He puts his earrings in and pulls his shirttail out. Across the clubhouse some of his teammates are watching a New York Yankee-Toronto Blue Jay game on TV, but he slides a CD into a disc player and cranks up some annoying rap noise. The reporters start moving in around his locker, and Mo Vaughn glares at them as if they were coming to talk to him about investing in a time share. He could stare down Mike Tyson.
As usual, Vaughn's act doesn't fly. It rarely does these days. He is one of the best things to happen to baseball this season, on the field and off, but he still prefers the hard-guy, hip-hop style. He looks mean. He walks mean. He wears his hat mean and waves his bat mean. Some people resemble their pets; Vaughn resembles his car—a Hummer.
He's 6'1" and 245 pounds, his head is shaved, and his right biceps is branded with interlocking omegas, Greek letters representing his college fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, but the word is out: Beneath the intimidating veneer is a different kind of Boston player, a leader and a gentleman who has lifted the Red Sox to great heights and taken thousands of inner-city kids along for the ride. Baseball may have its problems, but Boston has Mo Vaughn.
"Yeah, I've got this face and these eyes of a killer," he says. "But off the field I'm probably one of the most fun guys on this team. When I came here, I wanted to win, but I also wanted to have fun. I wanted to prove that it could be fun to play baseball here. I hope I've done that this year."
Vaughn has done much more than that this year. There are a handful of candidates worthy of being called baseball's Most Valuable Player this season, but none can match the achievements of the 27-year-old Red Sox slugger. At week's end Vaughn had hit 38 home runs and driven in a major-league-high 123 runs, but the numbers are only a small part of his story. In a year when most people expected Boston to finish behind Arlen Specter in the standings, Vaughn hoisted the Red Sox on his shoulders and carried them to the American League East title. In a year when interest in baseball fizzled around the country, Vaughn brought Boston fans to their feet. "What has he meant to this team?" says Red Sox shortstop John Valentin. "One word: Everything."
On Sept. 20, after Boston clinched its division title with a 3-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Fenway Park, the fans pleaded with Vaughn to come back onto the field and take a bow. He emerged from the dugout to chants of "Mo! Mo! Mo!" and then responded to a challenge from his teammates to hop on a policeman's horse for a victory ride. Vaughn, who had never ridden, looked scared and reluctant, but with a boost from pitcher Roger Clemens, he mounted the nag and waved madly, like Slim Pickens straddling the bomb. The fans changed their chant to "M-V-P!"
The celebration was unplanned and unforgettable, a spontaneous curtain call for the leading man. The crowd's suggestion was a good one.
Though he is SI's clear choice for baseball's Most Valuable Player, Vaughn wasn't the only major leaguer who made the most of the strike-shortened season. He was just the one who meant the most to his club. Albert Belle was formidable at the plate for the Cleveland Indians, but Albert Brooks could have been hitting cleanup for the Tribe and it still would have waltzed to its first postseason berth in 41 years. Edgar Martinez of the Seattle Mariners is quietly wrapping up one of the most productive seasons by an American League righthanded hitter in half a century, but he's a DH who doesn't lead even the Mariners in home runs or RBIs. In July, California Angel centerfielder Jim Edmonds was an MVP favorite; in September, Dave Gallagher pinch-hit for him. In the National League, Dante Bichette had belted most of his 38 home runs into the thin air of Coors Field, but correct us if we're wrong: Everyone in the Colorado Rockies' lineup hit at least 30. Righthander Greg Maddux was magnificent, as always, and without him the Atlanta Braves probably wouldn't have clinched their division until, oh, the third week of September.
"It's more than the RBIs, it's more than the homers, it's more than anything you can see on the field," says Boston third baseman Tim Naehring of Vaughn. "It's his presence. He brings a confidence and an attitude to this team that is hard to explain."
Without Vaughn the Red Sox right now probably would be slugging it out for a wild-card spot, at best. They were coming off three straight losing seasons, and they were expected to finish fourth in their division. Clemens was gone for the first 31 games of the season with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder, and when he came back he wasn't his old dominating self.