SPORTS

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May 6, 2003

Why I still love Mo Vaughn

This happens to sports heroes from time to time. The sun only shines so long, and then one fine morning you wake up and you're forgotten. What happened to Carlos Baerga? Joe Carter? Jack McDowell? One fine morning, you wake up and it's over.

On Saturday the Mets put first baseman Mo Vaughn on the 15-day disabled list. He was hitting only .190 with three homers and had made five errors in the field. There was some inflammation in his left knee, said the trainers. Tony Clark has been getting most of Vaughn's starts at first base, and the Mets have called up catcher Jason Phillips to take his roster spot. It's not clear how long Vaughn will be away. The Flushing, New York, faithful are encouraged not to bet on Vaughn being back within 15 days.

There are some things you have to understand about what Mo Vaughn used to be. He used to be, for one thing, a 23-year-old rookie. The second-fiddle-playing 1991 Boston Red Sox, mired in mediocrity, had produced a crop of exciting young players, people who were billed as the future of the organization. If you'll permit me a trip down Memory Lane...

We had Phil Plantier, who, along with Vaughn, was being groomed as the next great power hitter. Plantier eventually found a home in San Diego and settled into obscurity. We also had Tim Naehring and Scott Cooper, the infielders who were understood to be future replacements for Wade Boggs and Jody Reed. Naehring spent a lot of time on the disabled list and eventually vanished. Cooper was Boston's token All-Star in 1993, when the team finished 80-82 and Coaoper hit .279 with 63 RBIs. Rounding out the new kid crop were Bob Zupcic, noted for hitting a few grand slams and thereafter only for having an interesting last name, and Eric Wedge, who, to my knowledge, never held down a starting catcher's job during his four-year career and who is now the manager of the Cleveland Indians.

Life takes funny turns sometimes. Very few of these up-and-comers amounted to anything.

But Vaughn is the one who made a mark. He became the face of the Red Sox for the next six years, finally beginning to share the spotlight with the arrivals of Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez. But until 1997 the Red Sox were Mo's Team. He was popular in the clubhouse, particularly with his college teammate, shortstop John Valentin. Vaughn was frequently spotted helping children and was often at charity events; and of course, he was a bona fide baseball star. Vaughn finished in the top five in American League MVP voting three times, winning the distinction once. He was Boston's own, the Hit Dog. He hit opposite field singles and towering homeruns over the right-field bullpen and when pitchers gave him less to attack.

And he was fat: a big bear of a man whose gut would hang over the plate as he leaned in, double-clutching his bat and looking for something to drive. He finished his swing high and nearly fell over every time he swung and missed, something he did fairly often. Vaughn struck out 150 times in 1995, his MVP year, and still managed to hit .300 with 126 RBIs. He was fat. Fat and flawed. And every kid on my Little League team listed Vaughn as his favorite player. We had Little League player cards that said so.

The Red Sox ownership was not so forgiving. In 1998, Vaughn left town ignominiously, as a free agent picked up by the then-sorry Anaheim Angels. He produced on the West Coast but never really seemed to be at home there. He tore his bicep and missed the entire 2001 season before finally arriving in New York to play with the Mets. Since the injury, he has been inconsistent, if sometimes productive.

But there were a few months last year when Vaughn looked like his old self, clobbering homerun after homerun into the garden behind right field at Shea Stadium. He still tried to sound positive with reporters and spent time with Valentin when his old teammate--also cut loose by a callous front office--arrived from Boston. He still hit long homeruns in batting practice and still hung his gut out over the plate.

And once in a while, you could still arrive at Shea and see it happen again. The Yankees at the park, rekindling the cross-town rivalry, and David Wells on the mound, in the late innings with two runners on and a 2-0 lead. You could be standing in the aisles among the blue plastic seats and watch Vaughn get hold of an 0-1 pitch, watch the thing sail noiselessly into the night. You could watch it come to rest where it has so many times before, in the right-field bullpen.

That's why I still love Mo Vaughn. Because he grinned and bore it for years, and because until the shortstop was shipped off ingloriously to Baltimore, Vaughn and Valentin were still friends. If, after all these years, Saturday turns out to be Vaughn's last day in the sun, well, at least he can go home with a little bit of good karma.