Over the past five weeks there have been reports of an extremely
muscular, extremely fast, extremely aggressive 30-year-old
buffalo terrorizing metropolises from coast to coast. According
to one witness the beast has two large tattoos and a mini-Afro.
According to another, it wears expensive alligator shoes and
speaks Spanish. Despite numerous attempts to gun it down, nobody
has been able to stop this critter. Nobody has even slowed it
"The Buffalo, man, is incredible!" Jose Cruz Jr., animal lover
and Toronto Blue Jays centerfielder, said on Sunday. "He's
powerful, and he's dangerous. You can never ignore him. Never."
As Cruz exulted, the very subject of his boasts, Raul (the
Buffalo) Mondesi, strolled through the small visitors' clubhouse
at Safeco Field, naked but for the towel around his waist. The
Buffalo is so named because his teammates believe the
broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, large-headed Mondesi resembles
the animal and (were a buffalo to participate in the organized
athletics of Homo sapiens) plays like one.
Thirty-one games into the season, who could argue? The 5'11",
230-pound Mondesi has been a five-tool beast for Toronto, which,
after taking two of three games from the Seattle Mariners last
weekend, was 19-12 and tied with the Boston Red Sox for the
American League East lead. If Mondesi the rightfielder isn't
cutting down or freezing runners with his buffalo gun of a right
arm, Mondesi the slugger is unloading McGwire-esque home runs or
Mondesi the speedster is taking an extra base. "Raul plays his
heart out every single inning, every single day," says Buck
Martinez, the Blue Jays' rookie manager. "He reminds me of
[Martinez's former Kansas City Royals teammate] Hal McRae, in
that you can never take him for granted. He senses when the team
needs something, and he gets it for us. That's greatness."
Although Mondesi's statistics through Sunday--a .314 batting
average, nine homers (tied for third in the league), 26 RBIs
(tied for sixth), five stolen bases--put him on track for a career
year, they barely reflected his dominant play against Seattle,
which entered the games against Toronto with a major-league-best
22-6 record and had won its first nine series of the season. In
the opener last Friday, Mondesi belted two homers and drove in
six runs to power an 8-3 Blue Jays victory. His three-run blast
in the third inning on Sunday helped stake Toronto to a 6-3 lead,
but the vintage Buffalo moment occurred four innings later.
With one out in the seventh, Mondesi lasered a single that
bounced off the glove of oncoming centerfielder Mike Cameron and
rolled to his left. Head down, arms churning, horns pointed
straight ahead, Mondesi charged toward second base, peeked up at
Cameron, tucked in his chin and made the turn toward third.
Caught off guard, Cameron slipped, then grabbed the ball and
fired a bullet to cutoff man Bret Boone, who relayed it to third
baseman Mark McLemore. The Buffalo was safe by a mile, and he
scored moments later on a wild pitch. "The defense should have
been aware, because the Buffalo doesn't stop," Cruz said.
The Blue Jays won the game 11-3, and Mondesi finished the series
with seven hits in 12 at bats, six runs, nine RBIs and three
pairs of dirt-covered uniform pants. "When you see a superstar
going that hard, it shows why he's so special," says Toronto
outfielder Brian Simmons. "He's a model for how the game's
supposed to be played."
In Los Angeles, where Mondesi, a native of the Dominican
Republic, began his big league career after a 1993 call-up,
Simmons's sentiments would be met with disbelief. Despite seven
productive years with the Dodgers, including career-high totals
of 33 home runs and 99 RBIs in '99, he is best remembered in L.A.
for unloading on general manager Kevin Malone and manager Davey
Johnson late in that season. The frequently temperamental Mondesi
was indisputably the Dodgers' best all-around player, but when
Los Angeles's early-season hopes for a pennant went south along
with Mondesi's batting average, he became the target of critics
and grew increasingly frustrated.
In late July, Malone chastised him for sitting in the bullpen
rather than in the dugout between innings. Then on Aug. 10 in
Montreal, Mondesi arrived at Olympic Stadium slightly late, and
Johnson relegated him to a pinch-hitting role. The next day, when
Mondesi again saw he was out of the starting lineup, he went on a
tirade. "F--- Davey and f--- Malone," Mondesi raged. "They try to
put all of our problems on me...Just get me out of here."
Although a contrite Mondesi apologized several days later, L.A.
fans who once chanted "Rauuuuuuuulll!" during Mondesi's home at
bats changed their call to "Booooo!" Three months later the
Dodgers shipped him and lefthanded reliever Pedro Borbon to
Toronto for rightfielder Shawn Green and minor league infielder
Jorge Nunez. At the time, many baseball insiders felt Blue Jays
general manager Gord Ash had been had. Green, after all, was
coming off a career-best 42-homer, 123-RBI season. Ash's case
wasn't helped last year when, after a hot first half (23 homers,
63 RBIs, 21 steals), Mondesi was sidelined for 63 games with bone
chips in his right elbow. Only now, with Green underachieving in
Los Angeles and Mondesi on a tear, has it become clear: Toronto
received the better all-around player.
Mondesi's skills aside, what thrills Martinez most is Mondesi's
desire to improve. With the Dodgers, Mondesi was a dangerous but
wild-swinging hitter who never met a breaking ball he didn't
like. Correcting that lack of discipline has been hitting coach
Cito Gaston's No. 1 project. Even though Mondesi still strikes
out a lot (24 times in 121 at bats through Sunday), most of his
whiffs are no longer the result of lunging for pitches out of the
strike zone. "Cito's guidance has been very, very good for me,"
says Mondesi. "I am finding out that patience is important and
Martinez is equally impressed with Mondesi's hustle. In the third
inning of an April 17 game against the Yankees, Mondesi was on
third, with New York lefthander Randy Keisler pitching to Cruz
from a windup. With the count 1 and 1 and Keisler's mind on Cruz,
Mondesi sprinted for home. By the time Keisler's delivery reached
catcher Jorge Posada, Mondesi's body was sprawled across home
plate. It was the tying run in what turned out to be a 6-5
On Sunday evening, minutes before he was to leave Safeco for a
flight back to Toronto, Mondesi casually slipped his feet into
one of the numerous pairs of alligator shoes he cherishes.
"They're style," he said, smiling. "I like style."
He was the final Toronto player left in the room, and he was
clearly in no rush. On this range the Buffalo feels at home.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER SOMETHING EXTRA The aggressive Mondesi capped his weekend exploits against the Mariners by dashing to third on Cameron's miscue.