We've assembled a distinguished panel of Astro pitchers to examine a major cause of concern for them and their colleagues everywhere. The first question, gentlemen, is: How do you pitch Bob Horner, the 23-year-old right-handed-hitting third baseman of the Atlanta Braves?
"Outside," says Dave Smith, a right-handed reliever with 10 saves and a 1.92 ERA last year.
"Inside," says Joe Sambito, a left-handed reliever with 17 saves and a 2.20 ERA in 1980.
"Carefully," says Frank LaCorte, a righty with 11 saves and a 2.82 ERA.
"I'm not going to reveal that," says Don Sutton, the new man in the Houston rotation who spent 15 years in a Dodger uniform and led the league with an ERA of 2.21 last year. "I will say, however, that Plan A didn't work, and I'm abandoning it and going to Plan B."
"The key," says Vern Ruhle, 12-4 with a 2.38 ERA last year, "is to make sure that nobody is on base when he hits his home run."
The next question is: Would you rather face Horner or Mike Schmidt?
"I'd rather face Schmidt," says Ruhle.
"Horner," says Smith.
"Schmidt any day," says LaCorte.
"I don't want to have to face either one of them," says Ken Forsch, who later this day would have his wish fulfilled by getting traded out of the league to the California Angels.
The third question may be painful. What has Horner done to you?
"I was behind on the count and gave him a hanging slider," says 20-game winner Joe Niekro. "He put it over the left-field fence."
"I threw him an outside fastball and he hit it out in dead center," says Randy Niemann.
"I gave him a pretty good pitch, a tailing fastball in on the hands," says Forsch, "and he just wristed it out of the park."
"The home run he hit off me was a slider," says Joaquin Andujar.
"Two years ago he hit my changeup into the upper deck of the Astrodome," says Ruhle. "That's a shot."
"He got me twice in '79," says LaCorte. "Once he just rolled his wrists on an inside fastball and put it out. The other home run was the hardest ball I've ever seen hit anywhere. I threw him a fastball right in his wheelhouse, and [LaCorte shivers in the 90° heat] you know how the fans in the leftfield stands will gather and wait for the home run ball to come down? Well, he hit the ball so hard that they scattered. I mean it. They got out of the way as fast as they could."
The Astros staff is a particularly good one to talk to about Horner. Its credentials are impeccable; last season Houston's team ERA of 3.10 and total of only 69 home runs permitted were the best in the majors. However, Horner touched the Astros for five of those 69 homers and 15 RBIs. Houston wasn't his only victim, of course; he also homered five times each against the Phillies and Dodgers. He hit 35 home runs after a horrendous start. In his last 90 games, he batted .302 with 30 homers and 76 RBIs. In July alone, he had 14 home runs, one short of the major league record. After three seasons, Horner has a .287 batting average and a .533 slugging percentage, and his ratio of one homer per 13.99 at bats easily surpasses the figures Henry Aaron (22.69), Joe DiMaggio (17.36), Willie Mays (17.78) and Ted Williams (17.38) had after three years.
And yet Horner has just been teasing. For a variety of reasons, one of them management stupidity, he has never played a full season. In fact, his career totals of 91 homers and 250 RBIs have actually been accumulated in the equivalent of two seasons. Hall of Famer Luke Appling, a hitting instructor for the Braves, says Horner will hit 70 homers some season. Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox predicts Horner will win the Triple Crown some year, if not this one. Braves Director of Player Development Henry L. Aaron offers the opinion that someday Horner will erase some of Henry L. Aaron's records.
Pitchers will be facing a smaller Horner this year. He no longer sits in front of his locker in the corner eating the clubhouse cold cuts. With his striking blond curls and burly body, Horner used to resemble a professional wrestler, namely Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream. But by working hard and eschewing—rather than chewing—fattening foods, Horner has shed 20 pounds in recent weeks, bringing his weight down to 210 for the first time since college, even though that is the weight at which the Braves have always listed him.
Horner is running faster, moving better at third base and suffering no apparent loss of power. Last week against Baltimore's Steve Stone, the American League Cy Young Award winner in 1980, Horner hit a pitch into the face of a strong wind. It finally stopped rolling just short of second base on a practice field beyond the leftfield fence of the Braves' spring training stadium in West Palm Beach, a journey of some 500 feet.
Horner is confident, not cocky; proud but private. He's not stat-conscious like Pete Rose; in fact, he can't recall the five home runs he hit off Houston pitching last year. As for his success in the major leagues, he says, "I didn't expect it to happen quite this fast, but I'm not surprised, either."
According to Horner's best friend on the Braves, Infielder Jerry Royster, "Bob's so confident at what he does, baseball or golf or Space Invaders, that people get the wrong idea."
The wrong idea is that he's lackadaisical. "I just try to stay on an even keel, not get too excited or too down," says Horner. "But people see me as not caring, as not trying, as being lazy. Believe me, I give 100% all the time. The only person I have to answer to is me." One example of his independence is that he won't take batting practice if he's happy with his stroke. Some observers interpret that as dogging it.
Horner's new physique should go a long way toward convincing his detractors that he's serious. Some of his teammates used to call him Piggy—though not to his face. The Braves have wanted him to lose weight for some time now, and trainer Dave Pursley put Horner on a strict regimen resembling the Scarsdale Diet. Yet it's a measure of Horner's independence that he says the diet was his own idea.
The three things that impress pitchers most about Horner are his strength, his savvy and his stroke. He can actually bring a Nautilus machine to its knees. Sometimes he will take batting practice using only his bottom, or left, hand and still hit ringing line drives. Last week in an exhibition game against the Astros, Niekro threw him a perfect 3-2 slider that Horner, obviously fooled, flicked his wrists at. The ball bruised the 410-foot sign in centerfield.
Horner, by his own admission, is a guess hitter. And he has been guessing right since his first game in the majors, when he dialed eight (baseball talk for a home run, eight being the number one dials to get long distance on a hotel phone) on a Bert Blyleven curveball. "I was watching the Braves' game with the Orioles the other day on TV," says La-Corte. "His home run off Stone was something, but what really scared me was a double he hit to the opposite field. He went the other way with that pitch, and if he starts doing that, we're in trouble."
Horner's swing is unusual for a power hitter—compact. His 34½-inch, 35-ounce Adirondack swings down quickly on the ball. Most sluggers, like a Schmidt or a Dave Kingman, trace sweeping arcs in the air. As a consequence, Horner doesn't hit many tape-measure home runs. He also doesn't strike out very much—only 50 times last year. It's an unusual swing, but Horner's father, Jimmy, says his son has always had it. Jimmy was Bob's coach in the Cypress (Calif.) Little League, and if major league pitchers tremble at the prospect of throwing to Horner, think how those Little Leaguers felt. In his first season playing on a field with a fence, little Bob Horner, then 10, hit 10 home runs in 21 games.
Jimmy knows this because at home in Glendale, Ariz. he has 18 scrapbooks filled with reports of Bob's exploits. Because Bob's mother, Elaine, had a serious sinus condition, the Homers moved from Cypress to Glendale when Bob was a freshman in high school. In four years as a shortstop for Apollo High, Horner set all sorts of state home-run records and attracted the attention of most of the big-time baseball colleges. He was also drafted by the Oakland A's but chose instead to attend Arizona State. In 1977 the Sun Devils won the College World Series, and Horner was named the MVP. He also was selected as the All-America second baseman. As a junior the next year he set a single-season NCAA record of 25 homers. He also met his future agent, Bucky Woy.
Horner likes to stand right on the plate. The pitcher's recourse, naturally, is to throw the ball inside, but as Horner says, "That's the pitch I want." LaCorte moans, "When you try to brush him back, he just stares at the ball as it goes by. Nothing fazes him."
Horner's approach to the vicissitudes of life is much the same: nothing fazes him. And goodness knows, since making him the first choice in the draft in 1978, the Braves have tried to brush him back several times. Atlanta wanted to send Horner down to its Double-A farm in Savannah when he signed, but he and Woy persuaded the Braves to let him start in the majors. Actually, persuaded isn't quite the right word. "We threatened to go back to Phoenix," says Woy. In 89 games in 1978, Horner batted .266 with 23 homers and 63 RBIs and was named the National League Rookie of the Year.
The next season the Braves offered Horner a $100,000 contract, pointing out that they were obligated only to offer him at least 80% of his first year's wage of $21,000. However, Woy insisted that Horner's previous year's wages also included his $162,000 signing bonus. Horner held out through most of spring training, and the dispute went to arbitration. He won the money but lost the hearts of the Braves' fans, who booed him on Opening Day for his ingratitude and then gasped when he injured his ankle.
When Horner came back six weeks later, he went on an unconscious binge, finishing the season with 33 homers and 98 RBIs in just 121 games while batting .314. Hostility was in the air, however. Ted Turner, the Braves' owner and forever the soul of tact, intimated that the contract dispute had caused the death of Braves' Vice-President Bill Lucas. Horner called Turner a jerk. Turner said he would never deal with Woy again. Somebody, though, agreed to sign a three-year, $1 million contract with Horner and Woy at the end of the '79 season.
That should have been the end of the dispute, but last spring the tag team of Horner and Woy found themselves in a Cajun Death Match (five minutes with no referees) with Turner and his vice-president for sycophancy, Al Thornwell. The Braves had gotten off to a horrendous start, and Horner was a convenient scapegoat since he was batting .059 with six errors after 10 games. (John Vukovich he's not.) Against the advice of both Cox and Aaron, Turner and Thornwell decided to send Horner to Richmond to teach him a lesson. With some justification Horner refused to report, but was finally reinstated after three weeks. He spent the rest of the season teaching Turner a lesson. "I didn't play angry," says Horner. "Let's just say I remembered what they tried to do to me."
In a sense, Horner will be making his fourth major league debut this season. There was his first major league game, his first post-arbitration game and his first post-Richmond game. He hopes the hassles are behind him, but he got upset when the Braves recently traded away Gary Matthews, a very good outfielder who had also provoked Turner's ire. If Turner sailed his yachts the way he runs his sports teams, he'd be continually ducking flying jibes. Says Horner, "Why can't they just put the nine best guys on the field and let us play?"
Horner's outside interests include golf and oil. He plays the former to a seven handicap, and it goes without saying that he is long off the tee. He has invested in the latter, and Woy says his wells should give him a comfortable income even if a strike cuts his season short once again.
As most stars go, Horner is a recluse. He has no major endorsements; he does no soft drink commercials à la George Brett and Schmidt. He's even reluctant to do promotions for the Braves. But Woy says, "This is the year America will be introduced to Bob Horner."
It should be a banner year for him. He and his wife, Chris, are expecting their first child about the time of the All-Star Game. He batted .370 with three HRs and 14 RBIs in 18 spring training games. As for his own expectations, Horner says, "All I want to do is become as good as I can be."
That's a frightening prospect for pitchers. "I was kind of hoping that his troubles with the Braves would reach the point where he'd have to retire," says Sutton. "Seriously, he's the best young hitter I've seen come up. He'll hit 60 some day. Make that 61."
"He's awesome," says Ruhle.
"Unreal," says LaCorte.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
The 23-year-old Horner is a cagey bailer, which is rare among players of his age and with his power.