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In his first home game as the Padres' new owner in 1974, Ray Kroc grabbed the public address system microphone and apologized to fans for the poor performance of the team, saying, "I've never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life." At the same time, a streaker raced across the field, eluding security personnel. Kroc shouted, "Throw him in jail!" The following season, 1975, would be the first season that the Padres would not finish in the National League West cellar (finishing fourth), and brought the promise of an owner who would make the necessary changes to the organization.

Nate Colbert is one of two major-league baseball players (Stan Musial is the other) to have hit five home runs in a doubleheader, a feat he accomplished as a Padre. He collected 13 RBIs in that doubleheader, still a major league record. Although the Padres continued to struggle after Colbert's departure via trade to the Detroit Tigers in 1974, they did feature star outfielder Dave Winfield, who came to the Padres in 1973 from the University of Minnesota without having played a single game in the minor leagues. Winfield was also drafted by the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League, the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association and the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association.

Winfield took over where Colbert left off, starring in the Padres outfield from 1973 until 1980, when he joined the New York Yankees. In seven seasons, Winfield played in 1,117 games for San Diego and collected 1,134 hits, 154 home runs and drove in 626 runs. But most importantly, he helped the team out of the National League West basement for the first time in 1975, under the guidance of manager John McNamara, who took over the club at the start of the 1974 season.

Winfield's emergence as a legitimate star coincided with the turnaround of a promising young left-handed pitcher named Randy Jones, who had suffered through 22 losses in 1974. Jones became the first San Diego pitcher to win 20 games in 1975, going 20-12 in 37 outings as the Padres finished in fourth place with a 71-91 record, 37 games behind the Cincinnati Reds.

Jones won 22 games in 1976, winning the Cy Young Award in the process, another franchise first. The club set a new high with 73 wins, but fell to fifth place.

Jones slipped to 6-12 in 1977, and not even the acquisition of Rollie Fingers could help the Padres escape the bottom half of the division. Only Winfield and fellow outfielder George Hendrick cracked the 20-homer barrier, and the pitching staff was filled with a group of unknowns and youngsters, few of whom would enjoy much success at the major league level.

The 1978 season brought hope to baseball fans in San Diego, thanks to the arrival a young shortstop named Ozzie Smith, who arrived on the scene and turned the baseball world on its ears with an acrobatic style that redefined how the position should be played in the field. The Padres hosted the All-Star Game that summer. The National League won the contest 7-3 thanks to an MVP performance by Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey, who would play a crucial role for San Diego in the not-too-distant future. Winfield and Fingers represented the team at the game, but conspicuously absent was starting pitcher Gaylord Perry, who joined the Padres after spending three years with the Texas Rangers. At 39 years of age and coming off a 15-14 season with Texas, little was expected of him. All Perry did that summer was post a 21-6 record and a 2.73 earned run average, edging Montreal's Ross Grimsley to earn the Padres' second Cy Young Award in three seasons. San Diego also picked up another first that summer, compiling an 84-78 mark for manager Roger Craig, the only time in 10 seasons the team finished a season with a winning percentage above .500.

The good times did not last, as the Padres closed out the decade with another losing season in 1979, a 68-93 record that cost Craig his job. Winfield was the lone bright spot, leading the National League with 118 RBIs. The good times continued to fade out as Winfield signed a 10-year contract with the New York Yankees after the 1980 season.

In 1998, Henderson and Valenzuela were gone, but newly acquired (from the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins) pitcher Kevin Brown had a sensational year (his only one with the Padres) and outfielder/slugger Greg Vaughn hit 50 home runs (overlooked in that season of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa race). Managed by Bruce Bochy and aided by the talents of players such as Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti, Wally Joyner, Steve Finley, pitcher Andy Ashby and premier closer Trevor Hoffman (4-2, 1.48 ERA and 53 saves), the Padres had their best year in history, finishing 98-64 and winning the NL West division crown.

The Padres went on to defeat the Houston Astros in the 1998 NLDS, 3 games to 1, behind solid pitching by Brown and Hoffman, and home runs by Greg Vaughn, Wally Joyner and Jim Leyritz (who homered in 3 of the 4 games).

In the 1998 NLCS, the Padres faced the Atlanta Braves, who had won the National League East with an astonishing 106-56 record. The offense was paced by talent such as Andrés Galarraga, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy López. Their pitching staff had the perennial big-3 of Greg Maddux (18-9, 2.22 ERA), Tom Glavine (20-6, 2.47 ERA), and John Smoltz (17-3, 2.90 ERA), as well as Kevin Millwood (17-8, 4.08 ERA) and Denny Neagle (16-11, 3.55 ERA). However, it was the Padres that would prevail, 4 games to 2, with ace Kevin Brown pitching a complete game shutout in game 2 (winning 3-0). Steve Finley caught a pop fly for the final out, as the Padres clinched the series.

In the 1998 World Series the Padres faced the powerhouse New York Yankees, who had steamrolled through the season with a 114-48 record and drew acclaim as one their greatest teams of all time. There was no offensive player with more than 30 home runs, in contrast to the teams of the 1920s, or 1950's, but they had four players with 24+ and eight with 17+. Yankee pitching had been paced by David Cone (20–7, 3.55), Andy Pettitte (16–11, 4.24), David Wells (18–4, 3.49), Hideki Irabu (13–9, 4.06) and Orlando Hernández (12–4, 3.13). Mariano Rivera, their closer, was excellent once again (3–0, 1.91 ERA with 36 saves).

The Yankees swept the Padres 4 games to 0. Mariano Rivera closed out 3 of the 4 games. One of the few bright spots of the series for the Padres was a home run by Tony Gwynn, not normally a power hitter, in Game 1 that hit the facing of the right-field upper deck at Yankee Stadium and put the Padres ahead briefly, 5-2. But the Yankees would score 7 runs in the 7th inning en route to a 9-6 victory.

The Padres adopted their name from the Pacific Coast League team which arrived in San Diego in 1936. That minor league franchise won the PCL title in 1937, led by then-18-year-old San Diegan Ted Williams.

In 1969, the San Diego Padres joined the ranks of Major League Baseball as one of four new expansion teams, along with the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals), the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers). Their original owner was C. Arnholt Smith, a prominent San Diego businessman and former owner of the PCL Padres whose interests included banking, tuna fishing, hotels, real estate and an airline. Despite initial excitement, the guidance of longtime baseball executives, Eddie Leishman and Buzzie Bavasi as well as a new playing field, the team struggled; the Padres finished in last place in each of its first six seasons in the NL West, losing 100 games or more four times. One of the few bright spots on the team during the early years was first baseman and slugger Nate Colbert, an expansion draftee from the Houston Astros and still (as of 2009) the Padres' career leader in home runs. However, current Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez will most likely surpass Colbert even with a mediocre season.

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