Memory is a funny, fickle thing. As the Padres prepare to spend the weekend celebrating the 1998 National League Championship team, a group who played — my god — twenty years ago, I struggle to pick out specific moments from my recollections of that season. I was thirteen then, no longer a child, but far from an adult. I was lucky enough to spend plenty of time at the Murph that year, but so much of it is a blur. I can’t recall anything Tony Gwynn did with any clarity; I was certainly watching when he went deep at Yankee Stadium in October, but that’s all I can say about it for sure.
It’s strange what sticks with you. Some seven or eight years ago I made a trip up to the Getty. It was a warm, clear day, and toward the end of my visit I found myself wandering around their expansive gardens. It took me a moment to figure out why it felt so familiar. It clicked when I focused on the smell. The scent of the flowers brought me back to my grandfather’s garden, a giant space a kid could get lost in for hours.
Scent memory is a powerful thing. At least, that’s what I’ve read. And I believe it, because my most vivid memory of that ‘98 season is irrevocably tied not to the sound of a bat or celebratory fireworks, but one beautiful, singular smell.
It was September 12th, and I remember mentioning to my mother on the way to the ballpark that I was pretty sure the Padres’ magic number was down to one. This was before the days of smartphones, so we weren’t certain. And after Stan Spencer gave up seven runs to the Dodgers before leaving in the fifth, it didn’t seem to matter.
The Padres clawed back into slam range with three runs in the fifth, but a comeback was still a tall order. The sixth inning turned things upside down, though. Greg Vaughn led off with a single, and then Dave Mlicki walked the next three batters. Sean Maloney, his replacement, didn’t fair any better. He beaned Andy Sheets and walked Chris Gomez before being pulled in favor of Jeff Kubenka. A sacrifice fly, another walk, and a single by — you guessed it — Greg Vaughn put the Padres on top, and that’s where they stayed.
But I don’t remember it that way. In my memories, the go-ahead run was walked in. If it weren’t for Baseball Reference, I’d still be telling the story that way. There was definitely celebrating on the field and something displayed on the Jumbotron, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. But there’s one moment from that night that is so vivid in my mind that I don’t think I could ever forget.
You see, after the team went into the clubhouse to celebrate in the traditional fashion, they came back out to take a victory lap around the field. My little brother and I went down to the rail just beyond third base, waiting for our heroes to circle around to us. I can’t perfectly describe the sight or sound or tactile sensation of thirteen-year old me high fiving Greg Vaughn, but twenty years later, the smell is what lingers. It was floral and sweet, but backed by an acidic tang that kept it from cloying. And, of course, underneath it all was that faint alcoholic burn of the champagne he’d been soaked in moments earlier.
The greatest Padres team of all time may be slipping irrevocably into history, but thanks to Greg Vaughn, memories of those glory days will come flooding back every time I pop open a bottle of bubbly. And I will happily drink to that.