Always A Scout
In firing Kevin Towers as the general manager of the Padres in 2009, agent-turned-club president Jeff Moorad talked about looking for a more traditional approach than the “gunslinger” mentality of Towers.
“That’s the way I was taught the game, and I believe in it,” Towers explained, as quoted by San Diego AP sports writer Bernie Wilson. “When I think of a gunslinger, I think of a guy who shoots first, or throws the first punch—he wins the battle.”
Towers won plenty of battles in his time, but his time was cut short on Jan. 30, when at the age of 56 Towers lost his battle for life. He died after a 14-month battle with thyroid cancer, which had spread into the nerves in his neck.
But he didn’t give up easily. It was just a year ago that Towers was in Chicago to attend a celebration of the Cubs’ World Series championship as a guest of Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who began his baseball career in the Padres organization and credits Towers with being a critical part of his emergence in the game.
Towers never got to the celebration. The cancer flared up and he was quickly flown to Houston to be seen by the staff at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In the ensuing months, Towers willingly underwent experimental treatments, extending his life nearly a year longer than expected.
“You knew he was going to battle because that was his personality,” said Sandy Johnson, a first-year scouting director with the Padres in 1982 who used the first pick in the June secondary phase of the draft to select righthander Kevin Towers from Brigham Young.
Now, for those who knew Towers, the BYU angle can raise an eyebrow, but he is quick to point out he roomed with Jim McMahon, the notoriously freewheeling former NFL quarterback, who also bristled at the school’s strict code of conduct.
“They didn’t want us to infiltrate the other students,” Towers would explain. “I came this close to getting thrown out. I was called to the president’s office more than once.”
Towers would spend eight seasons in the Padres farm system—plus he was the pitching coach at short-season Spokane for one game in 1989—finally reaching the Triple-A level for the only time in that eighth and final season as a pitcher. He recorded a 5.85 ERA in 27 appearances, including 12 starts, at Las Vegas the summer of 1988.
“After we drafted him (in 1982) he went up to (short-season) Walla Walla and Tom House was his pitching coach,” Johnson said. “We had quite a collection of arms up there, and it caught Kevin’s attention.”
In that first draft of his career as a scouting director, among the players Johnson drafted and signed were future big league pitchers Jimmy Jones, Mark Williamson, Mitch Williams, Gene Walter and Bob Patterson.
“Kevin told me, ‘This is some kind of pitching staff,’ ” Johnson recalled. “He was always a scout. What hit you with Kevin was he never forgot people. You’d mention a name. He knew where he was from. He knew what he could do. And he could break a guy down in no time.”
And it was that ability to evaluate that was a key to Towers’ non-playing career, which was highlighted by being hired as GM of the Padres at the age of 34 in 1995. At the time, he was one of the youngest GM hires in the history of the game. This was back before Epstein popularized the young, Ivy League-educated GM type that is popular today.
Over a 15-year tenure he saw the Padres win four National League West titles—1996, 1998, 2005 and 2006—and advance to the World Series in 1998, which is one of just two appearances in the World Series in the franchise’s 49-year existence.
Towers’ non-playing career began with a two-year stint as the pitching coach at Spokane, and then he transitioned into the world of scouting, beginning with the Padres and then moving to the Pirates before returning to the Padres as the scouting director in 1992.
Let go by the Padres after the 2009 season, he initially signed to scout for the Yankees, but following the 2010 season he began a five-year stint as GM of the Diamondbacks. In Towers’ first year at the helm in 2011, Arizona won the NL West, giving him his fifth career division title.
After being fired by Arizona, he went to work for the Reds as a special assistant in player personnel.
He was having fun. He was at ballparks, evaluating players, making recommendations to then-GM Walt Jocketty.
The real world interrupted.
Towers was stricken from cancer.
The world—not just the baseball world but the whole world—suffered a loss with his death.
As Johnson put it, “He was the one guy you liked.”
And he was that one guy who liked you.