Party Like It’s Not 1998
Look, we get it. The Padres have not had much success in the past decade, or even relatively much in the entirety of their existence. Although you can ask any upset fan of any other franchise on Twitter, and they will gladly tell you this, we don’t need a reminder. After all, no one shames their own team for losing on social media quite like Padres fans.
The last time the Padres played a playoff game, George W. Bush was president, and Twitter was only a few months old. Padres Twitter had yet to become the madhouse it is today. Or cesspool, depending on who you ask. The way we watched the Padres and talked about them was completely different.
This is part of what makes 2020 such a visceral experience for Padres fans. Many of us, like myself, were kids in 1998. Others don’t remember, or weren’t even born in 1998. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good heavy dose of nostalgia, but I’ve avoided 1998 like the Plague lately. Especially as an actual global pandemic swept over the country.
It’s not that I don’t love or appreciate what 1998 was. It’s simply that we’ve been forced to accept it as the fleeting firecracker of glory, the momentary brilliance in the backdrop of a starless night. We’ve lived in a media culture that accepted 1998 as “that time the Padres were really good”.
For me, 2020 has been a strange ride. And for all intents and purposes, my year actually started in San Diego, the city of my birth. I was fortunate enough to meet some of the characters of Padres Twitter in between spending time with family in January. I took in a Gulls game with my brother. I did not know this would be the last time my life felt normal.
I also drove past the building I will forever call Jack Murphy Stadium. The old hunk of concrete soldiers on in relative disrepair, corroded and, let’s be honest, sad. It’s a tough sight to see if you’re like me and all your childhood sports memories are behind that gloom and rust.
I can never forget the feeling of getting to the concourse as a little kid, holding my dad’s hand, and getting that first glimpse of a Major League Baseball field. The place the Padres, my heroes from television and radio play. For the first time I would remember, I had arrived. And I was fortunate enough to arrive again many times as a child, through some of the worst years of baseball, and some of the most memorable of my life.
For many of us, we share the same baseball baptism: running down the giant circular ramps, doing the world’s largest Macarena in 1996, and even seeing winning baseball for a while. As the Friars shocked the baseball world with a 7-2 win over the hated Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday, and continued their best start to a season since that singular year of 1998, those memories and feelings flooded back to me in a significant way.
After all, we all have a reason we’re glued to this game. A parent, a sibling, a friend, a relative, or maybe just a day we turned on the radio and heard something incredible. We all romanticize this game because the feel of the stitches of the ball in our hands, the sound of the crack of the bat, the sights, sounds, the shared joy with friends takes us to a place. A place we need more than ever.
For most of us, this has simply not been our year. We are mostly left to stay at home. We worry about our livelihoods, our health, our communities, and our loved ones. For myself, 2020 brought more change in a very short time than I could have ever processed standing in front of Petco Park in January, So it’s fitting in a year none of us saw coming, we get a team with the same shock factor.
A Padres team which lost 92 games last year and drifted into a fifth place finish was the second National League club this year to reach 30 wins. In a season marked by strict health policies, a shortened season, and most jarring, no fans, the Padres have become the most talked about baseball team of the summer. Something that didn’t even happen in 1998.
Under the watch of Jayce Tingler and his staff, Wil Myers has become the likely National League Comeback Player of the Year, and a bedrock of the Padres lineup. Manny Machado has become the MVP candidate we all dreamed of when he signed with the team last year, Eric Hosmer has found launch angle and success, and the Padres have gone seemingly overnight from laughingstock to contender. These stories of breakouts and comebacks are all over the roster, from Dinelson Lamet to Zach Davies to Jake Cronenworth.
For a fanbase so accustomed to hopes dashed, to players becoming punchlines after high expectations, things have worked the Padres’ direction in that magical way we are so beautifully unfamiliar with. In a year we have had so much to worry about, the Padres have become the talk of the town, and even the talk of the sports nation.
In an era of social media, the Padres have become a 2020 folk story. The way we watch the most entertaining team in baseball is a completely different world than we’ve known. We share the joy with friends and strangers alike. We mob the opponents’ final score thread. We are connected, we are in the moment together despite the distance 2020 has forced us to endure.
It is so sweet that as the stadium we had those memories in is ground down into a pile of concrete, we make memories anew. As we finally say goodbye to the place we saw legends play and pennants won, we see the seeds AJ Preller planted bear fruit, and we know there is a big difference now: though we do not know what 2020 will bring us come October, we know the future is bright in San Diego. This is a beginning born in a year we say goodbye to the past.
Mark Wilkens is a writer for MadFriars.com and follow him on Twitter: @MarkFWilkens