A Padre reminiscing

The number five spot in the San Diego Padres rotation is set – by whoever claims it from the cast of Sterling Hitchcock, Ismael Valdes and Ben Howard – with another potential number five to be named later. Hitchcock, a former Friar, never thought he would return to the Padres in time to open up the new park.

Shortly after agreeing to terms with the Padres, left-handed pitcher Sterling Hitchcock traveled to downtown San Diego to take a tour of Petco Park, which will open in 2004.

"When you think about it, we were both put on hold for a while," said Hitchcock as he looked around his new home.

Who knows ... but without Hitchcock, Petco Park might not be opening in April.

As the end of the 1998 season approached, the Padres were awaiting the outcome of a November vote on the ballpark project. It was seen as being a close vote. Then the Padres reached the playoffs and Hitchcock got hot.

Hitchcock helped the Padres reach their second World Series. He was the Most Valuable Player of the National League Championship Series, going 3-0 against the Astros and Braves and allowing only three runs in 22 innings while striking out 32 with his split-finger fastball.

Although the Padres were swept out of the World Series by the Yankees, the euphoria connected with winning the National League pennant carried over to Election Day. The issue on the new ballpark passed with 57 percent of the vote.

What would have happened to the vote had Hitchcock been hammered in the playoffs? No one will ever know.

Strangely, Hitchcock was looking forward to pitching in the new ballpark, but construction was delayed by two years because of legal challenges (all of which went in favor of the Padres). Midway through the 2001 season, Hitchcock, who had returned from elbow reconstruction surgery, was traded to the Yankees.

"I thought my dream of pitching for the Padres in the new ballpark was gone," said Hitchcock. "I think that was the goal of all of us who played on that 1998 team. The new ballpark was like the final reward for what we achieved."

But Hitchcock is getting a second shot at his dream by signing a one-year contract with the Padres. He will get $800,000 -- and the chance to pitch in Petco Park.

"It might sound phony, but that really means something to me," said Hitchcock. "It's strange how this has worked out. I feel connected to the new ballpark."

Notes:

Miguel Ojeda and Todd Sears have been re-signed by the Padres.

"We like Ojeda," Towers said. "We think he's got a very good chance to be our backup catcher. We feel very good about his defense. We think he can be a solid backup."

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