Tony Gwynn is clearly Mr. Padre. Perhaps Kevin Towers should be called Top Friar.
Towers bled brown and orange. He was drafted by the San Diego Padres as a pitcher, pitched in their minor-league system for eight years, became a scout and minor-league pitching coach for the club, was promoted to director of scouting, and spent 14 years as general manager of the Padres.
During his time as GM, the Padres won the National League West four times and made their only World Series appearance. To put that into perspective, from 1969 until the 1996 season, when Towers took over, the Padres won the division once. Since 2009, when Towers left, the team (as of 2018) has not yet again appeared in the playoffs. The team’s success on the field during that period was vital to San Diego voters’ approval of the funds necessary to build Petco Park, which was constructed during Towers’ time as GM. Many people contributed to the Padres periods of success, but Towers’ record deserves Top Friar billing.
Kevin Towers began his life in professional baseball as a San Diego Padres minor-league pitcher, after being selected as the Padres’ top pick in the secondary phase of the June draft.
Post-draft, Towers reported to the Walla Walla Padres, a short-season, Northwest League team for which he went 1-4 with a 4.74 ERA. He performed well enough that he was promoted to Double-A Beaumont in 1984, where he was selected to the Texas League Western Division All-Star team.1 Having been a minor-league all-star pitcher obviously established some extra credibility as a future scout and during his time as a general manager. In 1985 he returned to Beaumont but blew out his arm. An article in the Reno Gazette-Journal in 1985 reported that Towers had “the same type of surgery performed on Tommy John.”2 In other words, Towers had the surgery back when Tommy John was still known as a baseball player, not a medical term.
Towers and his reconstructed arm made the Reno Padres of the California League in the spring of 1987, but he had been recast as a reliever. He had some success. In July of 1987, two years after his injury, the Reno newspaper noted: “Reno extended its winning streak to 15 games, Padres’ reliever Kevin Towers extended his consecutive scoreless innings streak to 30. ‘When you get in a streak like this and you’re winning games, the breaks always seem to go your way,’ said Towers, 3-6, who pitched the final three innings for the victory. ‘When you’re losing, everything seems to go against you.’”3 In late August, after his success in Reno, Towers was promoted to the Padres’ Triple-A team in Las Vegas with the intention of becoming the team’s closer but he did not pitch. In 1988 he began the season as a relief pitcher for Las Vegas but on June 20, he started his first game.4 Towers finished the year with 15 relief appearances and 12 starts. Further arm injuries effectively ended his pitching career, although he pitched 1⅔ innings in relief in one game in 1989, back in the A-level Northwest League, where he had begun.
As a player, Towers never made it to the major leagues but his steady path through the minors to Triple A, his injury and Tommy John surgery, and his transition from a starter to reliever and eventually a closer, helped him make him a better scout and at least gave him an understanding of, if not empathy for, players he was signing, promoting, or trading, and/or going through medical challenges. He had been there and done that.
Towers’ time as a minor-league baseball player ended at age 27, but his career in baseball was still in its early stages. Instead of fading into baseball oblivion, spending his life talking about what might have been, Towers became an area scout for the Padres and spent summers as pitching coach for their Class-A short-season team. In 1991 the Pittsburgh Pirates hired him as a regional and national cross-checker for two years. Then, in August 1993, at the age of 32, Towers was named the director of scouting for the Padres. By 1995, he was general manager.5
When Towers died of anaplastic thyroid cancer in January of 2018, praise flowed from those in major-league baseball throughout the nation. Even allowing for tribute inflation, the comments were impressive. And instructive about the type of man Towers was. Those who did not know him began to grasp how he could have moved up the system so rapidly. The common element was that Towers was a gregarious people-lover, who actually cared about others.
Two examples came from the 2018 Chicago Cubs brain trust, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Epstein was a 21-year-old intern under Towers and viewed him as a mentor. Epstein described himself as just out of college, “a nobody, a faceless kid trying to be invisible and not get in the way. But there was never such a thing as a nobody to Kevin Towers — he just wasn’t wired that way.” Epstein was a powerless kid when he met Towers. Hoyer was not. He replaced Towers as GM, after the Padres got rid of Towers. Yet his description sounds the same: “I took over for him and he always treated me so well. We would meet for beers or talk on the phone and it was always KT wanting to help me do a better job.” 6
Another key element of Towers’ personality was his detailed memory related to baseball players. He considered himself a scout first and foremost. He liked to analyze players, draft players, and trade players. It was behind his famous nickname, “The Gunslinger.” At least that was what Jeff Moorad, the man who fired him from the Padres, called Towers. Moorad was attempting to purchase the Padres on the cheap. He claimed to want to hire a GM with a more “strategic vision.” Towers did not particularly take offense at the label, changing his canceled Padres email account to one with “gunslinger” in it. Towers said that when he thought of a gunslinger, “I think of a guy that shoots first, or throws the first punch, he wins the battle.”7
It should be noted, however, that Towers did not seem to lack strategic vision. When the Padres played some games in Mexico, he showed San Diego a partial potential path to escaping San Diego’s geographically constrained market within the United States. He did churn his rosters, in part because San Diego was a small-budget market, but also because of other financial pressures that forced short-term strategies. A piece here, a piece there. He may have been a gunslinger, as Moorad charged, but his lack of vision was likely (to keep the analogy) more a shortage of bullets than lack of a strategy.
Whatever other reasons demanded such an approach, the fact is also that Towers certainly loved to trade. He loved to talk. He loved the process. Towers said in 2011: “Part of making trades is about developing relationships, and you can’t do that through texting.”8 Towers sought face time, phone conversations, and/or chatting at a bar.
Towers’ friendships were widespread and deep. He traded players frequently with Randy Smith, the Tigers GM, who happened to be the man Towers had replaced at San Diego. He remained friends with Jed Hoyer, who had replaced him as the Padres GM. Towers was friends with Brian Cashman, who had been GM for the New York Yankees when they defeated the Padres in the 1998 World Series, and who later hired Towers as a scout for the Yankees between his GM jobs at San Diego and Arizona. He followed a “build bridges, don’t burn them” strategy. Kevin Towers made friends of many, which also proved to be useful for his career. He justified it by saying that it made him a better GM, which it likely did, but he also clearly enjoyed playing the role of a talkative riverboat gambler.
Four admittedly imperfect ways to measure the impact of a general manager are 1) drafts, 2) player development, 3) trades, and 4) the team’s record (how the pieces come together).
Towers’ record in trades was pretty much reflected his own definition of a gunslinger: Fire first, fire often, and keep firing. He made some bad trades, many trades that added nothing to either team, and enough good ones at the right time to win four division titles. He didn’t get a lot of cash to work with, so trading was a critical part to winning those titles.
San Diego drafts were not a major part of the team’s success during the Towers era. Their boom/bust records (division championships but also seasons trailing by 20 to 36 games) at least sometimes led to top draft choices. In 1999 San Diego had six first-round draft choices, choosing three high schoolers and three college players. Vince Faison, the top Padres’ choice at number 20, did make Triple A for 10 games in 2004 before falling back. That was the high point of the group. But the 15th-round choice, number 472, in 1999 proved to be an essential Padres piece: Jake Peavy.
Khalil Greene, the 2002 Padres’ top pick, was a rookie All-Star in 2004. He was the best number-one pick the team had in the Towers era. Some draft choices were eventually traded, like 2001 fourth-round choice Josh Barfield, who had one good year, then was traded for Kevin Kouzmanoff, a useful puzzle piece. Kouzmanoff played with San Diego from 2007 to 2009, hitting 59 home runs, driving in 246 runs, and setting a National League single-season fielding percentage record for third basemen.
In other words, Towers’ 25 first-round choices were largely a bust, and even among the later choices, there were no other Peavys and Greenes, nor even many tradeable Barfields. The combination of touted draft choices who did not pan out combined with lower choices in the division-winning years contributed over time to the Padres going from a top-10 farm team to one of the lower-ranking systems over Towers’ career. And, as always, money was also a factor. Potential financial bargains often influenced draft decisions, as was taking college players, whose peak potential was more visible and likely lower, but who had less risk and potentially could help the major-league team faster. The Padres could not compete for top free agents (e.g., Kevin Brown to the Dodgers), or even retain their top stars, which forced trades (e.g., Greg Vaughn to Cincinnati). At times San Diego came under intense criticism for not using revenue-sharing to boost its spending (one of the reasons Moorad did not receive Major League Baseball’s approval to take control of the Padres was a fear that he would pocket it to pay off his debt).
It was Towers’ constant hunting for a trade that was fundamental to his reputation. From 1995 through 2007, in only one year, according to Baseball-Reference, did San Diego not make a “significant trade.” Many of the trades were similar to the March 22, 1996, trade with the Detroit Tigers: San Diego sent Raul Casanova, Melvin Nieves, and Richie Lewis to the Tigers for Todd Steverson, Sean Bergman, and Cade Gaspar. It was a trade in which both teams hoped to find something but not a major piece. But clearly the Padres from 1995 to 1997 were preparing to make a major push. That year they won the West after finishing an average of 17 games out of first since 1984. Those teams became the core of the 1998 team, the only Padres team to go to the World Series.
In 1995 Towers acquired first baseman Wally Joyner in a trade with the Kansas City Royals. Free agent Fernando Valenzuela, thought to be finished and not highly sought after, gave the Padres two decent years. Overlooked Bob Tewksbury went 10-10 in 1996, a typical supplemental piece signed by GM Towers. Yet another “former great,” Rickey Henderson, was signed, and he “contributed 37 stolen bases, a .410 on-base percentage, and a positive, fun-loving influence in the clubhouse,” according to Bill Swank and Bob Chandler.9
The Milwaukee Brewers couldn’t sign slugger Greg Vaughn, but the Padres ownership freed up funds to sign him for two years during their push for Petco funding. He did not contribute much in the last half of 1996 or in 1997, but in 1998 he jumped to 50 home runs, trailing Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in their epic steroids-aided home-run derby slug-off. Towers also traded for key pieces Sterling Hitchcock and Quilvio Veras. Hitchcock had a 1.23 ERA in the 1998 postseason, and was MVP in the Championship Series with the Braves. Veras offered valuable speed to the lineup. In the winter of 1997, Towers traded Derrek Lee and two others to get pitching ace Kevin Brown. During his one World Series year with the Padres, Brown went 18-7 with a 2.38 ERA and 257 strikeouts.
Many of the key anchors of the 1996 and 1998 teams were added by previous GM Randy Smith. Hall of Fame relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman had been picked up in the Gary Sheffield trade. Pitcher Andy Ashby came in another trade by Smith. The big trade was with the Houston Astros on December 28, 1994. GM Smith’s father, Tal Smith, was president of the Houston Astros. When the new ownership of the Padres gave Randy Smith the green light to add payroll, the teams completed a 12-player trade. The key Padres pieces were Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley.10
Randy Smith played a foundational role in constructing the greatest teams in San Diego history (i.e., best won-loss records, only National League championship, World Series appearance) with Towers adding the pieces necessary to push the team to the top. Ultimately it is the team’s won-lost records that the reputations of not only the GMs but the team managers and team presidents are established. Towers is unusual in this way: He won in 1996 and 1998 with teams that had foundations built by GM Randy Smith, but the Padres again won the West in 2005 and 2006 with teams built by GM Towers. For the purely Towers’ division titles, the pitching ace had been drafted by Towers (Peavy), and before the 2006 season began, he stole star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and number-two starter Chris Young from the Texas Rangers in one of the more lopsided trades in modern baseball history.
Towers didn’t just win with a small-market team: He was a San Diego guy. However, his career did not end in San Diego. He had brief advisory stints with the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds, but also was back in a general manager’s seat in Arizona as GM of the Diamondbacks from 2011 until he was fired in 2014. In 2011, when Towers took over, Arizona went from last place in 2010 to winning the West in 2011, going from 65 to 94 wins. The next three years, Arizona slipped backward. In 2014 they hit bottom, finishing with the worst record in either league. Towers was then fired. Among other things, he had made a series of trades that looked bad at the time but also left some assets for the Diamondbacks. His biggest contribution was to sign Paul Goldschmidt, then fewer than 200 games into his career, to a five year-contract extension in 2013.
Regardless of how one tries to explain it away, a GM does not walk in and single-handedly add nearly 30 wins. It helps to have added rookie star Goldschmidt and for Justin Upton to have a bounce-back season. Still, in the case of Towers, as GM, he won the NL West with two small-market teams. And, to note it again, no one before or since (as of 2018) has begun to match his record of success in San Diego. And he hit Padres peaks twice.
As remarkable as the Kevin Towers/San Diego story of success is, there are two very significant other baseball issues that undoubtedly greatly affected the Padres’ on-field success. They are important to note because they are problems endemic to many, if not most, baseball teams.
One relates to the ownership investing in a team in order to promote public financing for construction of a new ballpark (in this case, Petco Park). The other second is steroids, an issue about which Towers broke baseball’s code of silence. Neither issue was the direct responsibility of Towers, but they do, in fact, partly explain his success in San Diego whether it is comfortable to say so or not.
The ballpark issue can be more easily explained, since San Diego lost its longtime football team, the San Diego Chargers, over basically the same issue. San Diego cannot offer the same revenues to owners as teams in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, or in other markets with big geographic regional followings. San Diego is hemmed in, with Los Angeles to its north and sand between it and Phoenix. Like it or not, public financing of ballparks in such situations is essential or teams move away. Only pressure from the league offices can hold a team in place (e.g., the Oakland A’s). The ownership of the Padres built the greatest Padres teams (1996 and 1998) leading up to the public referendum to fund Petco Park, held in November of 1998. The Padres went to the World Series in 1998, the referendum passed the next month, and then the team dumped salary and players.
This is not an opinion, but an uncomfortable fact. In 1998 the Padres went 98-64. The next year they finished 26 games out of first, the next 21, the next 13, the next 32 games behind, and in 2003 they finished 36½ games behind. Petco Park opened in April of 2004. Teams in most new ballparks (for example, Atlanta in 2018) suddenly improve dramatically. Generally, it is not just because the locker rooms are new and the stadium is attractive. The Padres cut the division leader’s lead by 30½ games in 2004, and finished first in 2005 and 2006. They did not have that success in subsequent years. That success helped launch Petco, just as the success in 1998 boosted the referendum that provided the funding to build it.
The second problem — drug abuse designed to improve performance — is even more tragic. It physically damaged young people all the way down to high school as they tried to emulate their heroes and to improve their odds of success through cheating.
Ken Caminiti, once a Most Valuable Player in the NL, confessed to his drug abuse, including steroids. The Mitchell Report, by former Senator George Mitchell, provided significant evidence that ace pitcher Kevin Brown used steroids. Wally Joyner admitted using them three times in 1998. There has long been wide speculation about other Padres. To be fair, the Padres’ World Series year of 1998 happened during the McGwire-Sosa home-run derby that captured America. Sluggers in both leagues, and probably key pitchers, were also juiced, so the Padres were hardly unique. While the number of players using illegal substances was possibly exaggerated by those who want to excuse themselves, including by Caminiti, they were undoubtedly a significant number. In other words, it is impossible to prove that San Diego or some teams gained an advantage with any certainty because so many stars were abusing.
Trailblazing writer Tom Verducci, along with Joe Torre, wrote an article in Sports Illustrated headlined “The Man Who Warned Baseball About Steriods” that focused on the 1998 season. They wrote that at the winter meeting of the Executive Board of the Major League Baseball Players Association that followed that season (1999), the player representative of the Texas Rangers, pitcher Rick Helling, stood up and told his fellow union leaders that steroid use had grown rampant and was corrupting the game. Helling said: “It’s so prevalent that guys who aren’t doing it are feeling the pressure to do it because they’re falling behind. It’s not a level playing field.”11
The arguments about drug abuse in baseball and pressures for drug testing went back even further. In May 1985 the Austin American-Statesman interviewed Texas League players and staff members from the Beaumont Golden Gators, Arkansas Travelers, and San Antonio Dodgers, all of whom supported mandatory drug testing (“although they might not like it,” the newspaper noted). A young Beaumont pitcher named Kevin Towers was quoted: “In the minor leagues it’ll be a big scare. They’ll be worried that it’ll cost them their minor-league career if they get caught.”12 In other words, these issues were not suddenly new to Towers in the late 1990s.
A special report on steroids by Sports Illustrated in 2002 focused on Caminiti, while he was still alive and could talk about his abuse. In that story, Kevin Towers acknowledged that the Padres organization had a problem, though he focused on the minor-league players: “The word’s out in our organization, but the trend we’re seeing is that most of the players who tested positive were in A ball. That tells me the problem is spreading fast. I think it’s prevalent in college and high school — even before we get them.”13
Buster Olney wrote a story in ESPN The Magazine titled “Towers on Caminiti: ‘I feel somewhat guilty’” that came out about a month before the famous congressional hearing in 2005 that featured Canseco, McGwire, Sosa, and Palmeiro. Towers told ESPN: “I feel somewhat guilty, because I felt like I knew. I still don’t know for sure, but Cammy came out and said he used steroids, and I suspected. Selfishly, the guy was putting up numbers, and I didn’t do anything about it. That’s just the truth.” Olney commented that Towers wasn’t finished purging his soul. “We’re in a competitive business, and these guys were putting up big numbers and helping your ballclub win games. You tended to turn your head on things.” Olney then let loose with his opinion: “Finally comes a voice lending credence to everything our eyes have told us through the many years since baseball players started showing up with Popeye arms and medicine ball-sized heads. Finally comes the admission of a man with a guilty conscience whose instincts screamed that what he was seeing was wrong.”14
Like many baseball fans, I agreed with Buster Olney and most of the other baseball beat writers of the period. Where had the management been? After a disastrously long baseball strike, the home-run derby approach by the major leagues had drawn back even larger crowds and enthusiasm for baseball. The owners, not just the players, had benefited. Unlike most baseball fans, I was privileged to ask and complain about it at the hearing because I was a senior congressman on the committee holding the investigation. Kevin Towers, the GM of the Padres at the time, was the only MLB executive to acknowledge that they were a significant part of the problem.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported on Towers’ bravery the next day: “Padres general manager Kevin Towers looked out of place alongside Selig, union leader Donald Fehr and others representing baseball’s leadership. Towers was there because he spoke openly and honestly over his concerns about Ken Caminiti’s health. Towers’ honesty was not lost on Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) who noted: ‘Can we trust baseball? It seemed like they gave us the ‘Hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil’ speech. You heard Kevin Towers, after he realized Caminiti was taking steroids. Why didn’t anyone else?’”15
Kevin Towers was not a perfect man. No one is. But from the beginning to the end of his life, as he proved in so many different roles and in the future leaders he helped develop, Kevin Towers loved the game of baseball, every part of it. And he wanted to preserve it for future generations as well.
This biography appears in San Diego Padres: The First Half Century (SABR, 2019), edited by Tom Larwin and Bill Nowlin. To order your free e-book or get 50% off the paperback edition, click here.
Kevin Scott Towers
November 11, 1961 at Medford, OR (US)
January 30, 2018 at San Diego, CA (US)
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