That time the Padres nearly became San Diego’s forever

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Here is a fun little note about a particularly tumultuous time in Major League Baseball labor history: Joan Kroc, the principal owner of the Padres from 1984 through 1990, does not appear in the index of John Helyar’s vital work, Lords of the Realm, which details the history of the owners’ feudalistic system that organized players eventually stood together to dismantle. Her then late-husband, Ray Kroc, shows up a bunch of times, but that’s because the man who helped make McDonald’s national and then global was pretty standard as far as the kind of businessmen who owned MLB teams went. Joan, though, was different than her husband in a few respects.

Now, this is not the same as saying her time as an owner was different to the point that she is without sin or what have you — after all, she was running the Padres during the collusion years of the 80s, so even if she wasn’t doing the scheming and getting quoted by Helyar because of it she was still taking part in the scheme. Her own schemes, at least, seemed like ones that could benefit more than just the businessmen who felt MLB was their toy to play with. For example, Joan Kroc once attempted to truly make the Padres the San Diego Padres, by giving them to the city rather than selling them to some guy with the money to purchase them.

The Los Angeles Times covered this story back in 1990, when Kroc had managed to successfully sell the team to a group of San Diego investors headed by Tom Werner. Werner, you might recall, is currently one of the owners of (and the chairman of) the Red Sox, and was defeated by current commissioner Rob Manfred in the battle to succeed the previous commissioner Bud Selig. He’s the kind of guy who would (a) want to be commissioner and (b) would chair a team that tries to convince its fans that they’re better off without having Mookie Betts around, so, you know, not exactly like Kroc, who at least attempted to give away the franchise she owned to the city who hosted their games.

Werner, who got his money and power as a television producer, is also the reason Roseanne Barr sang the national anthem before a baseball game.

Anyway, here’s the Times:

The former owner of the San Diego Padres tried to give the franchise to the city of San Diego, but dropped the proposal after a baseball owners’ committee declined to consider the plan.

But Mayor Maureen O’Connor, a close friend of Kroc’s, confirmed that the former owner approached her with the idea last fall and that the mayor discussed it with City Manager John Lockwood.

“Mrs. Kroc was definitely serious. It would have been the coup of the century for the city,” O’Connor said.

“I was shocked when she offered it and I was excited about the opportunity for the city, and we thought we could do it,” O’Connor told the San Diego Union in a story published Sunday. “Unfortunately, they (the baseball committee members) turned her down.”

“She always kept saying, ‘I have the city of San Diego’s best interests at heart,’ ” O’Connor said.

The mayor said she immediately went to Lockwood to discuss Kroc’s proposal.

“He felt very strongly that we could have some sort of a no-profit (corporation), especially when she was offering $100 million in a trust fund,” O’Connor said. “That is pretty good operating capital. Plus, it would guarantee the team would stay in the city forever.”

MLB’s current owners have to approve the introduction of new owners, and that can severely limit which people get access to a club/the club. There is a reason Mark Cuban will never own an MLB franchise, and that reason is that he’s the kind of owner who might shake things up in a way that forces other owners to have to spend money they don’t want to. On clubhouse comforts, on minor-league players Cuban might try to increase the pay and better the living conditions of in order to produce happier, healthier future MLB players: there is no guarantee Cuban would do those things, necessarily, but his actions and spending helped shape the way the current NBA locker rooms look, so the possibility exists, and that possibility is too big of a risk for MLB’s current 30 owners to take. So, instead, they aim for safe options, like a minority owner in Cleveland becoming the majority owner in Kansas City, as he’s already proven he understands the game and how to play it.

Kroc’s proposal to give the Padres to San Diego is not what you could call a safe proposal for the owners, nor was it following the rules of the game. Emulating the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers by forming a non-profit run by the city, funded by a trust and the revenue from ticket sales, merchandising, etc., would remove the very 1980s/early 90s element of a bunch of Business Dudes smoking cigars in a locked room, complaining about the help and plotting against them, that epitomized the owners of the time. There was never a chance that Kroc’s plan to give the Padres to San Diego was going to come to fruition, but we can still dream on it just the same.

Werner lost his majority stake after the 1994 season, when John Moores purchased 80 percent of the club from the investment group that had bought the team from Kroc. Moores would then own the team until his wife, Becky Moores, filed for divorce in 2008. Thus began John Moores’ liquidation sale of everything he owned, and the question of who would gain custody of the Padres was asked. The answer turned out to be “Jeff Moorad,” at least briefly. You see, Moorad couldn’t afford to buy the Padres. He was a powerful sports agent who had amassed riches, sure, but even back in the late aughts, franchise values had skyrocketed well beyond the point where someone of even his means could successfully run a team.

So, the Padres entered an era where Moorad had to use team revenues to pay down the debt incurred by his purchase of the team. MLB went along with the sale to Moorad in part because Moores was desperate to get out from under the Padres to keep them out of the divorce, and to give him further liquid assets to settle said divorce with. Divorce aside, this is how sales to new owners these days go, too. New ownership groups purchase teams for over a billion dollars — sometimes well, well over a billion dollars — and then they funnel revenues back into paying down the debt created by that purchase. The effect is, of course, exaggerated, so that teams can cry poor and not invest in their roster since the real money is in buying a team, paying down debt, then selling the franchise for even more after years of pocketing what doesn’t go into the roster or paying off the debt. But that’s where we are with the state of ownership groups. One wonders if a franchise owned by a city could thrive in that scenario, or, if they’d actually be unburdened comparatively since they would lack the debt issues and could instead just put revenues back into franchise operation.

A Padres club funded directly by revenues, the trust fund, and whatever the city needs to devote to their own professional sports franchise would have been a lot better off than the one owned by Moorad, which infamously includes the “it will start with a five” payroll season of 2012, as if that figure was supposed to make fans happy.

The Padres seem to be in a better place now, with owners willing to spend to bring in players even when the team isn’t coming off of a good season, and that plus their player development have helped them to, as of this writing, the second-best record in the National League behind the division rival Dodgers. That feels like something of a consolation prize to what could have been, had the city of San Diego been at the helm all these years rather than various businessmen, but we can still think of what could have been. And maybe consider that Kroc’s move is still the direction sports should go… even if those in power now will never allow it, just as they wouldn’t then.

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