MO BETTER BATTER
No one in baseball hit the ball harder in spring training than Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn, and so far he has kept his promise that the bashing would continue all year. "People thought it was a fluke, but now we're two months into the season," he says. "I knew it was no fluke."
Through Sunday, Vaughn was hitting .331—fifth-best in the American League—for a Boston team that was 10th in the league in runs scored and last in home runs. As the lone force in the middle of the Red Sox lineup, the 25-year-old Vaughn led Boston with seven homers, 31 RBIs and a .412 on-base percentage. "This is the most fun I've ever had playing baseball," he said last week.
A year ago he was miserable. On May 11, 1992, Vaughn and his .185 average were sent to Triple A Pawtucket—a stinging demotion for a player billed as Boston's first baseman of the future. He argued vehemently with manager Butch Hobson about the decision and still distrusts Hobson because of it. Vaughn was recalled from Pawtucket after six weeks to finish the major league season with a .234 average, 13 homers and a bad taste in his mouth.
"Lord knows I've had a lot of adversity," says Vaughn, who considered quitting last year, an option that was supported by his parents. "A lot of things were said about me—like when I went down, that I'd never come back. It was like I was a bad person or something. I had to make sure that wasn't the case. Sec, in Boston they want success right away. You can't afford to have any problems."
Last winter Vaughn received a boost from the new Red Sox hitting coach, Mike Easler. "One phone call from him," says Vaughn, "and I knew that this year was going to be a lot of fun. He told me, 'We're going to have your skills so sharp, you won't worry about anything at the plate.' " Easler, a highly touted hitting coach for the Brewers last year, was hired away from Milwaukee. He has taught Vaughn to be more focused and more patient at the plate. "The man saved my career," Vaughn says.
On May 23, against the Yankees at Fenway Park, the 6'1", 225-pound Vaughn had the biggest outing of his major league career when he hit two homers in a game for the first time. He did it off veteran lefty Jimmy Key, who had allowed just five homers to lefthanded batters so far this decade. During one at bat Vaughn laid off a 2-0 curveball from Key; had he faced that same pitch pre-Easler, Vaughn says, "I would have been hacking at it like a crazy man. But I didn't want that pitch at that time." He waited for a pitch he liked, and homered.
On May 16 the Dodgers had lost five of their last six games, were 14-22 for the season and stood nine games out of first place in the National League West. It seemed as if their 63-99 record of last season was no aberration. But then Los Angeles caught fire and won 11 straight games, the Dodgers' longest winning streak since 1976. The surge brought them within 6½ games of the first-place Giants. During the streak, which ended with a 5-3 loss to the Pirates on Sunday, the Dodgers outscored their opponents 71-29.
"I think now we come to the park expecting to win instead of playing not to lose," says L.A. outfielder Eric Davis, who was a key player in the turnaround. After getting only three extra-base hits in his first 114 at bats this year—leading to speculation that he might be released—Davis took a hitting lesson from former Dodger Reggie Smith, Los Angeles's minor league field coordinator. In his next seven games Davis had two doubles, two homers and 11 RBIs.
Also during the streak, the Dodgers' often dreadful defense made only five errors. What's more, L.A.'s underrated bullpen, which at week's end had the National League's lowest ERA (2.73), continued its near-perfect record of having blown one save opportunity this year.
Faced with being released by the Rockies, outfielder Dale Murphy last Thursday announced his retirement—without fanfare, naturally—after batting .143 with just seven RBIs in 26 games this season. Murphy, 37, had a terrific career: 398 home runs (199 with runners on, 199 with the bases empty), 1,266 RBIs, one 30-30 season, two MVP awards, seven All-Star Game appearances and five Gold Gloves. From 1982 to '87, while with the Braves, Murphy was the best outfielder in baseball, averaging .289, 36 homers and 105 RBIs. He is one of just eight players ever to play 150 or more games for 10 straight years. But Murphy's hard-driving style eventually wore down his body.
A devout Mormon and the father of seven sons (with an eighth child on the way), Murphy will be remembered as the kindest, best-liked and most respected player of his generation. In 1991 Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine was in a situation that called for a retaliation pitch against the Phillies after Philadelphia had thrown at a Brave hitter; the first batter up that inning for the Phils was Glavine's old teammate Murphy. Glavine couldn't bring himself to deck Murphy, so he lobbed four half-speed pitches that Murphy dodged. After Murphy jumped out of the way of ball four, Glavine was ejected.
Those who rode on the Atlanta team bus in the mid-1980s will never forget Murphy reading—and laughing at—a Dr. Seuss book. His teammates laughed too, but not at him. Outfielder Claudell Washington once said of straight, he's cool."
The most valuable pitcher for the Blue Jays this season has been 24-year-old righthander Pat Hentgen, who barely made the club as the number five starter. He throws a 90-plus mph fastball and has a nasty overhand curve. With starters Jack Morris, Dave Stewart and Todd Stottlemyre on the disabled list at various times this year, Hentgen (6-2, 2.78 through the weekend) has stepped forward together with Juan Guzman (4-0, 55 strikeouts in 66 innings) to anchor the rotation....
Yankee lefthander Jimmy Key (5-2, 1.94) has been the best pitcher in the American League this year, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. In 1987, when Key was playing home games in Toronto's Exhibition Stadium—a horrible park for pitchers—he won 17 games for the Blue Jays. Toronto's pitching coach then, Al Widmar, said Key had five bad innings all that season.
Minor League Note of the Week: First baseman Scott Talanoa of the Brewers' Class A Beloit (Wis.) affiliate drove in eight runs in a game against Appleton and was named Howe Sportsdata's minor league player of the week for May 16-22—the second straight week he won the award. After 42 games Talanoa, who is of Samoan descent, was leading the Midwest League with a .339 average, 18 homers and 43 RBIs.
Helped by his hitting guru, Vaughn is still swinging a hot bat—as promised two months ago.
RON KUNTZ, REUTERS/BETTMANN
BETWEEN THE LINES
Fool on the Hill. It was quite a week for Ranger outfielder Jose Canseco. On May 26 in Cleveland a fly ball hit by Carlos Martinez bounced off Canseco's head and over the rightfield fence for a homer (top). "The World Cup is coming to Dallas in 1994," said Texas infielder Jeff Huson. "Jose was just practicing." Then last Saturday in Fenway Park, with the Rangers trailing the Red Sox 12-1, Canseco made his major league pitching debut (bottom). He pitched the bottom of the eighth, allowing three runs on two hits and three walks. Of his 33 pitches, 21 were balls—including a knuckleball that went behind hitter Andre Dawson. In the Boston dugout Roger Clemens, who had pitched the night before, spied an opportunity and went to the bat rack in an attempt to coax manager Butch Hobson into letting him pinch-hit against Canseco. Hobson somehow resisted.
The Buc Stops Here. In consecutive games, on May 26 and 27 at Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates scored on an inside-the-park home run; the first was hit by swift centerfielder Andy Van Slyke and the second by slow-moving catcher Tom Prince. After his fly ball bounced past Marlin rightfielder Junior Felix and rolled to the wall, Prince lumbered around the bases and beat the throw to the plate by inches. "Halfway home he got caught in quicksand," said Pittsburgh third base coach Rich Donnelly. "I thought he'd be on the DL today. A lot of our coaches would have scored on that play. Prince the singer would have scored on that play."
By the Numbers. On May 24 the Mariners defeated the Angels 4-3 in 14 innings, despite leaving 19 men on base—13 of them between the eighth and 12th innings. In the eighth and ninth innings the two teams made a total of 22 lineup changes. In the course of the game California's Luis Polonia tied an American League record when he was caught stealing three times (twice on pitchouts).