readying to go into a game that could have ended the Padres’ season, Hoffman put his teammate ahead of himself.

“He was having his struggles,” Hoffman recalled Wednesday. “He was worried about messing up my routine. You know what? There’s bigger things than going out there to pitch. Let’s take a step back and have some fun. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, even though it’s a big moment. Let’s get through this.

“He didn’t have to take himself so seriously. He was doing fine. He just needed to hear it.”

Hoffman did get the save that night, his final playoff appearance. It also was the last time Merila was able to catch a warm-up session, for Hoffman or anyone else.

He endured radiation treatments throughout 2007 and then a full year of experimental chemotherapy. Many days, he didn’t have the energy to get out of bed. But he made every effort to stay up long enough to watch the Padres on TV. If Hoffman pitched and got a save, one of the two would call the other after the game for a quick congratulations.

It was a virtual handshake since Merila couldn’t walk from the bullpen to the dugout anymore.

Merila was in a group of 100 patients to receive the experimental treatment, which had been used for colon cancer patients but never tried on a brain tumor. It stopped the growth of his tumor, and Merila has regained much of his mobility.

There are no promises for a full recovery, however.

Merila, 39, has set small goals. Get to the ballpark today. Watch a game from the bullpen, instead of the clubhouse. Play with his three young children.

Hoffman’s retirement announcment, however, has emboldened Merila to set a larger goal. He now is intent on a visit to Cooperstown. The first year Hoffman, 43, could be inducted into the Hall of Fame is 2016.

“That’s my goal now, to be there when he goes into the Hall of Fame,” Merila said. “That’s a long way away for me. I usually take it day by day. But I’m going to do everything I can to be there.”

He, no doubt, will be joined by many teammates.

Published on foxsports.com on Jan. 12, 2011.

Boggs and Gwynn chase milestone (1999)

SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs insist they are not in a race for 3,00 hits. But if they were, a dead heat would be just fine.

“On the same day, at the same moment, the same second — that would be great,” Boggs said, envisioning the instant their pursuit for their mutual milestone comes to an end.

It would be fitting. The two grew up and always have played a continent apart. They never have faced each other in the regular season. Yet they always have seemed uniquely linked.

Since the first time each stepped into a major-league batter’s box and slapped a pitch into left field, they have had their careers tied together by a common thread. Their neck-and-neck chase for the 3,000th hit is just the latest example.

“There’s a connection between the two of us,” Gwynn said.

Said Boggs: “Our careers have paralleled each other for so long that it would be only fitting we get to 3,000 together. I think it’s great.”

The two future Hall of Famers took a break this week to talk about their shared experiences in the quest for 3,000 during a conference call set up by Major League Baseball. Though Gwynn, 39, and Boggs, 41, have been in the same ballpark at the same time barely a dozen times in their careers, for All-Star Games or exhibitions, their conversation flowed as smoothly as their batting strokes.

Into their 18th big-league seasons, the two are separated by a single hit. Boggs went 3-for-4 for the Tampa Bay Devils Rays on Wednesday night to push his career total to 2,992. Gwynn has 2,9991 hits, all with the Padres.

“For me, Wade was the guy who set the standard,” Gwynn said. “He was the type of hitter that I really wanted to be like. I was having success in the National League, but not at the level he had. He became the hunted, the guy I wanted to emulate.”

For Boggs, a career American Leaguer, Gwynn was the first name he searched for in the National League box scores.

“There’s always been a connection and a bond because we never had to compete against each other,” Boggs said. “I didn’t have to worry: ‘What did Tony do today? Is he going to pass me?’ I was rooting for him to win batting titles over there.

“I had to fight Rod Carew and George Brett on these guys over here. I got a chance to relax when I watched Tony on the highlights or on TV. I never had to treat him as an adversary. It was more like we were allies. He was doing everything I was, so I was pulling for him. It helps my stock when Tony does well.”

The statistical similarities are seemingly endless. Both broke into the big leagues in 1982 and found immediate success. Boggs hit .349 for the Boston Red Sox, then won his first AL batting title the next season. Gwynn hit .289 after a midseason call-up — the only time he has been below .300 — and won his first NL batting crown two years later.

Boggs has collected five batting titles, Gwynn eight. Boggs has a lifetime average of .328, Gwynn .338.

But it’s more than Hall of Fame numbers that unite the two. It’s also a wholesale dedication to their craft, a confidence in their ability and a fierce desire to succeed.

From the start, both players knew their own strengths better than any coach. Both are left-handed hitters who cover the outside part of the plate as few hitters have.

Gwynn could have cut a canyon in the infield between third base and shortstop as he took advantage of the “5.5 hole.” Boggs, with Fenway Park’s Green Monster as an inviting target, often aimed higher but also looked to go the other way first.

They were among pioneers of using videotape to fine-tune their swings and study pitchers, Gwynn probably more so than Boggs. And both were labeled as defensive liabilities as young players but worked tirelessly to become two-way players. Gwynn earned five Gold Glove awards in right field, Boggs two at third base.

There’s another common bond — this one somewhat esoteric. Both have been pitcher Sterling Hitchcock’s teammate for three seasons. Boggs played with him from 1993-95 on the New York Yankees, Gwynn the past three years in San Diego.

“There’s not a whole lot of difference,” Hitchcock said. “Neither one of them tries to do too much with the ball. They put the bat on the ball, and they know how to work the pitcher.”

Even in their differences, Gwynn and Boggs share a common influence — Ted Williams. Both read Williams’ book “The Science of Hitting” when they were teen-agers. Boggs started getting tutorials form Williams as a Red Sox minor-league in 1977. Gwynn started having discussions about hitting with Williams in 1992.

Boggs never came close to pulling the ball as Williams did, but he does  have the same kind of eye. Williams is No. 2 all-time in bases on balls. Boggs moved into the top 20 this year.

“My father made me read his book when I was a junior in high school,” Boggs said. “Once I met him in 1977, I was able to put two and two together. The biggest thing I got out of it was patience and discipline.

“The pitcher is going to do the best thing he can to get you out, which is moving the ball the width of the plate. That’s no problem if you’re a patient hitter. I’m the type of hitter to go deep into the count. Ted stressed getting that good pitch to hit. It may come 1-2; it may come 2-0.”

Gwynn is a free swinger who feels he can handle pitches out of the strike zone, so he never took that lesson to heart. But it was Williams’ words that prompted Gwynn’s evolution from a primarily opposite-field hitter to one who uses the whole field and can jump on inside fastballs.

“In that first conversation,” Gwynn recalled, “he was trying to convince me that when you’re facing a guy you’ve faced a lot, when you have a pretty good idea of what they’ll do, you’ve got to look for a certain pitch in one zone. If you get it, you just let it go and don’t worry about the result.

“It’s OK to go up there and look for a pitch, look for an area and just let the swing go, don’t try to guide it. I’ve had a lot of success handling the inside ball, and that’s what he was talking about. You’ve got to let them know you can handle it, where before I was inside-outing that ball.

“But if you show him you can handle it (the inside pitch), that thoughts going to be in the pitcher’s head. Then he’s going to come back and pitch you the way you wanted him to in the first place, which is middle out, for the most part.”

Another hitter Boggs and Gwynn have consulted is Paul Molitor, the most recent member of the 3,000-hit club. Boggs talk to him during Molitor’s final season last year in Minnesota. Gwynn knows Molitor through their mutual agent, whose name coincidentally is John Boggs. The topic, no surprise, was what to expect when the 3,000 mark draws close.

“The biggest thing he said,” Wade Boggs recalled, “was to just enjoy the ride.”

Consider Gwynn and Boggs in a very exclusive carpool lane.

Published in the North County Times on July 30, 1999.

Big-game Boomer lives up to reputation (2006)

PHOENIX — David Wells has won one game in his second stint as a Padre. He sure picked the right game to win.

The man with the reputation as a big-game pitcher was both big and game Saturday afternoon.

He pitched the Padres into the playoffs by turning the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bats into mere fly-swatters.

In six innings of the Padres’ 3-1 victory, he allowed nary a run and only four harmless singles. Not one Arizona runner reached second base against him.

The only moment when Wells wasn’t in complete control was after the bottom of the sixth as he failed to talk manager Bruce Bochy out of taking him out of the game.

Bochy, with faith in his bullpen trio of Cla Meredith, Scott Linebrink and Trevor Hoffman, called it a day for Wells and saved a few bullets for the postseason.

“The guy never ceases to amaze me,” Bochy said. “This is an outing I’ll never forget.”

Wells’ big-game reputation was built on a 10-3 postseason record. Games such as Saturday are why general manager Kevin Towers was willing to trade a top catching prospect, George Kottaras, for only a few weeks of service by Wells. And such games are why Bochy wasn’t worried about the fact Wells missed his last start because of the gout, has battled other injuries all season and hadn’t won in four starts since the Padres reacquired him.

Heck, Wells spent much of the game Friday night in the trainer’s room after his back stiffened. Bochy, however, knew what he had once he got a look at Wells in the morning.

“He was locked in and focused,” Bochy said. “He was here early and ready. The bad thing is that meant we had to listen to his music — three hours of Metallica.”

The clubhouse may have been rocking, but Wells silenced the crowd at Chase Field once he took the mound. His second inning tookall of five pitches, his third only six.

“This is what I live for,” Wells said. “This is what I’ve played for is the opportunity to pitch in a big game when it counted. There’s nothing better.”

Make no mistake, this was big. Had Wells failed Saturday, the Padres might be facing a must-win game today. The Phillies failed to fold in the wild-card chase, so it might have been an all-or-nothing affair today. Instead, Woody Williams will pitch with the game determining the division champion and playoff position rather than the postseason itself.

Big difference.

Wells had a ready answer for why he’s at his best when it matters most.

“I’m not afraid to fail, and that goes a long way,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens. Don’t take it home. I want the ball in the biggest games because I’m not afraid to fail. I’m not going to take it personally.”

Whether it’s the Zen of Metallica or just the experience of 632 big-league appearances, Wells has a system that works for him. By enjoying the experience and laughing at failure, he never plays tight.

Watching him pitch, it looks like he’s just lobbing the ball toward the plate. There’s not an iota of tension.

“You just play catch with your catcher,” Wells said. “Throw the ball to your spots. You just go out and have some fun and rely on your defense.”

It worked to near perfection Saturday, but Wells revealed he had a few “butterflies” before the game.

His thoughts turned to the fact that if he lost, it might be his last game. He has said this will be his last season, and he reiterated his retirement plans upon ensuring at least one October start.

But he offered a caveat.

“I’m graduating,” he said. “I’m like Junior Seau right now. But if they give you a stupid offer, how can you say no?”

That ultimate decision is for the winter. Up first is some October baseball. Then Wells plans his first visit to Africa. He’s going hunting.

Big game, of course.

Published in the North County Times on Oct. 1, 2006.

Williams finally makes his way home again (1992)

SAN DIEGO — He’d faced a Bob Feller fastball with a sneer. He’d faced a Rip Sewell eephus pitch with a smile.

But when he faced a group of strangers waiting to fire questions Friday, Ted Williams grew uncomfortable. He kept a smile but fidgeted as others called him the greatest this, the best that. He grew increasingly antsy when reporters asked his opinion on this, his thoughts on that.

“I never know what to say at these things,” Williams said.

While still a teenager, Williams was brash enough to say he wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. “What gall,” people said. “Who does this skinny kid from a hick town like San Diego think he is?”

Williams learned that sharing his thoughts meant potential trouble. He retreated into a small circle of family, friends and teammates. His brashness became perceived as arrogance — even long after he achieved his goal.

But was Williams talked of his childhood in North Park or greeted friends he hadn’t seen in decades, it became clear any arrogance — real or imagined — is gone.

Williams is 73, retired and the survivor of a mild stroke. This week, he is the center of attention in San Diego. He’s in town because State Route 56 has been renamed “Ted Williams Parkway.” The official dedication will be Sunday at Mt. Carmel High School in Rancho Penasquitos, near where he once hunted rabbits and quail.

“I asked my daughter, ‘What am I going to tell them?’ said Williams, who batted .344 and hit 521 home runs in his career with the Boston Red Sox. “I’m not running for anything. I don’t know what to say.

“Well, she thought about it. She’s a bright little girl, and she said, ‘Tell them not to forget you and to drive carefully.’ ”

If the reception Williams has received in his hometown is any indication, he needn’t fret about being forgotten. He arrived in town Wednesday and toured his old North Park neighborhood with his former playground pals. He presided over the opening of FanFest on Friday and will throw out the first pitch of Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Jack Murphy Stadium.

“These are memorable moments for me,” Williams said.

That’s about as deeply as Williams lets outsiders into his psyche. But don’t be fooled. This trip has great meaning to the Hall of Famer. He cherishes every moment — even some of the adulation.

“He pooh-poohs it at first,” said Williams’ son, John-Henry, who accompanied his dad to California. “But once things start rolling, he really enjoys himself.”

But Williams isn’t here merely to take his memories and return home to the Florida retirement village of Citrus Hills. He’s here to leave behind a few memories, too.

On Friday, Williams surprised Hoover High School baseball teammate Bob Breitbard by donating his best memorabilia to the Hall of Champions. He gave the museum, which is operated by Breitbard, one of his two American League Triple Crown trophies, two Most Valuable Player awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed upon him early this year by President Bush.

“That’s really all he’d kept,” John-Henry said. “The house is empty.”

Said Breitbard: “His greatness as a hitter is matched by his quality as a man and his loyalty to his friends.”

Williams said simply that because he grew up in San Diego and because he always has been treated well here, the Hall of Champions was the natural place to donate his most-treasured mementos.

“I love San Diego,” said Williams, who nonetheless has visited his hometown only a few times in 50 years. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d have come right back to San Diego to live.”

Instead, after retiring in 1960 — with a home run in his final at-bat — Williams remained on the East Coast. He managed the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers for a couple years, then settled in Florida. His only direct connection to the game was as a spring-training instructor for the Red Sox.

“I was playing in the East and I was hunting and fishing in the East,” Williams said. “Before I knew it, my home was in the East. I liked Florida, and I still like Florida. But (San Diego) is the garden spot of America.”

Williams credits the city for his development as a hitter His father, Sam, spent the early Depression years working as a photographer, and his mother, May, became known as “the Angels of Tijuana” for her efforts with the Salvation Army. Williams, meanwhile, was organizing pickup games in North Park. “Teddy Ballgame” was on the loose.

“I’ve always said that if it weren’t for the great luck that I had to be in San Diego and to have lived where I could play baseball 12 months a year …” Williams said without having to complete his thought.

“I was (playing) a block from where I lived, so I played till 9 at night and I played as early as I could. At Garfield Grammar School, I got there before the janitor in the morning because I could get in the (equipment) closet with him and get the balls and bats and wait for the kids to come.

“Had I not become a pretty good hitter, I don’t know what the excuse would have been. I know I hit more balls and thought about it more and had more opportunity than any person I know.

“I think of Harmon Killebrew, a great home-run hitter and Hall of Famer, and I think, ‘Just how good was this guy?’ He hit more home runs than anybody else in the American League right-handed, and he lived in Idaho. I know they don’t play baseball more than three months a year in Idaho.”

The time spent on the San Diego playgrounds started paying off early. Williams already was developing into a local legend by the time he joined the Hoover baseball squad.

“At Hoover, he hit over .700,” Breitbard said. “We had a short right-field fence, and he’d just pop ’em. They probably would have been singles in a  regular ballpark, but he’d pop ’em for home runs.

The beginnings of Williams’ dead-pull swing that later led to the Boudreau shift? That piece of strategy — in which the fielders shifted to the right side of the field to stop the left-handed Williams from pulling the ball — was a decade away when Williams started hammering pitchers professionally.

While still a student at Hoover, Williams signed with the Red Sox and joined the minor-league Padres in the 1936 seasons. Williams ran out of high school eligibility that spring but wasn’t due to graduate until the following January. Williams’ mother didn’t want him bouncing around the country before completing his education. Because the Red Sox were affiliated with the Padres, they won out.

Williams enjoyed his two years playing at Lane Field downtown, where he’d entertain the crowd by knocking batting-practice homers into the waterfront rail yards.

“In 20 swings, I’d hit maybe 10 out,” Williams said. “Well, the pitchers were watching, too, and I wouldn’t get anything to hit in the game. Pretty soon, I just started hitting line drives.”

Published in the Times Advocate on July 11, 1992.