PEORIA — Ariz. — Because I am an utter glutton for punishment, I decided to brave crosstown Phoenix traffic yesterday afternoon and go from the daytime Cubs-Angels game over to the evening Dodgers-Padres tilt. Why? Partially because the first Will Ferrell game I saw was fun so why not see a second one? But also because this Padres team is so fundamentally different than what we saw last year that I wanted to grok their new zeitgeist for myself.
It has been two years since I’ve been in Peoria, actually, and a whole lot is different. For one thing, the complex at which the Padres and Mariners train has been totally redone, and it’s pretty fantastic. Standing inside the Padres clubhouse and you think you’re inside the Cubs’ brand new clubhouse over at Sloan Park. It’s big, open, airy and filled with natural light.
But the architectural changes are not the most notable thing. That would be Matt Kemp, holding court and seemingly setting the tone for a loose, happy clubhouse.
Kemp, who was wearing a T-shirt with the case of the movie “The Sandlot” on it, has a mini Marshall amp in his locker hooked up to his iPhone and soon after I arrived he started playing jams. Maybe not the jams you’d expect. Blasting from his speaker was “The Promise,” by When in Rome. When that didn’t really grab anyone (except for 40 something baseball writers who were straight grooving on it) he switched to Hall and Oates. “Private Eyes,” if you care. Except that song sounds so much better in a big major league clubhouse with an All-Star outfielder clapping his hands to the beat [they’re watchin’ you — clap-clap — they see your every move”] than it does on the radio in your mom’s 1979 Buick LeSabre.
That party didn’t last too long, as Kemp disappeared outside the back door of the clubhouse. I followed and found myself next to the Padres’ outdoor basketball court, tucked in between the clubhouse and the practice fields. There were 20-30 players there, watching an in-progress three-point competition, complete with the racks of balls around the arc, NBA-style. It was a team competition, with the 5’6″ Alexi Amarista cleaning up for the team in action at the moment. His touch was nice, but one-time Cubs prospect Jay Jackson had a nice touch too. Everyone was else was either rebounding, watching, trash-talking or some combination of the three.
Even manager Bud Black was getting into the act, hanging out on the court and talking his fair share of trash too. Earlier I saw him taking part in the team’s ping pong competition. All teams do that, but I’ve not seen a manager involved. Hell, it’s not often you see a manager do much besides hang in his office and talk to the coaches in the few hours before the game. But Black was.
I talked to some Padres employees after the clubhouse closed. They had seen me tweeting about the atmosphere and wanted to let me know that, no, this was not unusual this spring. Matt Kemp has been holding court, happy and loose as hell. He, in turn, has taken pressure off of Justin Upton who, while always tabbed to be a superstar, has never struck anyone as the rah-rah leader type. I’m told that he’s really loose too, happy the spotlight isn’t on him, allowing him to be himself. Wil Myers is a tad tired of answering questions about covering center — he either will or he won’t hack it — but he seems pretty happy to not be asked about being a prospect at a crossroads or the subject of one of the more infamous trades in recent years.
A good clubhouse and good team chemistry doesn’t win ballgames. Ultimately the Padres’ fate hinges on that outfield defense. On Yonder Alonso living up to his potential. On the rotation — which looks pretty spiffy on paper — staying healthy. On whether the Dodgers and Giants stumble enough to allow San Diego to break into contention.
But it doesn’t hurt either. And while it’s only March 13 and no battle plan survives engagement with the enemy (with said engagement more than three weeks away), at the moment the Padres have mood and attitude covered like crazy.
It’s quite a zeitgeist to grok, actually.