Like good news, St. Louis Cardinal rookie Vince Coleman travels fast. The 23-year-old leftfielder can run 40 yards in 4.39 seconds, 100 yards in 9.4 and the 90 feet between bases quicker than an opposing catcher can say "Lou Brock." Ooops. See that? He just stole second.
Coleman raced through the minor leagues in 2½ seasons—well ahead of the Cardinals' original projections—winning a batting title (.350) with Class A Macon in 1983 and stealing a phenomenal total of 289 bases in 328 games. His 145 steals in 113 games with Macon in '83 remain a single-season professional record. "He's already so far advanced as a base runner it's amazing," says St. Louis centerfielder Willie McGee. "You might be looking at the best base stealer ever." And Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog flatly says, "This guy's the best I've seen at stealing a base. He always seems to put excitement in the game. I get excited myself watching him."
Coleman is dashing off with the National League's Rookie of the Year award. Dubbed Mercury Swift by then-Cardinal leftfielder Lonnie Smith in spring training, Coleman was called up from Triple A Louisville on April 17 to "temporarily" bolster an injury-riddled outfield. What he did was swiftly put Smith out of a job. He has stolen a major league-leading 41 bases in 45 games and hit a respectable .288, and last week reeled off a six-game hitting streak, stole three bases in one game against the Astros and took over the league lead in runs scored (42). "I want to play here for the next 10 or 15 years," he says.
One year may be enough to put Coleman into the record book. At his current base stealing rate of .911 per game, Coleman will finish the season with 139 stolen bases if he plays the rest of the Cardinals' games. He would outrun Rickey Henderson, who outran Lou Brock, who outran Maury Wills, who outran Ty Cobb. None of them broke on the scene as fast as Coleman has.
He has stolen more bases than six National League teams: Houston, San Diego, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and New York. He has swiped second and third in the same inning four times this season.
See Vince run in Sunday's double-header in New York. Leading off against Dwight Gooden in the first game (won by the Mets, 6-1), Coleman singled, took second on McGee's single, then stole third for the 12th time this season. He proceeded to get caught in a rundown—he is, after all, a rookie—but he even made that exciting. In the second game, which the Cardinals won 8-2, he scored the first run after singling and stealing second. In the third inning he hit a routine grounder to second but beat pitcher Calvin Schiraldi to the bag for an infield hit. Then, taking his usual ambitious lead, he worried Schiraldi into balking him to second. From there he scored easily when a McGee ground ball handcuffed shortstop Howard Johnson and squirted into leftfield. It was Coleman's third run of the day.
The only way to stop Coleman and his teammates may be to play dirty. Two weeks ago, the Atlanta grounds crew turned the infield into the Okefenokee Swamp, and Coleman was heard to say, "Why don't you put a bridge over this thing?" The Cards failed to steal in three games, although they won two of them.
"Vince fits into the Cardinal mold," says Ozzie Smith. "Everybody talks about how we don't have much power, but who needs power when you're scoring eight or nine runs anyway? This is the way we won the championship in '82."
Indeed, on a team already loaded with .300 hitters and speed, Coleman provides what amounts to an overdrive gear. Since his promotion St. Louis has scored 5.3 runs per game—by far the most in the National League. The Cards are on pace to steal 339 bases (the one-season major league record is 347, held by the 1911 New York Giants). "Vince has been kind of an inspiration to us," notes McGee, whose 24 steals rank him second in the league behind Coleman. "We were running before he got here, but now we're more daring."
Coleman takes all this heady talk the same way he leads off a base: casually and confidently, as if to say, "I dare you to throw over here." Says Coleman, "I've always felt that if I got a lead I felt comfortable with, no catcher could throw me out. It would take a perfect throw." Coleman has been caught nine times this season, though only once in 13 attempts at stealing third. "The papers always write about catchers that throw out Vince Coleman," he says with a big smile. " 'So-and-so threw out Vince Coleman!' I guess I make catchers into stars."
Coleman is built of coiled wire. At 6 feet and 170 pounds he is a carbon copy of Brock, the former Cardinal leftfielder and baseball's alltime leading base stealer (938). But Coleman hasn't converted his muscle into occasional home run power. Coleman's first and only major league blast was a stand-up, inside-the-park shot three weeks ago against the Braves. It was a memorable display of Coleman at full speed, taking huge strides, arms swinging high, body low to the ground, circling the bases in something under 14 seconds. Coleman was across the plate before the ball reached the cutoff man. Afterward, he was asked if it had felt as good as, say, stealing four bases. "No way," he said. "It's a big thrill, but it ain't like no stolen base!"
Coleman's way with words is as distinctive as his running style. Of his .136 batting mark at Louisville early this season, he says, "The balls just weren't falling in. My average didn't dictate my performance." He claims his goal is to be the greatest ballplayer who ever lived—"and I'm not saying that to be modest or anything." But with his cap pushed back and a smile on his face, Coleman is irresistibly likable. He can't say enough about McGee, who has taken him under his wing and is currently putting up Coleman in his condo. "I idolized Willie in the minors because we're the same type of player," Coleman says. "It's a real privilege to share his personal space."
Coleman naturally assumed he would be working out of an NFL locker room. As an only child in Jacksonville, he lived in a fatherless home with his mom, Willie Pearl Coleman, and spent most of his time with uncles and cousins—especially his cousin Greg, seven years older, who taught him football. Greg Coleman punts for the Minnesota Vikings.
"Vince and I would meet up at Scott Park, which was like a feeding ground for all the top Jacksonville athletes," Greg recalls. "Terry LeCount, Derrick Gaffney and sometimes Kenny Burrough and Harold Carmichael—we'd all work out together. It was like a pro-am training camp." How good was the young Vince? "He could have been an outstanding NFL punter," says Greg. "His leg is stronger than mine. He ended up breaking all my high school and college records except for maybe one."
Vince followed Greg to Florida A & M, where he led the nation in stolen bases one year and served as the Rattlers' punter and placekicker for four years. His kickoffs were rarely returned, and his punting (he had a 41.1-yard average as a senior) earned him the ABC-Chevrolet Player of the Game award against Miami in 1980 and an invitation to the Freedom Bowl Classic all-star game after the 1981 season. "He was as good at football as he was at baseball, if you can believe that," says A & M football coach Rudy Hubbard. "He could have made it. But you see so few blacks kicking in the NFL.... I think there's really a bias there that kept Vince from getting a fair opportunity."
Coleman had a minicamp tryout with the Redskins in May 1982 but was put at wide receiver because of his speed. "They wouldn't let me kick," he says. Coleman, a lifetime Dallas Cowboys fan, had often dreamed of catching passes like Jacksonville's own Bob Hayes, but it was not to be. He sprained an ankle, sat out most of the camp and decided baseball was his calling. Drafted in the 10th round by the Cardinals in June 1982, he signed immediately. "At the time I didn't even know which baseball teams were in which league," he says.
Coleman's education went on year-round—in minor league ball, instructional league ball and Puerto Rican winter ball. A natural righty, he was converted into a switch hitter in late '82 and taught to slap the ball to the opposite field. Poor defensively—like Brock—he worked until he became average, then above average. Longtime Cardinals minor league instructor George Kissell recently called Coleman the hardest worker he's ever had, and one can regularly find Coleman in the dank batting cage beneath the Busch Stadium stands taking extra BP with his fatherlike adviser, hitting instructor Johnny Lewis.
Coleman needed disciplining only once, last summer at Louisville, when he put on a pregame punting exhibition for his teammates and was fined $25 by manager Jim Fregosi. "I kicked a few 70-yarders and showed them what I could do," says Coleman.
Coleman has devoted copious time and attention to his base stealing. He's always asking teammates for tips on opposing pitchers' moves, and he studies every visible muscle twitch for clues. "With righthanders, I watch their legs," he says. "If the right heel spins, then they have to come to first. If the left knee bends, they have to go home. With lefthanders, it's between the head, shoulders and hands. Each one is different." Like Brock, who pioneered the notion, Coleman says it's easier to steal off lefthanders. "You can see exactly what they're doing," he says.
Coleman had to give up wearing No. 20 upon his promotion to the majors—the Cards retired it in Brock's honor in 1979—and in some respects the comparisons between him and Sweet Lou don't hold up anyway. Brock was slower, rarely stole third and took shorter leads (which lessened his pickoff worries, reduced the wear and tear of diving back to the base and allowed him to get a better jump). Brock also mastered the quick, pop-up slide (again to minimize injury), unlike Coleman, who often goes in headfirst. Coleman wears huge bandages above and below his right knee to cover slide burns that never get a chance to heal.
But Coleman doesn't mind. He's full of rookie enthusiasm, and if his job entails bruising headfirst slides, well, so be it. There are bases to be stolen. "In the big leagues," says Mercury Swift, "even the dirt tastes good."