SAN DIEGO -- Before baseball pulled him in for life, before he could blow the $20,000 signing bonus the Padres gave him in 1982, Kevin Towers, the player, filled a bag with clothes and stowed away to Europe for a month. He rode trains, stowed away on a boat and accumulated enough swashbuckling tales to last his lifetime. He was 21 years old, carefree and had no one to answer to, which was just the way Towers liked it. Towers was always his own boss, right up until Friday when Padres CEO Jeff Moorad, after informing Towers weeks ago he might be making a change at the top of the team hierarchy, told him he wouldn't be back in 2010.
It was the first time, Towers joked during his press conference Saturday at PETCO Park, that he had been "cut, fired or released," citing such glamorous positions he's held before, like waiting tables at King Wah, a Chinese restaurant in Medford, Ore. "Kevin, table for four," he joked. Yes, the moment was a little surreal for Towers, 47. He was the longest-tenured general manager in the Major Leagues and was nearing the end of his 14th season with the team and coming up on his 25th season in the organization as a player, a member of the front office and then finally the general manager. Moorad and the Padres severed ties with Towers -- who has one year remaining on his deal worth close to $2 million in 2010 -- not because of the way he conducted his business but, as Towers surmised, because they wanted "their own guy." "This isn't so much about what Kevin didn't do as opposed as what we'd like to do going forward," Moorad said. "We're interested in approaching the business in all aspects with a strategic mindset, one that involves the idea of putting our thoughts and plans together, both short term and long term." The move was a surprise in the clubhouse, where All-Star closer Heath Bell, one of many players on the roster Towers was responsible for bringing here, expressed his gratitude for bringing him to San Diego and giving him a chance to make a name for himself. "It's definitely shocking; I did not see this coming," Bell said. "K.T. is a guy who took a chance on me. That means a lot. He brought a lot of us here, Kouz [Kevin Kouzmanoff], Adrian [Gonzalez], a lot of guys. When he gets another job, wherever that is, I'm sure he'll do really well." Where that is, no one knows, not even Towers, who, not surprisingly, said he wants to "get back into the game. I do want to sit in the GM chair again. I've got a lot of energy." His phone essentially rang off the hook Saturday with calls from general managers. They weren't calling to offer condolences, but with offers to be an advance scout. The thought made Towers' head spin a little. "I might exhale a little," said Towers, who plans on spending more time with his wife, Kelly, and three English bulldogs. "I've never really had a chance to breathe since high school." No, it's all been a whirl for Towers, who was drafted by the Padres in 1982 as a pitcher. His playing career didn't go far, stalled by an arm injury. The same couldn't be said for his professional career, though. Randy Smith, the general manager in San Diego before Towers took over in 1996 and who is now the Padres' director of professional and international scouting, spotted something in Towers in 1984, particular baseball acumen that impressed him. "I knew he was a guy that I wanted to get on the scouting side someday. ... His baseball IQ and his work ethic were very good," Smith said. "So when I got the GM job in San Diego, he was one of the first people I called. The one thing about Kevin, he's a very good evaluator, particularly with pitchers, had a knack for making a trade. To do that, you can't have fear. Not all GMs have that." Towers, who won four division titles and help build the 1998 team that went to the last World Series the team has played in, shared fond memories of his time in San Diego on Saturday, speaking about key trades, his fondness for his two favorites Padres, Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman, and the many relationships he built. He also talked of the challenges he faced in San Diego, ones that he embraces and didn't run from. Towers had plenty of them. Often stuck with a low payroll, the self-described "sludge merchant" was always at his best when Dumpster diving, finding players other organizations discarded, squeezing production where others didn't see it. "I like challenges. Let's take something that looks hopeless and show that we can get it done," Towers said. "... I never wanted to throw in the towel. I just look at it as another challenge." In a sense, the 2009 team was the perfect example of this. This was a team coming off a 99-loss season and, as Towers surmised Saturday, only half-joking, was one in Spring Training he felt might lose 120 games. Instead, Towers, through trades of Jake Peavy and Scott Hairston, netted seven pitchers who figure to play a prominent role in the Padres' future. He also helped push along a handful of players low on service time -- shortstop Everth Cabrera, outfielders Kyle Blanks and Will Venable and pitcher Mat Latos, players who shined at times in 2009. "I probably enjoyed this year as much as any year," Towers said. On the day Towers was dismissed by the Padres, Moorad referred to him as a "gunslinger," which he meant as a term of endearment much more so than something akin to being irrational or impulsive. "I think that the characterization is right. ... So, too, is the fact that I admire his ability to operate," Moorad said. For Towers, who was always open with the media, even when he probably should not have been, it's the only way he's ever known. It was a style that served him stowing away on a boat as a 21-year-old and one that worked well for him putting together a baseball team for 14 seasons. "If you were to define a gunslinger, you think back to throwback, old-school guy," Towers said. "... That's the way I was taught when I played [from] coaches, rival executives, scouts, players, teammates. That's the way I was taught to do it. "When I think of a gunslinger, I think of a guy who shoots first or throws the first punch. He wins the battle. K.T. was always about winning the battle."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.