“They’re filming a movie here at the ballpark,” I asked Bob Fontaine, the general manager of the Padres in 1979, as we stood in the clubhouse a couple of hours before the game.
Bob nodded. “It’s about the San Diego Padres. Sort of.”
“Are any of us gonna be in it?”
“Nope. Ray (Kroc, the San Diego Padres owner at the time) doesn’t want any of the players involved. Thinks you guys need to be focused on playing, not acting.” The movie was shot while we were on the road. As you can see when you watch the “action” scenes during the film, none of our numbers were used, only high uniforms, (71, 78, etc.) were worn by the actors, a common practice in many Baseball movies.
Wasn’t the biggest deal in the world. Would’ve been nice, a little extra pocket change, maybe a Screen Actors’ Guild union card, nothing to write home about. Ray just wanted us concentrating on winning the title he thought we should’ve brought home in ’78. Funny thing was, when the Made-For-TV movie aired on NBC later that year, just one of us in the organization made an appearance.
Jerry Coleman, our play-by-play announcer.
Kroc adored Jerry, as we all did. Beyond sentiment, though, the move made sense. Nothing said "San Diego Padres" like Jerry Coleman, adding an air of authenticity to the film. Even to that point in his career in our broadcast booth, Coleman was beloved by fans and ballplayers alike. I remember my second major league start in '73, I pitched against the Padres at Candlestick, struck out 11, got my first career win, first complete game and was interviewed by Jerry afterward, when it was usually Bob Chandler. They had the Padres’ broadcast hookups in the visiting dugout, so the interview was conducted on the opposing teams’ side of the field. I had never met the man before, but he asked me about my San Diego roots, being a hometown, Southern California boy, how the Padres wanted to draft me in 1970, he had my background down cold, my High School pitching record, stats from my minor league seasons, everything. A smooth, pleasant interview, like he prepared all day. The man just knew everything about me. It was a very classy touch, interviewing me literally for my friends and family back home. Sadly, there were no consumer VCRs nor even the Betamax back then, but my parents made a cassette copy off a transistor radio broadcast of the game. A very worn and quite scratchy sound today, the tape remains one of my beloved possessions.
There’s been a swell of affectionate remembrances for the man all across television and the Internet these past 24 hours. A few specific moments between us stand out in my mind. Jerry, the American original that he was, loved his hot dogs. I used to eat franks as a ritual before every game. Jerry would stroll into the clubhouse, pass by my locker and slyly inquire, “Are they good today?”
“Oh, they’re excellent,” I would nod, barely audible, cheeks stuffed, sauerkraut hanging off the side of my mouth.
“Should I have one?”
“I think you should get two,” I would smile. We’d enjoy a quick laugh, he'd grab a dog and then we'd get down to some thoughts on the game, providing background for his broadcast. We were hot dog buddies in 1978; got pretty close that year, not dinner mates or anything like that – Randy Jones would go out to dinner often with Jerry when the team was on the road – but we talked quite a bit that summer.
Jerry and Randy were like father and son. Coleman was so proud of Jonesy, another local California boy who battled through a tough 1974 season where he lost 20 games, turning it around to a 22-12 record in 1975 before his outstanding Cy Young campaign in ‘76. The two of them had a strong friendship that lasted over four decades.
Jerry was that type of person who would sit down with us in the clubhouse, go into stories about the glorious Yankee ballclubs during the 1950s. He was something of a Baseball historian, a plethora of information and color. He flew well over 100 missions in World War 2 and Korea – just shrugged it off humbly when asked about it. A true war hero and most unassuming guy you’d ever meet. Very warm, very sincere – you just wanted to reach out and hug him.
Jerry was an entertainer and damn good one, especially during our first winning season in 1978. Ozzie Smith would make these unbelievable plays that would astonish Jerry (and everyone else), to the point where he would say “You can hang a star on that.” Jerry hung many stars on my teammates that season.
While the team didn’t perform quite as badly in ’79 as the fictional Padres in the Gary Coleman film, we were still in our own little dogfight for last place with the Atlanta Braves. Team batting average & OBP fell ten points and suddenly all those one-run victories we collected the previous season were going to the other guys. We went 14-13 in July after our rough first half, thought we were turning a corner, but an 8-19 August pretty much finished us off. Talk around the clubhouse was that Kroc wanted to replace our manager Roger Craig with one of the coaches. Don Williams and Jack Krol were stand-up guys, fiercely loyal to Roger and both turned down the position. To be fair, Kroc was as meddling with baseball decisions as he was generous to the players when things went well. As the season mercifully came to a 68-93 end, we began speculating about who Kroc might hire. With some ballclubs like the Yankees and Royals underperforming, the thought was there might be some A-list field generals to choose from. The Phillies’ three-time division-winning manager Danny Ozark was on the Dodgers’ bench after being dismissed in mid-season.
So I’m working out at the Stadium in late 1979. Jonesy comes onto the field. “Guess what, Dude?” he said, chucking a ball at me, without leaving me a moment to reply, “Ray asked Jerry to be the manager.”
“Jerry Who,” I answered. Randy raised his glove and bare palms at me, “JERRY. Coleman.”
Took me a little by surprise. Never knew a broadcaster without any coaching experience to move straight into the dugout. Obviously, Jerry knew the ballclub and the organization up and down, but to me, he was coming from a completely different perspective. Maybe Kroc could’ve waited a few months. Billy Martin would become available. Whitey Herzog would be out there. There were still other managers to choose from, I thought. We all loved Jerry, but here’s the thing.
Didn’t matter to Ray Kroc that other quality skippers were on the beach, waiting for another shot in the spotlight.
In his mind, Jerry Coleman was the only kid in the picture.
Regardless of what transpired during the 1980 season, when things didn’t work out, Kroc reassigned Jerry back to the booth. Didn't matter that the team underperformed, Ray Kroc loved Jerry Coleman so much and was aware of the fan base's affection for the man, he kept him in the family. That to me, above all else, speaks to the respect and admiration we all felt for Jerry Coleman. A great American. A great friend.
A great Padre.
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