Sports Talk: Sweeney eager for a Padres season with big expectations

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Mark Sweeney can’t wait to yap about the Padres and yep, what a gap it’s been.

Sweeney is broadcasting opening day on April 1 to begin a season that comes with World Series aspirations.

Sweeney, a Carmel Valley resident, knows that feeling. He was an outfielder on the last Padres World Series squad in 1998, a special season in his 14-year career.

“The common denominator between these teams is that they have a lot of fun,” Sweeney said. “I think the bond last year’s team created was only enhanced by the players they brought in.”

It was quite an offseason haul, with Encinitas’ A.J. Preller pulling the levers that delivered pitchers Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove. They joined a roster that produced the team’s first playoff series win since 1998 and there’s that year again.

Sweeney, one of baseball’s all-time great pinch-hitters, arrived in San Diego midway through 1997 and pinched his nose. The Padres finished in last place and anticipation for the following year was just as low.

But in the offseason, then-General Manager Kevin Towers acquired ace Kevin Brown and the swagger that accompanied him. With reliever Trevor Hoffman producing 53 saves and being complemented by four other National League All-Stars in outfielders Tony Gwynn and Greg Vaughn, pitchers Andy Ashby and Brown, the Padres won 98 games and the NL West.

The Padres eliminated the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves before falling to the New York Yankees in the World Series, a destination they’ve since failed to reach.

Sweeney’s role in ’98 was to bolt from the bench late in games, many hours after manager Bruce Bochy yanked his chain.

“I would come in at 2:30 and Boch would say, ‘Sweeney, you’re in left field tonight,’ ” he said. “But at 6:30, Greg Vaughn would be the starting left fielder and I get it because he had like 20 home runs in May.”

There’s no gray shade to the Padres as they’re built to win now.

The infield’s left side is worth $640 million in third baseman Manny Machado and shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., and then there’s the standouts coming aboard in the winter.

“It’s not a stretch at all to compare the offseasons between the ’98 team and this one,” Sweeney said. “But I think A.J. really delivered the ‘wow’ factor.”

When the ’98 NL West was won, Padres boosters were lost in their excitement. Sweeney said the support they produced at a packed Qualcomm Stadium by being loud-and-proud stays with him.

“That’s what you dream about as a kid when your playing Wiffle ball, that energy coming from the fans that drives the sport,” he said. “Everyone talks about goose bumps and I had them.”

Sweeney, who co-hosts the popular podcast, “Major League Beginnings,” starts his 10th year with what is now Bally Sports San Diego. He longs for those hair-raising moments again after the buzz was muted during the pandemic season of 2020.

“It has a snowball effect,” he said. “We had it in ’98 and now this year you have the factor of people eager to be in a beautiful stadium to watch a team that is supposed to be really, really good.

“I’m just anticipating a triple in the gap by Tatis, with him sliding into third showing his emotions and feeding off the fans.”

The buffet of games starts April 1 and we can’t wait. Still, the hefty weight of potential can’t be discounted.

“Last year was about hope and this year there is that expectation,” Sweeney said. “When you have that on your shoulders, you have to embrace it. Because we’ve learned success isn’t a given in baseball.”

There are no guarantees and Padres backers remember 2015. But many predict the exciting Padres will push the Los Angeles Dodgers, led by Cardiff’s David Roberts, for the division title and then make a deep playoff run.

Wouldn’t it be cool if Sweeney, who made the last out in the ’98 World Series, is there for the first pitch of the ’21 World Series? That’s a gap to fill even Tatis would be proud of.

Contact Jay Paris at [email protected]. Follow him @jparis_sports.

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