SAN DIEGO — Kevin Towers was baseball’s version of a gunslinger, a seat-of-the-pants, throwback kind of guy who did whatever it took to make the San Diego Padres competitive, almost always with a limited payroll.
A former first-round draft pick who blew out his elbow and never pitched in the major leagues, Towers advanced through the Padres’ organization and spent 14 years as general manager, a tenure that included four NL West titles and an appearance in the 1998 World Series.
Known around baseball simply as KT, Towers died Tuesday morning from complications of cancer, with his wife, Kelley, at his side. He was 56.
Towers was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer a little more than a year ago.
Friend and former agent Barry Axelrod said Towers was admitted to a hospital with fluid on his lungs a few days ago, and friends and family thought he would be able to go home Tuesday.
“I loved Kevin Towers,” said Larry Lucchino, who as Padres chief executive promoted Towers to GM in November 1995. “He was a very lovable, likable, appealing person, and the quintessential baseball guy. Most of the people who got to know him felt the same way. We will miss him.”
Bruce Bochy managed the Padres for most of Towers’ tenure as GM before moving on to manage San Francisco. Towers and Bochy were teammates in Triple-A in 1988, and Towers was Bochy’s pitching coach when he managed in the minor leagues.
“Sad day,” Bochy said in a text to The Associated Press. “Baseball lost a great one today. Was lucky to have him as a teammate, coach, boss and friend. My thoughts are with Kelley and his family.”
Towers was competitive yet easygoing, brutally honest and fun-loving. He spent 26 years in the Padres’ organization, and was Arizona’s GM from September 2010 until September 2014.
“He was the life of the party,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who hired Towers as a special assignment scout for 2010.
Towers’ death was another blow to the San Diego sports scene, which since 2012 has lost Junior Seau, Tony Gwynn, Jerry Coleman and Dick Enberg.
Few people outside of baseball knew Towers had cancer until Houston manager A.J. Hinch held up a Stand Up To Cancer sign with Towers’ name on it in Game 4 of the World Series. Hinch said that once the cards were distributed at the beginning of the World Series, he thought of Towers, and then got his permission.
“He’s important to me and I know he’s important to the baseball world. There’s no better way to get strength and prayers than the World Series,” Hinch said Tuesday.
Hinch said he spoke with Towers shortly after. “He was so proud and touched I would do that,” the manager said.
“He was as beloved a person as I’ve come across in 25 years in baseball,” Hinch said.
Towers visited Petco Park a few times during the 2017 season, including to see his good friend Bochy when the Giants were in town. He had lost a significant amount of weight, but said going to the ballpark raised his spirits. He visited again late in the season and had regained some weight.
As he spoke last week about being elected to the Hall of Fame, former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman choked up when he mentioned Towers’ influence on his career.
Towers was a first-round draft pick of the Padres in 1982. He reached Triple-A before injuries ended his career.
He became a scout, including working for two years in Pittsburgh’s organization. He returned to the Padres and began a rapid rise in the front office.
His predecessor as GM, Randy Smith, had added Hoffman, Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley to a team whose only real star was Gwynn. Towers added Wally Joyner, Rickey Henderson and Greg Vaughn, and the Padres won the NL West in 1996, making only the second postseason appearance in team history.
He added Kevin Brown in 1998, and the Padres reached their second World Series before being swept by the Yankees.
The Padres retrenched financially while Petco Park was being built. Towers scraped together enough talent, including Jake Peavy, to win the NL West in 2005 and 2006. They haven’t been back to the playoffs since, although they came close in 2007 before losing a wild-card play-in game at Colorado.
“He was a baseball man who made it to the top through combinations of smarts and guile, warmth and grit, modesty and charisma,” said Mets GM Sandy Alderson, the Padres’ CEO from 2005-09. “He could light up a room, or a stadium, just with his smile.”
Towers was fired late in the 2009 season by vice chairman and CEO Jeff Moorad, who was attempting to buy the team on a layaway basis.
Moorad said he was looking for a GM with a more strategic approach, and referred to Towers as a “gunslinger.”
Once his Padres email account was deactivated, Towers created an email with “gunslinger” in it.
“That’s the way I was taught the game, and I believe in it,” Towers said shortly after being fired. “When I think of a gunslinger, I think of a guy that shoots first, or throws the first punch; he wins the battle.”
Towers was GM of the Diamondbacks for four seasons, including 2011, when they won the NL West title in a 29-game turnaround from their last-place finish the previous year.
“We lost an important member of our family and someone I personally love dearly,” Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall said in a statement. “He was one of the biggest personalities the game has ever seen, with a heart of gold and an eye for talent. He could not get enough of baseball, and baseball could not get enough of our KT. It is no surprise he fought for extra innings. Our love goes out to Kelley, his family and everyone who knew him.”
Under Towers, the Diamondbacks signed Paul Goldschmidt to what became an extremely team-friendly five-year contract in 2013 and drafted current bullpen ace Archie Bradley.