This train is bound for glory, this train
– 1920s American gospel song as sung by Woody Guthrie
What began as a whisper has become a drumbeat. What started out as a far-fetched notion, has crept slowly into reach. What began in the middle of last year as a far-off dream has turned into full-fledged substance, tangible. The Taco Train is bound for glory. We’re one step closer every day.
Many things, including the apocalypse, could have gone wrong this year. Most of them didn’t, but in fact some things have. Wil Myers, given a fat contract and now the so-called face of the franchise, routinely looks miserable at the plate and helped to get the hitting coach fired. Hunter Renfroe, the rookie hoped-to-be World Series right fielder of the Taco Train one day, has a strike zone the size of Godzilla and also helped to get the hitting coach fired.
The hole at shortstop is wider than ever. Our exceptional defensive catcher, Austin Hedges, is lucky to be hitting .215. Our uber-talented 21-year-old rookie center fielder, Manuel Margot, has an OBA of just over .300, unacceptable for a leadoff man. If you want to find them, there are problems all over the field. Ultimate glory remains far off.
But we all knew that going in. Given the state of the Padres in 2015 and 2016 – and really, since 1969 save for a few breadcrumbs here and there – nobody expected anything different. 2017 was a write-off even before net income was tabulated. What the Padres have put down this year, however, is the foundation, the tracks of the Taco Train, to lead to future glory.
Part of the foundation is the Padre farm system, rebuilt to the point where now it is one of the top three systems in baseball. I won’t dive into the details here – other members of this site do it far better than I – but the majority of moves made in 2016 to restock the system began to bear fruit in 2017. From the numerous top picks in the 2016 draft class to the waves of talent secured on the 2016 international market (in what may go down as the biggest splash ever made beneath conventional morays), not to mention Fernando Tatis, Jr., secured in the James Shield trade like a greedy burglar leaving behind his own cash but nabbing the victim’s gold on the way out, the Padre minor leagues have lived up to the billing this year. While you’re watching the games at Petco Park, keep an eye out on El Paso, San Antonio, Lake Elsinore, and Fort Wayne. The cavalry is on the way.
Equally important, though, is the foundation that’s been laid at the big league level as well. It didn’t look good at the beginning. In April, we began with four catchers, three Rule 5 players, Luis Sardinas, Ryan Schimpf striking out 90% of the time (okay, I exaggerate for effect), Travis Jankowski, who relies on his speed, playing with a broken foot, and Jared Weaver flipping up frisbees to the plate so erotically slow that they wouldn’t even break your nose if your nose happened to get in the way. Topping it off, we started off slugging it out in the murderous NL West, home of three playoff teams if the season ended today. Not surprisingly, we began 15-30. The tank, in all its blogger-sphere hedonism, was in full effect.
But baseball games aren’t played on the watch of the mealy-mouthed bloggers nor according to the pithy comments of the national scribes, they’re played on the watch and to the dictates of the manager in charge, in this case Padre skipper Andy Green. While the season seemed to slip away before it began, Green steeled his team for the marathon that is a baseball grind. Extra baggage was quickly jettisoned. The Christian Bethancourt experiment was mercifully terminated. Sardinas was ignominiously waived. Schimpf was sent to triple A and the dependable Cory Spangenberg was recalled. The Rule 5 players, under Green’s careful manipulation, guidance, and encouragement, played better than expected. Weaver was dropped off at the nearest golf course while Dinelson Lamet brought his first-class fastball and slider to the bigs. The bullpen stiffened. When the Padres lost, they generally lost big, but otherwise the members of the Taco Train often found themselves clawing their way to close victory after close victory. Brad Hand, with one remarkable performance after another, pitched himself into the hearts and minds of the Taco Train fan base, as well as the All-Star game.
In the middle of all this, in the first week of June, Jose Pirela was brought up, hopefully to provide a spark, pretty much just as Myers literally went into the tank. (Yes, despite a recent uptick for Myers, there was at least one tank this year in Padreland. Maybe a new hitting coach will help, I say to what pass for the baseball gods in this bedeviled age.) In a surprise, Pirela emerged as the best hitter on the team. Not only that, he plays every game as if his life depends on it, and coming from Venezuela, who knows, it might, and maybe the lives of some of his close family members too, given that Venezuela is a bomb or two shy of a civil war breaking out as we speak. This was Jose’s first and possibly only real shot at the major leagues, and he’s making the most of it. When he hits the ball hard somewhere, he comes out of the box as if shot out of a cannon, sweeping around first like a barracuda, always looking to take the extra base. Pirela is ten times a better example as to how to play the game than the veterans Myers and Yangervis Solarte, both of whom I love, but both of whom dawdle in the hitter’s box, admiring their handiwork as if it was the last hard hit baseball in the history of baseball, often losing extra bases in the process. Pirela is the one surprising gem discovered along the way this year, and we’ll see if he proves himself a permanent fixture around these parts going forward.
Whatever the influence of Pirela, Myers, and Solarte, the Taco Train wound its way through the hills and the canyons, the peaks and the valleys of the season, all the while gaining steam, picking up passengers wherever it could – the lonely, the downtrodden, the outcasts, and the outlaws…veterans, rookies, prospects, and castoffs alike.
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