Then Jose Canseco, acquired from the Texas Rangers in December to take some of the run-producing load off Vaughn, missed 32 games early in the season with a groin strain. Vaughn hit .323 with eight homers and 24 RBIs while his new teammate was recuperating. Canseco was at the top of his game when he returned, but he has played second fiddle to Vaughn. You can usually find Canseco in front of his locker, alone, quietly reading his mail. While the fans and the media have pounced on Vaughn as if they mistook him for Colin Powell, Canseco has thrived in relative peace.
"Mo has been carrying this team consistently, day in and day out, and that to me is what makes an MVP," says Canseco, who was the American League MVP in 1988 as a member of the Oakland A's. "Every time this team needed him, he was there with a clutch hit or a clutch home run."
"He doesn't hit them when we're eight runs up," says Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy. "When Mo hits them, they usually mean something." Six of Vaughn's last nine homers, for instance, have either tied the score or put Boston ahead.
In Vaughn's career no home run meant more than the one he hit in Anaheim early in the 1993 season. Before the game he spoke on the phone with Jason Leader, an 11-year-old cancer patient in a Boston hospital. Vaughn told Jason that he would try to hit a home run for him, and on his third at bat, as if following some corny script, he launched the ball into the centerfield seats. Legend born. Jason died last year, but in Boston he became a permanent part of the Mo mystique.
Vaughn spends more time in Boston schools than some students. In April 1994 he established the Mo Vaughn Youth Development Program, a counseling center in Dorchester for inner-city kids from throughout the Boston area, and as a participant in an adopt-a-school program he makes regular appearances at an elementary school in urban Mattapan. When he speaks to kids, Vaughn usually leaves the earrings in and the hat on backward, and he invariably makes a connection that most adults can only dream about. It is, he says, the secret to his appeal. He's not being a role model or a hero. He's just being Mo.
As a rookie in 1991 Vaughn was told by then teammate Ellis Burks that black players in the Boston organization "can't do this and can't do that." Vaughn says he heard from a number of players around the league that Boston was not a good place for a young black player, but he had grown up in Connecticut—his father, Leroy, was a high school principal and his mother, Shirley, was an elementary school teacher—and still has relatives in Boston. He decided to do what he had always done. Just be Mo.
"I just said, 'Maybe not everyone's going to like me, but they're going to respect me,' " he says. "I have always tried to just do my job and be myself, and I've had no problems. When I was sent down [to the minors], it wasn't because of race. When I was cheered, they weren't cheering because of race. It's a tough place to play, but if you can make it here, it's the best place in the world." Vaughn ought to know. There's one significant difference between him and most of the other bright young sluggers in the game: He got an up-close look at failure before emerging as a major league success. Upon opening the 1992 season as Boston's regular first baseman, Vaughn hit .185 with two home runs in his first 23 games—quite a comedown for a slugger who had hit 57 home runs in three college seasons at Seton Hall and who had been named Player of the Decade in the Big East Conference.
The Boston fans had expected Vaughn, also known as the Hit Dog, to be a hit. Instead, they got mostly dog, and they booed the brashness right out of him. "Man, it hurt," Vaughn says now. "I was a pretty confident kid, but they really cut me down to size."
A little more than a month into the season, Vaughn was sent back to Triple A. Before he reported to the Pawtucket (R.I.) Red Sox, he met his parents at a hotel and cried all night. He spent six weeks in the minors before returning to Boston, and he hasn't been back to the bushes since. "Now I realize that it was the best thing that ever happened to me," Vaughn says. "When I'm feeling tired or sore now, I think back to those times when I got nailed pretty good, by the fans, the media, everyone."
Vaughn became one of the most feared power hitters in the American League in 1993, and he gives the credit to former Red Sox batting coach Mike (Hit Man) Easler. In their two years together, the Hit Man taught the Hit Dog more than hitting. He filled Vaughn with confidence and energy and persuaded him that he could be himself and be a star in the Fenway frying pan. Vaughn had 29 home runs and drove in 101 runs in his first full season under Easler's tutelage. Last year he was good for 26 homers and 82 RBIs in 111 games. "The Hit Man taught me to take all my anger—and after I was sent back to the minors, there was a lot of anger—and channel it into the barrel of the bat," says Vaughn.