Baseball’s Gunslinger: The Late Kevin Towers

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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. Towers took it as a compliment.

“That’s the way I was taught the game, and I believe in it,” Towers explained, according to AP San Diego sports writer Bernie Wilson. “When I think of a gunslinger, I think of a guy that 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 Tuesday when at the age of 56 Towers lost his battle for life, dying 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 this month that Towers was in Chicago to attend a celebration of the Cubs world 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 what was then the secondary phase of the draft to selected right-handed pitcher Kevin Towers from Brigham Young University.

Jim McMahon

Now, for those who know Towers the BYU angle can raise an eyebrow, but he is quick to point out he roomed with Jim McMahon.

“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 one game in 1989 he was the pitching coach at short-season Spokane – finally reaching the Triple-A level for the only time in that eighth and final season as a pitcher. He was 2-5 with a 5.85 ERA in 27 appearances, 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,” said Johnson. “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 the general manager of the Padres at the age of 34 in 1995 and over a 15-year tenure saw the Padres win four division titles, and advancing to the World Series in 1998, one of only 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, and then becoming the genral manager.

Let go by the Padres after the 2009 season, he initially signed to scout for the Yankees, but before the 2010 season began he began a five-year stint as the general manager of the Diamondbacks. After being fired by Arizona he went to work for the Reds as a special assistant/player personnel.

He was having fun. He was at ballparks, evaluating players, making recommendations to then general manager 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 on Tuesday with his death.

As Johnson put it, “He was the one guy you liked.”

And he was that one guy who liked you.

Tracy Ringolsby