Padres History with Joe Furtado: Chapter 10 – “1977” Dark Days

*Back in 1988, Padres fan and local San Diegan Joe Furtado, started writing a book based on Padres history up to that point. 21 Chapters later he finished it and after a few failed attempts at getting it published, put it back on his shelf never to see the light of day…..that is until now. To read the other entries, click here.

By Joe Furtado:

When the last out of the World Series is recorded, although there is only one champion, every ball club feels optimistic about their chances for the upcoming season. With the exception of the two new entries in the American League (Seattle and Toronto), the new year brought visions of World Series shares to everyone, including the Padres.

No team had improved themselves in the off-season as much as San Diego. With the addition of Gene Tenace, Rollie Fingers, and George Hendrick, and the emergence of rookies Bob Shirley, Bill Almon, Mike Champion, and Gene Richards, there were those who felt the Padres were finally ready to challenge the Dodgers and the Reds in the Western Division.

In the winter free agent draft, San Diego selected right-handed pitcher Kevin Chapman from Mt. San Antonio College as their number 1 pick. Also during the off-season, the Padres had run out of options on three previous number 1 picks. John Scott, Dave Hilton, and Dave Roberts had all moved on to other clubs. In February, San Diego got one of them back. In exchange for pitcher Jerry Johnson, the Padres received Dave Roberts from the Toronto Blue Jays. Roberts was now a catcher and the Padres felt he had a bona fide shot at making the 1977 roster.

As spring training approached, the team’s main concern was the pitching staff, especially the health of Randy Jones. When the team headed for Cincinnati to start the new season, there were still many unanswered questions, but the comeback of Jones looked to be right on course. Rookies Bob Shirley and Vic Bernal had impressive camps, but the rest of the staff was knocked around pretty good in the desert air. Although San Diego ended the spring with a 16-10 record, they had won by scores of 14-13, 17-15, and 11-10. Especially disappointing was the performance of reliever Butch Metzger. Bombed on a regular basis, it was hoped that he would straighten himself out when the season began. Anyway, with Jones looking more and more like his old self, and Rollie Fingers in the pen, the Padres felt they could hide their pitching weaknesses and contend with their hitting. A true test would come in the opening series of the season against the World Champion Cincinnati Reds.

Opening day, April 6, 1977, was played in 38 degree weather with snow piled up along the stands in Riverfront Stadium. With a capacity crowd of 51,937 in attendance, Randy Jones started for the Padres, pitched five innings and took the loss, 5-3. Although he gave up nine hits and five runs, he said his arm felt good. Hitting stars for San Diego were Mike Ivie and Mike Champion with three hits apiece. The Padres left 12 men on base. The starting lineup was: LF Gene Richards, 2B Mike Champion, RF Dave Winfield, CF George Hendrick, C Gene Tenace, 1B Mike Ivie, 3B Doug Rader, SS Bill Almon, and P Randy Jones.

After losing again the next day, the Padres won the next two, including a sparkling effort by rookie left hander Bob Shirley. In his major league debut, Shirley struck out eleven Reds in 8.2 innings, posting a 12-4 win. San Diego left town with a split of the series. They had out scored the Big Red Machine 24-16, and had out hit them 47-25. The team was heading home feeling pretty good about itself.

A record opening night crowd of 46,375 including Commissioner Bowie Kuhn were on hand to see a chicken throw out the first ball of the new season. The fowl, who called himself the KGB Chicken because of the radio station that employed him, had been entertaining fans at the stadium for several years. The Chicken, actually a young college student under the costume, had become as popular as McNamara’s Band amongst local sports fans.

The game itself gave Padre fans a glimpse of what promised to be an exciting season. Randy Jones pitched like the 1976 Cy Young Award winner, going eight strong innings, allowing three runs, and getting fourteen batters to ground out while beating the San Francisco Giants 4-3. Doug Rader hit a 3-run home run in the fourth inning and Rollie Fingers came out of the bullpen to get the save, striking out two of the three batters he faced in the ninth inning.

There was definitely excitement in the air, and it continued throughout the home stand as record crowds poured through the turnstiles. The three game series against the Reds drew 111,501 fans and the initial six-game home stand drew in excess of 188,000, well ahead of 1976’s record pace.

Through the first 16 games, the Padres were 8-8. Gene Tenace and Doug Rader were off to great starts, but the pitching staff was still a major source of concern. Brent Strom was constantly pitching with pain in his left elbow, Butch Metzger was showing no sign of regaining his old form, Rollie Fingers was already being overworked, and Randy Jones was experiencing muscle spasms in his back. He was also having problems with his control and his mechanics. After falling to 1-3 with an ERA of 6.03, Jones began looking at films of his pitching motion during the 1976 season.

The team concluded the month of April losing seven straight games. After one loss, manager John McNamara exploded, accusing his players of not giving their best effort. Buzzie Bavasi got into the act by having a closed door meeting with the team and chastising them for lack of aggressiveness. Pitcher Dave Freisleben (0-4, 6.58) was sent to Hawaii and Dan Spillner, who was making a comeback from back surgery late last season, was brought up.

To read all of Chapter 10, download this PDF: 10DarkDays

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