SAN DIEGO (AP) — Let's see, the San Diego Padres lose a bunch of free agents, trade away their best slugger and then bring in a singing cowboy?
In a move sure to raise eyebrows - if not chuckles - from fans and no doubt some NL West rivals, the Padres announced Friday that country music superstar Garth Brooks has been invited to spring training on a non-roster basis.
No kidding - a singing cowboy whose athletic credentials are playing on his high school baseball team and throwing the javelin at Oklahoma State.
``I'm excited, I'm nervous, I'm scared, and it's going to be neat,'' the 37-year-old rookie said in a conference call from Los Angeles. ``Make no mistake about it, I'm out there to play baseball.''
Not in the bigs. At least, not right away.
``There's no chance of him being on the major league club, but we're excited to have him because I think he's going to bring a lot of enthusiasm and hard work into camp, because that's how he goes about his business,'' Padres manager Bruce Bochy.
Brooks, a switch-hitter, worked out with the Padres for two days at last year's spring training. The extent of his game action was a pinch-running appearance, when he was nearly picked off twice.
After three years on the road playing sold out concerts, Brooks took a year off, giving him a chance to live out his fantasy of playing professional baseball. If he's any good, he could be back on a bus, riding the backroads of America, playing minor league ball.
The man who sings about Friends in Low Places could end up in the low minors: maybe at Idaho Falls, Idaho; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; or Mobile, Ala.
But he's serious enough about the game that he'll skip the Feb. 24 Grammy Awards ceremonies in Los Angeles, even though he's nominated for three awards, to go to spring training in Peoria, Ariz., a few days before the Feb. 23 reporting day.
Brooks and the Padres denied the move was a publicity stunt to promote the image of the team, but it is being used to help jump-start Brooks' new baseball-related Touch 'Em All Foundation, which will benefit children's charities.
Instead paying Brooks a salary, the Padres will donate approximately $200,000 - the equivalent of the major league minimum salary - to his foundation.
The Padres have been suffering fan criticism for failing to retain the core of the National League championship team after convincing voters to approve public funding for a new downtown ballpark.
``I see this as damage control, grasping for straws in an attempt to manipulate the fans to get what they want, which is a new stadium at the taxpayers' expense,'' said Diane Dixon, one of the leaders of an anti-stadium campaign. ``I don't think (Brooks) is going to mend the hearts of the Padres' fans - unless he can really play baseball.''
Brooks said he's been hitting off tees and in batting cages ever since playing for the Padres last March.
``Just know this - the first goal of all of this is not to embarrass major league baseball,'' said Brooks, who was wearing a Padres cap and a navy blue jersey in a video feed of the conference call. ``They had their best year, in my lifetime, and possibly history, last year, so they need a great year this year to come back with it ... Anything to hurt that reputation, I don't want to be involved with. We're going to take it extremely serious.''
Brooks had hoped to spend time picking slugger Greg Vaughn's mind on playing left field, and just hanging out with Ken Caminiti ``because he's so damn intense.'' But they're gone, as are Kevin Brown, Steve Finley and Joey Hamilton.
``It's like, `I can't believe you lost these people and now you're giving us this guy at camp,''' said Brooks, who views himself as a utility player - all the outfield positions, as well as first and third.
He is well aware of Michael Jordan's failed attempt to play baseball, but applauded Jordan because he ``walked away from something that was safe to go to something that wasn't.''
And, like Jordan, Brooks is prepared to be the underdog.
``The fact that people are going to go out there and just kind of laugh and chuckle, `Oh, Garth, is that chubby cowboy going to try to play baseball? This ought to be fun.' I want people to walk up there and not expect to get what they're about ready to get from me in baseball.''
Left-hander Sterling Hitchcock said Brooks can do whatever he wants as long as it's not on the mound.
``As long as he's not trying out to pitch, I don't care,'' Hitchcock said.