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Drawing the right straw

This weekend in Philadelphia, the 2022 Padres will play their third, fourth and fifth games in a quest for a third National League Championship Series win. It's great to see the excitement of San Diego just like October 1998 when the Pads challenged and eventually beat the Atlanta Braves to advance to the World Series.  It was a week that led to memorable times in San Diego and on the front page of The San Diego Union-Tribune when they clinched.  

I was one of several photographers involved with the Union-Tribune's postseason baseball coverage, but allow me to set the stage about what happened leading up to that front page when they beat Atlanta.   

The previous series, the NLDS, was played against the Astros in the old Houston Astrodome, still one of the biggest concrete structures on earth. Photographers Sean Haffey, Jim Baird and I rolled into town as members of the road team for the Union-Tribune.  Sean was positioned at the first base box, I was at third and Jim was somewhere outside third base covering the whole field. In one of the three games at the Astrodome, one of the runners, I can't remember if it was Houston or San Diego, tried to stretch a double to third base, 30 feet in front of me. It was an important play. I probably had a heavy long lens in my hands on a monopod, probably a 400mm. It gave me a good reach to the pitcher, the batter, and first base or second, but was too tight for third. I had no shorter glass on another camera body for what might happen in front of me.  

Big mistake. 

That base runner, complete with dirt coming up off his outstretched arms with a scrunched face aimed right at me will remain a bad visual memory. It would have been perfect had I prepped for it. Jim Baird got the shot from the side, and covered our collective butts, thank goodness.  Photo chief Robert York who noticed everything, immediately called after the images were transmitted, asked for an explanation and promptly took me off the beat for the game(s) in San Diego. That stung. Really stung. But he was right.  Robert York was many things, but most would agree in his time at the Union-Tribune that he was strategic.  The Padres went on to beat the Astros in San Diego and somehow I was asked to rejoin the photo team for the next road trip to Atlanta. 

I'd like to think Robert York thought I had learned my lesson. 

The Braves were THE team in the 1990s to beat.  This was the Braves with the likes of baseball hall of famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz.  A pitching triple threat if there ever was one. Surely this would stop the Padres train we were all thinking.  Amazingly, the Padres took the first three(the first two played in San Diego), the Braves the following two(in Atlanta) and then what became the decisive sixth game at Atlanta's Turner Field. 

Padres could clinch the best of seven with just one win. 

The Padres started Sterling Hitchcock, the Braves started John Smoltz. Eventually the Braves lost the pitching duel as the final scoreboard read 5-0 Padres. Sterling Hitchcock, Trevor Hoffman and the rest of the team had closed the door on the Braves fingers and sent the Padres to New York to face the Yankees in the World Series for their first time since 1984.  

The Union-Tribune had staffed every postseason game at home with five or six shooters, road games with at least three. This was long ago when the staff was twenty photographers strong. Before that sixth game it was determined by drawing straws that in case the Padres won, I would be the Union-Tribune pool photographer for the locker room. It would be me, the pool video shooter and the team's photographers as the only "camera people" in the room along with manager Bruce Bochy, his coaching staff, owner John Moores, CEO Larry Lucchino and the rest of the players.

Before I left San Diego, I was lent staff photographer Jerry Rife's nearly new Nikon F-5, and near the end of the game, sealed it inside a Ziploc bag with duct tape. Someone lent me a rain jacket and I was ready.  The minute the last out was recorded, I took that camera, ran through the bowels of Turner Field to get to the locker room and let those at the locker room door know I had access.  

Things were loud and rowdy when I came through the door and the champagne was already flowing. I saw Tony Gwynn, on the periphery, Quilvio Veras, and some others, but I wanted to key in on Trevor Hoffman, the team's amazing closer. Starting pitcher Hitchcock was consistent and key, but the bullpen in those final games was the story, especially Hoffman. Once I spotted him and walked his way, 50-home-run-hitter Greg Vaughn flanked me on the left and suddenly both let out a loud "can you believe this?" and I fired away and thought I had captured something compelling.  It's always good to make visually interesting photos, but nothing beats the addition of great context. 

One shot, two shots, champagne exploding all around the room it was amazing.  Except for the fumes. One thing no one mentions when they see locker room jubilation videos are the fumes of champagne in such a small room. Thank goodness no one lit a match. It would have ignited the room. Today's baseball locker rooms are spacious compared to those in 1998.

I had reached my quota of shots vs. time alotted(the hardest decision a photographer has to make on tight deadline) and ran out of there and up to the press room.  In the film days, you were never really sure what you had until you saw it on the screen, in this case, film developed in a mini-lab, edited on a light table, dozens of images scanned, toned, captioned and then shipped over land line back to San Diego. 

I must have taken a bathroom break and came back into the photo room as one of my esteemed coworkers was editing my jubilation roll and he looked frozen.  Literally frozen looking down at the lightbox and staring for 5-10 seconds. He and I were usually very competitive and that shocked stare told me everything. I checked for myself and what I thought I had captured was evident on the negative. 

Images were received in San Diego and I went back to my hotel room for a shower and sleep. The next morning my wife called to tell me my image was on the front page, huge. Six columns wide.  By the time our flight landed back in San Diego, someone told me the front page had been made into t-shirts on sale at Walmart and elsewhere.  What? I couldn't believe it.  Not even 24 hours before, I was getting doused with champagne and here I was, realizing the magnitude of the image and thankfully, page designer Gordon Murray's front page treatment.  Apparently there is a company that obtains all MLB rights at the start of a season and they were sent a PDF of the front page and started printing t-shirts overnight. Gordon and I still talk about that night when we see each other. The paper later made a giant print of the image which until we left the Mission Valley plant, had a prominent place on a wall in the fifth-floor cafeteria.  

This year's postseason games are being covered by veterans Nelvin Cepeda, K.C. Alfred and the UT's newest photographer Meg McLaughlin and they're doing a great job. Obviously 1998 was a different time in the city, way different staffing at the paper and images shot are now digitally received within seconds.  

The 1998 World Series sweep by the Yankees was depressing, yet in a city vote less than three weeks later, San Diego rewarded the Pads with a new baseball stadium downtown and the rest is history. Acres of land were cleared in the name of redevelopment and the East Village is now a thriving neighborhood of condos, bars, and restaurants.  I've always felt that October 15th, 1998 front page combined with San Diego's fevered willingness to build a stadium had something to do with how Petco Park came to be, good or bad. Many thanks need to be handed out to everyone involved from back then, the entire U-T photo staff, Robert York, Mike Franklin, Bill Gaspard and of course Karin Winner. If I missed anyone, my apologies. 


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