We've reached the end of August, and if you, like me, are a fan of a terrible team, or just a mediocre one that's playing out the string, the time is nigh to carry on a cherished annual tradition: the selection of a contending team to bandwagon for the rest of the year.
Now, maybe you've already done this. If you devotedly follow the Mariners, or the Orioles, or the Pirates, or the Diamondbacks, or one of the other immediate pushovers, you may have found a casual, more short-term rooting interest months ago. Baseball's a hard sport to follow when you don't have a team in the running, and when your team drops out of the race as quickly as, say, Baltimore did, you might even have a team on the side by the beginning of May. Baseball's more fun when you've got a little hope, and when your own team's well runs dry, you need to tap into another.
But those early bandwagon bonds - they aren't yet fully developed. And there are plenty of other people - fans of the Tigers, fans of the Marlins, fans of the Red Sox - who may only now be opening up to the bandwagon process. For those reasons, I'd like to take this opportunity to argue in favor of what I believe to be the best bandwagon option available. And, to me, all things considered, the hands-down best bandwagon choice in the league is the San Diego Padres.
With many of you, this'll probably be an unpopular pick. With fans of the Giants, Rockies, and Dodgers in particular. But then, every team has rivals. There exists no team without rivals. There does exist one team that stands as baseball's best bandwagon. Therefore, baseball's best bandwagon will have other fans that hate it. That's just the nature of things. That some small percentage of the population doesn't see the appeal doesn't change the fact that a greater percentage could, and should.
To fans of the Padres' rivals: I'm sorry, but there's no denying this. And to fans of other teams in the race who think their team is the most appealing: you're wrong. Some of you root for appealing teams, to be sure. The Padres aren't the only appealing contender in the league. They're just the most appealing, for bandwagon purposes. I trust you'll understand.
Let's move on to the argument. I assure you I didn't settle on the Padres without giving every team its due consideration.
THE PADRES ARE A COMPLETELY SURPRISING UNDERDOG
Rooting for the underdog is somewhat ironically one of the most American things you can do, and there's no bigger surprise and no bigger underdog than the 2010 San Diego Padres. Between 2008-2009, the Padres lost 186 games. This year, they were picked by nearly everyone to finish last in their division. They weren't projected as a potential dark horse. They were projected to be bad. Nobody thought this team would do anything.
How bad were they supposed to be? A few days ago I was talking to a rather connected friend of mine, and he said that the Padres' own GM, Jed Hoyer, expected them to win 70 games. They were supposed to lose, and trade Adrian Gonzalez, and rebuild for 2013.
Then they started to win, and they didn't stop winning. They didn't stop winning despite an Opening Day payroll of about $38 million, second-lowest in baseball and $20 million below the Florida god damn Marlins. The Yankees' Opening Day payroll was five and a half times that of the Padres, and yet the Padres took off.
Still, they remain such underdogs that every time they lose, people think that's the end of it. People have such difficulty wrapping their heads around the idea of the Padres being good that, even 129 games into the season, they're still considered a fluke. They're a team with a good record that few are willing to grant much in the way of credit.
The Padres came out of nowhere, worked their way into first place with a payroll that could've barely won a Strasburg rookie card auction on eBay, and still aren't taken very seriously. They're a total underdog. They're not an underdog in the way that the 2007 Colorado Rockies were an underdog when they were well out of the race on September 15th, since they're there in first place, but they're an underdog in that they're a talented bunch of underpaid nobodies with a shot to win it all. They are what America loves.
THEIR ROSTER IS LITTERED WITH NO-NAME REGULAR PLAYERS
Everyone knows about Adrian Gonzalez. Of course, most people know Adrian Gonzalez not because he's a spectacular, MVP-level player, but rather because he was rumored to be traded to the Red Sox and Yankees last winter. But the fact remains that Adrian Gonzalez is a well-known star.
After that, though, what is there? The second-best bat on the team so far has been Chris Denorfia. Arguably their second-most valuable position player is Chase Headley. Ryan Ludwick was a deadline acquisition with a track record of success, but how many people are really familiar with Ryan Ludwick? I guess a lot of people know David Eckstein, but that's less because of his talent, and more because of his adorable little head.
And as for the pitching side, good luck getting the average baseball fan to name more than a single arm. Mat Latos has recently started to draw some attention as a Cy Young candidate, but his level of household familiarity is on par more with Josh Johnson than Tim Lincecum. Behind him, you get Jon Garland - who many fans might know but few could place - and Clayton Richard, who I assure you is a starting pitcher in the Major Leagues.
Then there's a bullpen - the secret to San Diego's success - manned with studs like Heath Bell, Luke Gregerson, Edward Mujica, Mike Adams, Joe Thatcher, and Ernesto Frieri. This has, to date, been one of the best bullpens of all time, and not one of them would get recognized at a grocery store.
Even if the math may not bear it out, the Padres are perceived as a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, because when you look at the individual parts, they don't blow you away. Having a team stocked with no-names plays right into that same underdog appeal. You don't want to see the same teams and the same players having all the success. You want to see new teams and new players, and the Padres are filled to the brim with players you'll find it easy to root for, as soon as you learn who they are.
THEY HAVE A PRETTY GOOD CHANCE OF MAKING A RUN
There's a lot that goes into choosing a bandwagon, but most people would prefer a bandwagon that doesn't drop out after three or four games. There's rooting for underdogs, and then there's rooting for underdogs with a prayer.
So it's worth noting that, while the Padres are seen as an underdog, they're also really really good. Their run differential of +120 ranks top in the National League and third overall. According to Fangraphs, not only have they had arguably the top pitching staff in baseball - they've also had the top team defense. And their offense, though unimpressive on the surface, is hurt by playing in an extreme environment, and isn't actually half bad. The Padres have the NL's best record, and based on the numbers, they've earned it.
On top of that, not only are the Padres a good team - they're also set, right now, to have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. If they finish with the best record in the NL - and they currently have a 1.5 game lead over Cincinnati and Atlanta - they'll have home field for the division and championship series, and because the NL won the All-Star Game, they'd have home field for the World Series as well. Home field isn't a hugely critical factor, but it's an important one nevertheless.
These Padres - they could do it. They're not as strong as some of their AL counterparts, but they have as good a shot as anyone at making the Series, and once you're there, anything can happen.
MATT STAIRS AND HEATH BELL ARE REALLY COOL
These are two guys that look like your daddy's old barber, and while Bell makes the bigger contribution, they're both on the team, and they're both real easy to root for.
Stairs is a 42 year old, 5'9, balding Canadian about whom everything you need to know is revealed by the following winter league anecdote, from a Sports Illustrated article in December 1997:
The opening game of Los Mayos' 1995 season was in Mazatlan. Kevin Millar, a 26-year-old infield prospect for the Florida Marlins who has been Stairs's teammate in Navojoa for three seasons, remembers the day well. "I'd never met Matt," says Millar. "He was supposed to hit fourth that day, but it was 20 minutes before the game and he hadn't shown up. It got to be 10 minutes before game time, then five, and still no Matt. Finally, when the umpires were meeting at home plate, this guy walked into the dugout wearing jeans and boots and smoking a cigarette. He just pulled on his uniform, went up there and yanked a home run. I was like, Who the f-is this guy?"
To my knowledge, nobody's ever had a bad word to say about Matt Stairs, and what he's like either on or off the field. On the field, he's always done his job and never complained, even though a late start and limited playing time may have robbed him of a chance at the Hall. And off the field, he's always been charitable, warm, and humble. Matt Stairs is the guy every Joe dreams he could be, and it should come as no surprise that Stairs caught on as a favorite among Phillies fans during the 2008 Series run.
Bell: No. I don't have anything. I'm not a fun guy. I'm not a fan favorite. People in San Diego don't even know who I am. That's why I grow funny things on my face. That's why I run in from the bullpen so quickly, so as not to be seen. I'm in disguise. I'm a big secret.
Bell: But I definitely believe in UFOs and the government ... You know in "Men in Black," how the toaster's been patented and TVs? I do believe that's alien technology.
PADRES GAMES ARE FREQUENTLY TENSE
Let's face it - you don't want to bandwagon a team that's going to put you to sleep. That takes a lot of the fun right out of the whole process. If you bandwagon a team because you want to see it win it all, but you can't stand to actually watch it on TV, then you aren't going to be real thrilled with your choice.
So I bring you good news! No, the Padres don't hit a ton of dingers. No, the Padres don't get involved in barnburners every other day. But they do find themselves involved in more suspenseful situations than any other contender in the league.
Baseball-Reference.com classifies at bats as being low leverage, medium leverage, and high leverage. A low leverage at bat would be one that occurs in a blowout. A high leverage at bat would be, say, batting with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game. Leverage is a good measure of importance and suspense.
And it just so happens that, after combining the offensive plate appearances with their defensive plate appearances, the Padres lead all Major League contenders in terms of how many of their PAs are classified as high leverage. 2120 of 9778 plate appearances by or against the Padres - 21.7% - have been high leverage, against, say, 19.7% for the Rangers, or 16.4% for the Yankees.
Padres games tend to be low-scoring, and as such, Padres games tend to be tight and compelling. When every run takes on an amplified significance, that makes for more watchable baseball.
THEY'RE FRESH, THEY'RE NEW, AND THEY WON'T CATCH ON
You know what the Padres have accomplished in their history? Nothing. They've been to the World Series twice, and won one game. They've won a total of one playoff game since 1998, which is also the last time they won 90 games. Any recent postseason visits have been fleeting, and they haven't played a meaningful game since blowing a one-game playoff in Colorado.
The Padres haven't been on anyone's radar in more than a decade. Even when they've been decent, they haven't really mattered. And that makes them fresh and new, in the way that the Tampa Bay Rays were a few seasons ago, and no longer are. A lot of people have already been on the Rays bandwagon. A lot of people have already been on the Twins bandwagon, and the Rockies bandwagon. How many people can remember the last time they were on the Padres bandwagon? This is a bandwagon that allows you the thrill of shopping online for a new cap or a tee since you know you don't have one in the closet.
Me, I already own a Rays t-shirt. I wore it jogging yesterday. I vividly remember what it was like to be on that bandwagon, and for that reason, I'm not interested in climbing back on. I want something new. It's a different experience.
And to appeal to your indie sensibilities, there's little risk of overcrowding. Though the Padres have all the elements necessary to be America's favorite bandwagon, I don't think they'll actually be America's favorite bandwagon. They might be considered too much of an underdog. They might be too unfamiliar. And they're not a very visible franchise, tucked all the way over there in a western corner. The majority of bandwagoners, I imagine, will jump on with Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Texas, because they see the AL as superior and want to see a lower-budget team dethrone the Yankees. Unless the Padres get some generous time-slotting, their bandwagon could very well remain pretty light until or unless they get deep.
YOU WON'T REGRET IT LATER
I went to school in Connecticut and had a brother in Boston in 2004, when the Red Sox swept the Angels, rallied past the Yankees, and swept away the Cardinals for their first World Series in 86 years. I was cheering them along the whole way, happy for all the long-suffering diehards who finally got what they'd always dreamed of. To this day, I can't believe I didn't see coming what came. Red Sox Nation, of course, became what it is today, a blight upon the very freedom of speech America holds so dear. If I had a time machine, the first thing I'd do is go back to 2004 and club David Ortiz in the throat.
In fear of that all happening again, I could never bring myself to bandwagon, say, the Cubs, or the Dodgers, or the Mets. But the Padres? What happened with the Red Sox would never happen with the Padres. This would be a World Series you could enjoy, and that no one would gloat about later.
The Padres just don't have a bigger team's fanbase potential. Not in that city, in that timeslot, with that little visibility. A Padres title would be more like a Marlins title, only without the off-putting fire sale the next month.
Sure, you might see a few more SD hats walking around town. They're nice hats, people like San Diego, and people always like a winner. But they're not going to talk trash. They're not going to infiltrate other teams' stadiums or let it get to their heads. Padre Fever wouldn't spread very far for very long, and even at its epicenter in Petco Park, it's unlikely that very much would change. The Padres have a pretty casual, low-key fanbase overall. If you wanted, they'd let you forget.
So to sump up - if you find yourself looking for a bandwagon team for the rest of the 2010 season, you've got a number of options, but I don't think any of them quite measure up to what the Padres have to offer. The Twins are cool, but we've been there before. The Rays are cool, but we've been there before. The Rangers are cool, but they're not a surprise. The Reds are cool, but they were billed as a sleeper from the start. The Padres have the best combination of everything that goes into proper bandwagon deliberation. I thought the Phoenix Coyotes were a wonderful story, but the Padres are on the Cinderella run to end all Cinderella runs, and I'm firmly on board. Join me, and we'll ride this thing as far as its cute little wheels can go.