Olney: Remembering Kevin Towers, baseball's 'man of the people'

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An idea formed within A.J. Hinch before Game 4 of the World Series, but the Houston Astros manager wasn’t sure if it was the right decision. That night, Hinch knew, the game action was to be paused for a Stand Up to Cancer moment, and everyone in Minute Maid Park would rise and hold a placard containing the name of someone affected by cancer. And Hinch thought of Kevin Towers, the longtime general manager of the San Diego Padres and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

For almost a year, Towers’ cancer had been the worst-kept secret in baseball, and also the best-kept. During the winter meetings of 2016, word spread among his peers that he had received a terminal diagnosis. Six months to live, he was told. But Kevin made it known he did not want to discuss his illness publicly, and so no one had talked about his cancer on the record -- while at the same time freely exchanging the latest do-not-publish updates about how he was feeling, his evolving weight, how he was breathing, how it was progressing, when he might have a beer again.

Hinch’s instinct was to write Towers’ name onto the placard. “I wanted to honor someone and bring recognition, and I knew everyone in baseball loved Kevin like I do,” Hinch recalled. So he reached out to Fred Uhlman Jr., Towers’ close friend and assistant GM in San Diego, to check if it was OK. He was referred to Kevin’s wife, Kelley, and the response was immediate: KT would love it.

Hinch wrote Towers’ first and last names, took a picture of the placard and texted it to Towers, a sneak preview. As the national broadcast cameras panned the dugouts, there was Hinch with his sign: KEVIN TOWERS.

An avalanche of love and support dinged into Towers’ cell phone, and afterward, Towers called Hinch, and with his voice weakened by the cancer, he thanked him and talked about how touching it was. That was one of the best things that happened in a great year, Hinch said, and as he related the story Tuesday afternoon, his own voice faltered slightly.

Because only hours before, Kevin Towers passed away at age 56, beloved. He was a friend to many; he was a friend to me. KT was the scouting director of the Padres when I covered them for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and I went to his wedding, and he attended mine. In the years that followed, my friends and family who don’t know much about baseball would still talk about That Guy Kevin, how incredibly gregarious he was, how funny.

Last year, the Cubs’ Theo Epstein -- who was pulled into baseball operations at the outset of his career by Towers -- said, “KT is as universally liked as anyone in the game of baseball. If you’ve ever met him, you like him -- period. I was talking with a former GM about him the other day and we agreed: We’ve never heard anyone in baseball utter a bad word about KT. No small feat in this industry.”

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, “A lot of times you come across people who elevate to a certain status of power, and they close down their ranks, who had access to them. Kevin was the type who never forgot where he came from. A former college player, he played professionally, he scouted. He never shed those grass roots.”

Kevin could talk to anybody and make anybody feel comfortable, which was his greatest gift. KT was ragingly competitive and he had a deep understanding of pitching -- but he was entirely at ease working for a tough, taskmaster boss like Larry Lucchino, negotiating with agents, dealing with prickly players, mostly through an omnipresent humor often aimed at himself. He joked constantly about his own failures, his own gaffes.

“That kind of self-deprecation is a sign of a successful person,” said Randy Smith, who met Towers in 1984 and hired him with his first phone call after Smith got the Padres’ GM job in 1993. A few years later, after Smith became GM of the Tigers and Towers took over the Padres, they made a trade as they waited in church for the start of Towers’ wedding -- maybe a little because they would have a story to tell.

And everybody has tales about KT, some of which can be told in a family setting. When he coached a recreation league basketball team during the 1994 strike -- Trevor Hoffman, Brad Ausmus and Bruce Bochy were among those on his roster -- Towers showed up in a suit, with his hair slicked back like Pat Riley. Cashman said Towers reminded him a lot of an old college friends -- someone who worked hard during the day, and played hard at night.

“He was just a regular guy,” Cashman said. “His personality was welcoming, fun and energetic. And he was passionate about baseball. He was very inclusionary. He was basically a man of the people.”

"KT is as universally liked as anyone in the game of baseball. If you've ever met him, you like him -- period. I was talking with a former GM about him the other day and we agreed: We've never heard anyone in baseball utter a bad word about KT. No small feat in this industry." Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein

Once, when I called KT, the Padres were in the midst of an ugly matchup against Randy Johnson, and from time to time, Kevin burst out laughing at one of the brutal swings that Johnson generated, chuckling at his sheer dominance. Towers was part of an increasingly serious business, and yet he never took himself too seriously.

“KT is hilarious, self-deprecating, generous, vibrant, loyal and charming,” Epstein said last year. “He mixes innocence, fun and mischief in a way most of us haven’t since we were in third grade, and he has never been slowed down by fear or regret. Not for one second.

“He taught me how to scout, how clubhouses work and what makes players tick. He won trade after trade -- and built a pennant winner in San Diego -- by understanding what was inside of players and how important that is. He also set a great example by treating everyone in the game with respect and honesty.”

The Super Bowl party last February was Epstein’s idea, the others say. Kirk Gibson was there, and so were Cashman, Uhlman and others. Pacific Ocean waves rolled in on the beach right outside of the Del Mar home of Barry Axelrod, Towers’ friend and baseball agent.

The premise was that the old friends would get together to watch the football game, but the purpose was to remind an ill friend how much he was cherished.

Cashman chided him good-naturedly for drinking a beer, which probably wasn’t part of any doctor’s prescription.

“I just want to have a normal day,” said Towers, and in the hours that followed, Towers leaned back on the short stem of the L-shaped couch in the home of his friend and laughed with friends who surrounded him. Epstein, who had worked for Towers and the Padres while taking classes at the University of San Diego law school, grinned from underneath a baseball cap.

No general manager over the past quarter-century was more accessible to reporters than KT, but Towers did not want to discuss his illness for print -- for much the same reason as Tony Gwynn, I think. I don’t think Kevin liked the idea of others feeling sorry for him. That the embargo on published news on Towers' condition held firmly through the last year of his life was just one more sign of the respect he had earned.

But the communication about him was constant, with dozens of his friends sharing the latest. Maybe Phil Nevin would talk to him, and then Nevin would tell Bruce Bochy, and then Bochy would text others he knew -- the word spreading about the hope that seemed to develop last summer, and then, in recent days, the growing concern.

Kevin Towers passed away a little after 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and the family called those closest to him. He had spent a lifetime making those around him feel comfortable, completely at ease, and in return, his many friends -- like Hinch, Epstein, Bochy, Cashman, Uhlman Jr. -- made sure Towers knew how much he will always be loved.