From the jaundiced perspective of the East Coast, the rivalry between the Dodgers and Padres is derivative of Yankees vs. Red Sox, though someone really should let national broadcasters ESPN and Fox in on that concept. The idea there: L.A. vs. San Diego is the miniature version of New York vs. Boston.
Reality is more nuanced, of course. Anyway, the 2021 Dodgers and Padres have something the AL East rivals currently don’t: Two teams trying to win, willing to spend whatever it takes to do so, and looking at this as a long-term proposition rather than just competing for a year or two and then retrenching. (The West Coast rivalry also has Mookie Betts, as we will gleefully remind New Englanders every chance we can.)
It has something else, too. The DNA of the older organization in the bigger city has become part of the younger organization in the smaller market, even if Padres fans – many of whom despise the Dodgers just because – would rather not be reminded.
Owner/chairman Peter Seidler doesn’t make a big thing of it, but the Padres boss is the grandson of Walter O’Malley and the nephew of Peter O’Malley. The teams’ two spring training games, the first of which is Saturday, should be low-key. But the 19 regular-season games they’ll play in 2021 might take on the characteristics of a rousing family feud, even though the O’Malley family hasn’t had any role with the Dodgers for 24 years.
Any remnants of Dodger blue were discarded long ago. Seidler, his brother Tom and cousins Brian and Kevin O’Malley were part of the group that purchased the Padres in August of 2012, 3 1/2 months after the Guggenheim Partners group led by Mark Walter purchased the Dodgers from Frank McCourt. Seidler, the lead investor, was the silent partner to Ron Fowler until this past November, when the two switched roles and Seidler became the chairman of the club, purchasing part of Fowler’s share.
He is founder and managing partner of Seidler Equity Partners of Marina Del Rey, a private equity firm with a reported net worth of $3 billion. He has a bachelor’s degree from Virginia and an MBA from UCLA, he is a two-time cancer survivor, and he is said to be relentlessly upbeat.
And he is all in on his community and his ballclub. His first news conference after the Padres agreed to a 14-year, $340 million deal with wunderkind shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. this spring should have made that clear. “I’ll speak for the people of San Diego,” he said. “We’re the eighth-largest city in America. There’s nothing we can’t do.”
The metrics depend on who you talk to, of course. There are some 1.4 million residents within San Diego’s city limits, second in California only to L.A.’s 3.9 million as of 2020 census estimates, and it is indeed eighth largest in the country. But as a “designated media market,” according to Nielsen, San Diego is ranked 27th to L.A.’s No. 2, though it is up from 29th a year ago. (Or, as the late Dodger, Padre and Angel executive Buzzie Bavasi used to note, San Diego was always hemmed in by Mexico to the south, the desert to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west and Vin Scully to the north.)
The Dodgers remain the behemoth, not to mention the World Series champions, yet the Padres are happy to pick this fight. Cot’s Contracts lists San Diego’s projected 2021 opening day payroll as $169.1 million to the Dodgers’ $244.9 million, and in the last four years the Padres have issued nine-figure deals to Eric Hosmer, Manny Machado and Tatis.
This winter alone, in trading for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, they added $97 million in additional salary commitments over the next three years. And as we’ve previously noted in This Space, Dodgers baseball operations president Andrew Friedman acknowledged after signing Trevor Bauer that the move was a reaction to what the Padres were doing.
“We’re not hyperfocused on any one team,” Seidler said after the Tatis signing. “We respect the heck out of what that franchise has accomplished, winning the World Series last year, winning our division for eight years in a row. You know, competition makes everybody better and I expect it will make us better.”
That franchise. It sounds suspiciously like an Ohio State partisan referring to Michigan as “that team up north,” and maybe that terminology will find a place here, too.
But the owner isn’t the only one in his organization who has roots with, uh, that team up north. General manager A.J. Preller worked under Dodgers GM Dan Evans in 2001-03, dealing with scouting and arbitration cases. He said a few years ago: “From just going out and seeing players at 16 years old, or 18 years old, and seeing how they developed and why they developed, it definitely enhanced my knowledge of the game.”
And when the Dodgers overhauled their baseball operations staff after the 2014 season, Preller quickly stole scouting director Logan White. You may remember him as the guy who oversaw the drafts and signings of, among others, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Matt Kemp, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig. White is currently listed as the Padres’ “senior advisor to the general manager/director of player personnel.”
The Dodgers-Padres rivalry was must-see TV last year. It’ll be more so this year and might be the only thing in the NL West worth watching. The Rockies have given up, the Diamondbacks are only a little further along the development curve and the Giants welcome back Buster Posey but are still a distance from contention, especially with a return to a smaller playoff field. (And as Dodger fans are delighted to point out, their Commissioner’s Trophies are getting smaller in the rearview mirror.)
But it’s been a long, hard slog for San Diego to get to this point. Preller went all in before the 2015 season but reversed course quickly. You can’t say that plunge was a total failure because it got them Tatis Jr. in a 2016 trade with the White Sox for James Shields, just 16 days before the 17-year-old Tatis was to play his first professional game.
In 2017, the gap between the payrolls of the Dodgers (No. 1) and the Padres (No. 29) was $171.5 million. In four years worth of high drafts and international signings and promises of a brighter future, the Padres lost 373 games and finished last three times, and San Diegans pretty much decided they’d come back to Petco Park when there was actually something to watch. (That helps explain why Dodger fans overran the place so often.)
The cruel irony is that by the time there indeed was something to watch, no fans were allowed in. Assuming that changes to whatever degree in 2021, Dodger fans might find those tickets much harder to get.
That would be another sign that this rivalry is a fair fight, as well as one that need not be compared to anyone else’s.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter