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MLB

The Fun Is In Trying To Win

Manny Machado celebrates a home run with Josh Bell
Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Ten seasons ago, I went to the second game of the Detroit Tigers’ opening weekend against the Boston Red Sox, and I left feeling better about that team than I ever have before or since. The Tigers, coming off a loss in the ALCS to the Texas Rangers, had made a bold move that offseason—one of many they’d make in that era—by signing the big bat of Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract just as he was coming off a third-place finish in the MVP voting. And after a walk-off win on Opening Day, the Tigers entered the ballpark on Saturday primed to flex every single one of their muscles. They blew out Josh Beckett and the Sox, 10-0, as Miguel Cabrera hit two home runs, Fielder hit two home runs, and Alex Avila added another for good measure. With each successive blast, the sky-high optimism of the 44,710 in attendance grew more and more palpable. The Tigers had put together a traveling home run derby, and this season was going to be special.

I was reminded of that day watching the San Diego Padres beat up on the Colorado Rockies on Wednesday night, with a 9-1 victory that made for their fifth win in a row. The 61-46 Padres, currently way back of the Dodgers in the division but second in the wild card, became the center of every baseball fan’s attention this week with their headline-grabbing trade for Juan Soto, plus the additional acquisitions of major players Josh Hader, Josh Bell, and Brandon “Josh” Drury. The earliest of the early results have been nothing short of astounding. Hader got the win with a perfect inning pitched on Tuesday, and then in Wednesday’s game, with all the new hitters slotted into the lineup, the Padres just demolished Rockies starter Chad Kuhl, with every unfamiliar face finding a way to contribute. Soto, who received multiple standing ovations, got on base three times and scored a run. Bell walked twice and came around to score both times. And most dramatically of all, Drury smashed the very first pitch he saw as a Padre to deep left field with the bases loaded, pushing his new team out to a 5-0 lead as a capacity crowd basked in its good fortune.

The Padres are just overflowing with positivity right now, and if the crowds and the results weren’t enough, you can tell from play-by-play announcer Don Orsillo’s call: “Brandon Drury, in his first AB in a Padres uniform, hits a grand slam! Why? Because he’s in … Slam Diego!” That is not a series of words you construct unless you are very, very excited about the baseball team you are watching.

And why wouldn’t you be? Even before they evolved into their latest form, the Padres were putting together a solid year achieved through respectable play in all aspects of the game. Manny Machado headlined a group of hitters that sit tied for 12th in MLB with 4.47 runs scored per game. Three trusty arms in Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and Mike Clevinger led the starters’ ERA to a seventh-best 3.63. And the relievers, though closer Taylor Rogers was a shaky presence before being moved to Milwaukee, still managed a 13th-best 3.84 ERA. Particularly with Fernando Tatis Jr. working his way back from injury, and the extra wild card slot now available, this team looked to be a fairly safe bet for the playoffs, and as such they wouldn’t have earned anyone’s ire if they had stayed relatively chill at the trade deadline.

But the Padres didn’t settle for just “pretty good.” They took advantage of the tank jobs happening in Cincinnati and D.C. and the uneasiness around Hader’s nearing free agency in Milwaukee to remake their team into a monster. A reinforced bullpen, more good hitters, and maybe the most prized young player ever traded have turned a franchise with almost no track record of postseason success into the league’s most must-see TV. The lineup on display night after night will be spectacular, and it’s effortlessly easy to buy into all the promise they showed on Wednesday night.

The Detroit Tigers, in 2012, fell short of making their fans’ wildest dreams into reality. They went into the All-Star break a mere 44-42, and they eventually won the AL Central only because of every other team’s weakness. (The Angels and Rays both missed the playoffs with better records.) In the postseason, after two ecstatic series wins over the A’s and Yankees, they fell in four games to a clearly superior world champion Giants squad. The following year, they failed to get past Boston in the ALCS. The year after that, in their most recent playoff appearance, they were swept by the Orioles in the first round.

It would be easy for me to frame my own experience with that team as a cautionary tale for the Padres fans already excitedly looking ahead to October and beyond. But I don’t want to. Instead, I’m trying to hold back my envy, as the Tigers stay mired in irrelevancy for the eighth straight year while this other franchise treats the trade market like it’s all you can eat seafood. The goal of winning it all, whether in the near term or long term, colors every move that every Major League team makes (unless they’re trying to find new ownership). But some paths are a lot more emotionally satisfying than others. While Orioles fans, for example, can take their team’s punt at the deadline as a sign that they should maybe check out until next year, San Diegans will be packing the seats for every game, knowing that their ticket gives them a glimpse of a team trying with all its might for immortality. Regardless of how it turns out in the end, the Padres have gifted their fans at least a couple months of the coolest baseball team their money and prospects could buy. It’s going to be a fun ride.

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