Leadership is something that is hard to explain but easy to recognize.
The Padres have it in abundance and it’s among the reasons they’re in the National League Championship Series after slaying two 100-win teams in the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets.
Third baseman Manny Machado, of course, is the Padres’ alpha dog between the lines. Yet Machado reserves the title of “captain” to someone who would struggle to smack a fastball or squat behind the plate.
Manager Bob Melvin, please take a bow.
In Machado’s eyes, Melvin had a firm grip on the helm of a ship that encountered rough seas. In a season that had its share of white caps, Melvin never tapped out.
The Padres were 55-45 through 100 games, 11½ games out of first place in the NL West, hardly what aggressive owner Peter Seidler envisioned with a payroll nearing $200 million.
There was the constant drama with All-Star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., after he blindsided San Diego not once, but twice, with his unavailability, i.e., a shattered wrist and a suspension for cheating that shredded his reputation.
Add the mediocre production of stars Juan Soto, Josh Hader and Josh Bell in the aftermath of their blockbuster acquisitions, and if it wasn’t one thing, it was another.
Melvin, a former big league catcher who was sidelined by prostate surgery and COVID-19 this year, just kept hanging out signals of accountability and positive vibes.
Then there was the mid-September night in Phoenix when Melvin raised a ruckus in Arizona.
After another lackluster performance, Melvin removed his nice-guy gloves. The manager with an open-door policy slammed the one in the visitors clubhouse and told his charges to huddle up.
“Bob got mad for the first time,” Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth said.
Melvin groused about the players’ production and interest level. For a man who speaks at a volume reserved for church, it was the Padres’ come-to-Jesus moment.
“I think it was the right time and place to kind of light a fire under everybody,” Cronenworth said. “And it seemed to work.”
The Padres shined down the stretch and find themselves deep into October against the Philadelphia Phillies, one step away from the World Series. Maybe the Padres would still have a pulse despite Melvin’s air-out and then again, maybe it was his version of CPR that gave them life.
“Very frustrating,” Melvin said after the Padres were blanked on Sept. 15. “Didn’t even feel like we put up a fight.”
When Melvin, in his 19th year as a big league manager, quit fuming, the Padres were equally stunned and embarrassed, looking at Melvin like a mischievous child does after disappointing his parents.
After months of being his team’s biggest booster with his calm, even-keeled demeanor, Mount Melvin erupted.
The result was a hot lava of emotions that kept bubbling after Melvin exited. Machado called a players-only meeting after Melvin delivered his haymaker and suddenly the Padres were no longer the fighter with the stooped shoulders sitting on a stool.
Melvin, 60, earned his coaching stripes under manager Phil Garner with the Milwaukee Brewers. Garner was the holler guy while Melvin was soft-spoken.
They meshed, with Melvin staying true to his style, then and now. When the Padres finally matched their manager’s conviction that winning was all that mattered, they became a different squad.
“That’s the responsibility of your leader, your manager, to get the players to buy into that, and I think Bob will do that,” Garner told The Athletic before the season. “It may not happen overnight, it may not happen in spring training, but I promise you, it will happen.”
It did and the Padres are in sight of the promised land of winning their first World Series. After an improbable season, the Padres are close to their once impossible dream.