Why I’m A Padres Fan

From Terry Kennedy to Juan Bonilla to Garry Templeton, I’ve always rooted for the scrappy underdogs,
which makes San Diego’s current run that much sweeter

By Matt Ginella
October 18, 2022

“How did you become a Padres fan?”

As someone who was born and raised in Northern California, I get asked that a lot.

It started on Opening Day in 1982. I was 10 (above, blue sweatshirt).

We had made the 90-minute drive south, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The Giants’ home opener was against the Padres, and we had VIP seats that were on the field.

The we in this case was Don Culbertson, a South San Francisco police officer, who was the father of my best friend; his wife Jackie, a saint for putting up with all of our shenanigans; and Danny, 10. Shane Culbertson was Danny’s little brother by three years. In any given year, I’d stay at the Culbertson house almost enough to be considered a third son. Which is to say, we were all especially close. And while the Culbertsons were hard-core Giants fans, I was not. The best reason I can come up with? I didn’t like the black and orange uniforms.

A fan base can be fickle. My family never missed a 49ers game, but I didn’t make it to a lot of Giants games. Instead, we played baseball and we collected baseball cards. Very early on, I was a fan of players, not any one team. Throughout my not-so illustrious career in the Rincon Valley Little League, which was a dusty haven of fields, kids, coaches and craziness, I played second base. That explains why I loved the Yankees’ Willie Randolph, who was my first favorite player. Every cent I scraped together from paper routes, cleaning cars and sweeping the garage would go to buying as many packs of baseball cards as possible. I would bike to the liquor store and make my purchase, devouring the sticks of gum that came in the Topps packaging. We all did. Those Topps gum sticks tasted like wax and snapped like a potato chip. They never lasted more than a few chews, but the secret was to chase the diminishing taste with a new stick. Again and again until they were all gone. Then we’d toss the pile of empty wrappers and hurl the tasteless mass into a trash can in the Safeway shopping center before pedaling home. That’s when we’d see if we had secured any rookie cards, completed a set or acquired some duplicates that were tradable to other kids in the neighborhood.

I loved baseball. I just didn’t like the Giants.

So on this Opening Day, April 5, 1982, when the team added seats on the field, erected a temporary wooden wall, covered it in bunting and filled it with first responders and police officers like Don Culbertson and his family, I got the invite. I brought a glove that day, and I cheered for the Padres.

This is when the seed in the garden of fandom sprouted roots.

Our seats were near the Padres’ dugout, and between innings, Terry Kennedy, the San Diego catcher, was making his way off the field. He looked like a gladiator in his catcher’s gear; it was like he was moving in slow motion. He was walking right at me! He had something for the crazy little kid who was cheering for the Friars while sitting on the field of a Giants game. I clammed up. He extended his hand, and I extended my glove. Then Kennedy plopped a ball into the webbing before lumbering into the dugout. It was one small gesture, yet that exchange forever cemented my loyalty. 

Two years later, the Padres acquired Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles. For the Padres to land two Yankees was a big deal, which is why they wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Then Baseball Digest ran a cover story on Tony Gwynn, Carmelo Martinez and Kevin McReynolds, a young and productive outfield on a team that made its first World Series appearance that year. I was all in. 

Not to mention, even several hours north in Santa Rosa, I could pick up Padres night games on the radio. I would listen until I dozed off. 

During the ’84 playoffs against the Cubs, I remember sitting in a car, by myself, insisting I needed to stay behind so I could listen to a game while my family went into a restaurant. That’s where I was when Steve Garvey hit the home run. I jumped around in the car like our Goldendoodle does now when we pull up to “Dog Beach” in Del Mar.

Which brings my journey full-circle. I’ve settled in San Diego, and my family and I are surrounded by Padres lovers. And I’m raising my family to be Padres fans. Going to Padres games. Listening to the Padres on the radio. I have befriended and played golf with Ben Higgins and Steven Woods of “Ben & Woods,” the morning show on 97.3 FM The Fan, the Padres’ flagship station. No one is smoother at play-by-play than Jesse Agler. And would you believe the analyst is Tony Gwynn Jr.? “Little T” sounds just like his father. Although he didn’t have a Hall of Fame career, Junior played in the majors for eight years; he has endless stories and knows the game.

Prior to his death in 2014 at the age of 54, Tony Gwynn coached at San Diego State, which is where both father and son played collegiately. Senior left us far too soon. He was arguably the best pure hitter not named Ted Williams. His stats are ridiculous: eight batting titles, a career .338 average while only once hitting below .300, as a rookie in 1982, when he hit .289. And you gotta love this nugget: Aaron Judge struck out 175 times this season in 570 at-bats. Gwynn fanned 188 times in the 4,981 at-bats he had in the 1990s. When he had two strikes, Gwynn was a career .302 hitter. No surprise he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I made the trek to Cooperstown one year to pay my respects to the man and his incredible career. And I’m feverishly working on a Fire Pit Podcast now that celebrates his legacy. It should drop later in the week. 

But first, back to this season. On a recent trip to Petco Park, my son and I were invited onto the field for batting practice. We spoke to Agler and shook hands with Gwynn Jr. I brought along a Fernando Tatis-signed ball I had bought in a charity auction. That day we added the signatures of Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Nick Martinez. 

“I can’t believe I just saw Manny Machado with my own eyes,” said Bandon, who’s 5. 

Admittedly, I shared in his boyish awe. What a joy it has been to watch Machado play baseball. He’s an artist. Everything is effortless. And he has my vote for National League MVP. Where would we be without him?

It has been a good season. So many humps, bumps and bummers. It’s crazy the Padres are doing this without Tatis, and in spite of all the drama he delivered. But thanks to A.J. Preller and Peter Seidler, the Padres have talent, heart and chemistry. They have Manny, Yu, Snellzilla, No-No Joe and that bullpen, along with the leadership and wisdom of Bob Melvin. Overcoming all of that adversity is exactly why they’re so dangerous. 

They have San Diego behind them too. Look no farther than Friday night’s playoff game against the Dodgers. I was lucky to be there. With Todd Curran, a best friend from high school. And I was texting with Danny Culbertson, who never stopped collecting baseball cards.

I was thinking all the way back to Terry Kennedy. Garry Templeton. Heck, I even wore an old hat that I’ve had since I was a kid.

I remember when the team made the change to a blue color scheme, which never felt right. And I recalled the 1998 season, which is when I was at Sports Illustrated and was working on the baseball beat. I went to all four World Series games. The first two were in New York. I saw Gwynn homer in Game 1, which he later said was one of his individual highlights of his career. I saw Mark Langston throw a strike that was called a ball and then Tino Martinez hit a home run of his own. I remember getting swept and watching the Yankees celebrate the win at the Murph, which was hard on the eyes and even harder on the heart.

Last Friday was the opposite of all of that. The crowd seemed to be imposing its collective will on getting a win and a pivotal 2-1 series lead. It was a relentless effort of enthusiasm and electricity. And in the madness and mayhem around what was one of the greatest live sporting events of my life, I had to laugh a little. I thought about Shane Culbertson, Danny’s little brother. That’s the way we treated him. Like a little brother. We didn’t hold back. It’s not like we were bullies; we were just bigger. Shane took it well, although he didn’t have much choice. We once went so far as to put him in a football helmet and use him as target practice. We loaded air guns with rice and shot at Shane from the porch as he serpentined from tree to tree.

It’s widely known that the Dodgers have always treated the Padres like little brothers. They’ve treated us fans like we treated Shane. We’ve taken it well, although we haven’t had much choice.

But as Shane knows, and Danny and I found out, little brothers keep growing, and eventually they’re big enough to shoot back. 

So here’s to baseball. Tony Gwynn. The postseason. Full circles, old hats, best buddies and brothers. And to beating those damn Dodgers! 

Here’s to the Padres.

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8 thoughts on “Why I’m A Padres Fan”

  1. My mother attended a game in the Astrodome in 1974 as a member of the Ardmore (OK) High School Marching Band. When she came home from that NL West matchup a couple of days later she told my grandmother that the first baseman for the Dodgers was the best-looking ballplayer she’d ever seen. Upon seeing Steve Garvey, my grandmother abandoned her Cardinals fandom and hopped aboard the Dodgers train, full stop. She stayed with the Dodgers until the fall of 1982, and when the Garv shipped out for San Diego she transferred her allegiance. Her first grandchild, ME, came along in June of that year, so by the time I realized that her entire world revolved around National League baseball it was all Padres all the time. I was fortunate enough to meet Garvey on several occasions and I can’t imagine a ballplayer who was kinder to his fans.

    My Padres fandom was cemented, of course, by Anthony Keith Gwynn. I wore 19 when I played for baseball for Ardmore, and my daughter wears 19 on the pitch as an asskicking center-mid. Go Padres!

  2. Great article, and thanks for sharing these wonderful memories! I moved from New Hampshire to San Diego for a year in 2000 and despite still always being devoted to the Red Sox I became a fan of the Padres during my time there. Watching games on tv, listening on the radio, getting $10 tickets to Qualcomm. The Padres weren’t great that season but they did have Tony Gwyn and Trevor Hoffman, and the likes of Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko.
    I am pulling hard for this Padres team to finally get a World Series title (especially if they end up playing the Yankees).

    PS Don Orsillo was my all-time favorite Red Sox play-by-play announcer

  3. Lifelong Padres fan here, going back to PCL days. As a season ticket holder, I was at both playoff games this weekend. It was absolutely insane. The way San Diego has supported this team for years, through good times and bad, is special.
    Looking forward to today’s game and moving on to the World Series.

  4. I love this story Matty G. Feels like a drive through our old neighborhood, where good memories and relics keep popping up! Your loyalty to the “Pods” has been unflinching and steadfast. I love that you’re passing it down to your family and that you’re living in Padre country now! Welcome home! Thanks for the slow ride around town!

  5. Matto, it always tickled us, you’re brother Mark’s college buddies, that as rabid as we were for the Padres, you were more so. And you didn’t even live here. We suffered with you in the Murph when the Yankees finished that sweep. That Langston ball call still burns inside. I was there when we put away the Cubs on that infamous boot, the day after Garvey’s heroic homer. Your storytelling is top shelf, just like our relievers this postseason. Thanks for sharing. Our love for this long suffering team and city is boundless. But maybe, just maybe, this will be our year!

  6. Wait a minute : you didn’t care for orange and black unis but you embraced a team that arguably had some of the ugliest ones in MLB history?
    Anyone remember the infamous Padres Taco Bell uniforms?
    Well, at least you chose the lesser of two Southern Cal baseball evils.
    That said, would be happy to see SD go all the way.

  7. This story brought back so many fond memories of playing baseball in Rincon Valley Little League . I remember playing sports against Shane Culbertson and alongside Brandon Hyde – Now a MLB Manager on the Baltimore Orioles . I support both the Padres and The Giants. Great Recall !! Slainte, Brandon Benner.

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