Steve Garvey is about as close to a Hall of Fame-caliber player anyone can get without truly being considered for the Hall. In 2007, Garvey received a little over 21% of the Hall of Fame vote. He wasn’t close. But his candidacy for the Hall of Fame is a topic that we’ll have to table for now. This article’s focus is on the Padres’ magical run over the course of two years, all started by the addition of Steve Garvey.
Steve Garvey was legendary long before he came to San Diego via free agency, a relatively new concept still when the Dodgers allowed him to walk. No, Garvey’s story starts long before his days as a Padres. It started back in Florida where Garvey developed a love of baseball while acting as the batboy for the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Detroit Tigers during spring training.
As a boy, Garvey was introduced to a culture of hard-nosed, blue-collar baseball, the type of baseball common in the late 50’s. In fact, much of his time spent during springs in the Grapefruit League shaped his character and eventually led to the nickname “Mr Clean.” In his book, “My Bat Boy Days: Lessons I Learned From the Boys of Summer,” Garvey said:
Dad emphasized the need to be respectful, to not get in the way, and most important, to say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’.”
Those lessons stuck as Garvey would become one of the most loved and well-respected players in Dodgers and Padres history.
He eventually moved away from Florida to play baseball and football at Michigan State University. As with many two-sport players, Garvey had to choose which sport to pursue. With his first career at-bat being a grand slam for the baseball team, a .367 average his first year of eligibility, and all Big-10 honors, Garvey’s choice was all but made for him.
He had previously rejected an offer to sign with the Twins after being drafted in the 3rd round of the 1966 draft. Instead, after two years of success at Michigan State, Garvey made himself the 13th overall pick of the 1968 draft. He was going to Los Angeles, California to be a member of the team in which he once served as a batboy. But first he had to pay his dues in the minors.
Garvey didn’t spend much time in the minors. In fact he made his major league debut a little over one year after he was drafted. He spent all of 1968 in rookie league ball, then he split time in 1969 and 1970 between the Dodgers and the minors. In all, his career minor league slash-line is .343/.376/.588. Those numbers earned him a quick promotion to the Dodgers.
In all, Garvey was incredibly successful with Los Angeles. He hit .301/.337/.459 with 211 home runs in 14 years with the Dodgers. He also amassed 1,968 hit in LA. In 1974, Garvey went to his first All-Star Game, a game in which he wasn’t even on the ballot but overwhelming fan support and write-in votes earned him the start. That same season, Garvey was named the league MVP. He hit .312/.342/.469 and slugged 21 home runs while knocking in 111 runs. Garvey would go on to be named to eight straight All-Star games with the Dodgers. But, by the time Garvey’s contract was up, the team did not re-sign him. They let him walk in free agency.
After the 1982 season, Garvey was 34 years old, a veteran player, and an expensive player. But that didn’t stop teams from pursuing him heavily. The Cubs, the Giants, the Yankees, and the Padres were all in the mix. With Ray Kroc as the owner, the Padres had a little more flexibility in spending, and Kroc truly wanted to win. So the Padres went after Garvey hard during that offseason, and they used more than just a contract offer as incentive. They used the beauty of southern California as an added bonus.
Garvey had grown to love southern California while playing with the Dodgers. It was a far cry fro his college days in Michigan, and it was much milder than his summers in Tampa. San Diego, just a couple hours south of Los Angeles, used that to their advantage.
In a January 1983 article in The Sporting News by Nick Peters, the story starts:
"When the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, and San Diego Padres were bidding for free agent Steve Garvey, Cubs General Manager Dallas Green said the only thing that concerned him about San Diego was that it was situated in Southern California."
And ultimately, that’s what tipped the scales in San Diego’s favor. When Garvey signed, he said, “The offers were so similar, I finally had to go with my heart. I decided this is where I wanted to play.”
Garvey’s goal was simple: bring a championship to the Padres. For it, the Padres were willing to pay Garvey $6.6 million over five years with a club option for a sixth year. They also kicked in a full no-trade clause as part of the contract. It was enough, and Garvey officially became a San Diego Padre on December 21, 1982.
On April 5, 1983, a day in which baseball was getting under way all across the country, Garvey put on his Padres uniform for a regular season game for the first time. In San Francisco to start the season, against one of the teams involved in the bidding war to get him, Garvey made his Padres debut.
There was an enormous, sell-out crowd on hand at Candlestick Park to take in the Opening Day festivities. The Giants were coming off a solid season and a third place finish in the division, and fans were excited about the prospects of 1983. They would eventually be disappointed as the Giants would drop back into last place by the end of the season, but on April 5, 1983, everyone was 0-0.
In his very first plate appearance, in the top of the first inning, Garvey walked and scored. It was the start to an epic slug-fest between these two California teams, one that would quickly show off Garvey’s offensive prowess. In the fourth inning, Garvey doubled to right. In the fifth inning, Garvey singled to right and drove in a run. Garvey would end up walking one more time. In all, he had a 2-for-4 day with two runs scored and one RBI.
It was the start to something special. The Padres went on to win the game 16-13, but more importantly, Garvey and others were changing the culture of this San Diego Padres team. No longer were they to just be a decent team. They were trying to become a force.
Garvey is much more known for being a Dodger. He spent 14 years there after all. Yet, his time in San Diego had such an impact, Padres fans will forever worship him. In those five seasons, Garvey went to two All-Star games, he hit .275/.309/.409, and he helped the Padres to a National League pennant in 1984. He had multiple legendary home runs and plays in his career, and he always had a clean image.
Garvey retired after the 1987 season with the Padres, but he will be forever remembered. His number 6 stands tall above the batter’s eye in Petco Park, retired for all time. The tribute is as much about his five years in San Diego as it is about just one season – 1984. But that one season would not have been possible had the Padres not signed Garvey and had Garvey not made his debut on April 5, 1983.