Baseball is the sport that cackles back at can't-miss kids. Baseball humbles every player sooner or later. Baseball confers greatness stingily, in its own sweet time.... At least that's what the bow-tied essayists and sandlot scouts solemnly tell us—until a phenom like Los Angeles Dodger outfielder Raul Mondesi comes along, first lighting up the big leagues as a rookie and then making it clear that as good as he already is, the best is yet to be.
Mondesi is only 24. He has played little more than one major league season. His 5'11", 220-pound physique is as squat as a washing machine. The raves that followed his unanimous selection as 1994 National League Rookie of the Year might be more easily dismissed if his statistics weren't even better this year. Through Sunday he was batting .320 and was among the National League's top five in runs (23), home runs (eight) and RBIs (21). On top of that he has exceptional speed and defensive skills.
During the course of a game Mondesi is liable to crush a tape-measure home run, make a Gold Glove-caliber catch at the warning track and tear around the base paths so brazenly that even a veteran outfielder like Ellis Burks of the Colorado Rockies is left shaking his head. "I was playing him a little to left center," Burks said after a recent game against the Dodgers. "I busted my butt to get to a ball he hit a little to right center. Yet when I looked up he was already sliding into second base. I didn't have a chance."
Welcome to the club. As impressive as Mondesi's stats were for the strike-shortened 1994 season—a .306 average, 27 doubles, eight triples, 16 home runs and 56 RBIs in 112 games—it's the anecdotal asides like Burks's that stick with you.
Last season, for instance, Mondesi threw out the Houston Astros' Craig Biggio at second base by such a big margin that Biggio thought someone had played the old hidden-ball trick on him. The play the Dodgers mention most, though, is the time Mondesi cut down the Cincinnati Reds' Tony Fernandez from the rightfield gap last season. "I'm sure Fernandez has hit that ball to the same spot 100 times and had a stand-up double every time," Los Angeles general manager Fred Claire says. "Raul threw him out by 10 feet. When you see a play like that, you say the only people who've ever made that kind of play are the greatest who ever played the game."
When Dodger coach Manny Mota is asked who Mondesi reminds him of, he doesn't stop at Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds. "Raul reminds me," Mota says, "of Roberto Clemente." In addition to playing the outfield like the late Pittsburgh Pirate great, Mondesi, who led major league outfielders with 16 assists last year, also is a free swinger like Clemente was. Mondesi hit safely in 28 out of 30 games during one stretch in '94 and twice hit game-winning home runs.
"How would I pitch him?" L.A. catcher Mike Piazza says, laughing and pounding a fist into his mitt. "How about just putting down a couple of fingers, then saying a few Hail Marys?"
Still sound like too much hyperbole? Watching him play two games picked at random, like the ones on May 5 and 6 against the Rockies at Coors Field, is all it takes to understand. In those games the righthanded-hitting Mondesi smacked a triple to the opposite-field wall, stretched a flare single into a double and sent a 450-foot home run hurrying out of the park, the ball's trajectory low and unyielding as it headed toward the leftfield seats. Twice over those two days Colorado manager Don Baylor ordered intentional walks to Mondesi though it meant pitching to Piazza, the Dodgers' cleanup hitter who was batting .481 at the time. And twice Rocky coach Ron Hassey held runners at third when Mondesi fielded hits in center and reared up with his throwing arm cocked like the hammer of a pistol.
The one time a Colorado base runner did test him, Mondesi tore into the right-centerfield gap with his back to second base, cut off a base hit by Larry Walker, then wheeled and threw a letter-high strike to the bag. On the fly. While falling backward toward the rightfield line. Dodger shortstop Jose Offerman calmly tapped the tag on Walker, who, clearly stunned, stood staring out at Mondesi for several moments before returning to the dugout.
"That was the ball game," L.A. rookie pitcher Todd Williams said later, fingering a game ball from his first major league win. The Dodgers had blown all but three runs of a 10-run lead when Mondesi made that play to open the bottom of the eighth, and the Rockies did not score again.