Vaughn pulls his batting helmet visor low and tucks his chin behind his right shoulder, so that all the pitcher sees of his face is his eyes, as if Vaughn were a commander peering out from a tank. He pumps the bat wickedly, as though it's hot to the touch. He is dangerous even before he swings the bat. "You can't help but notice him," New York Yankees pitcher Kenny Rogers says. "He fills up the whole box."
Says Vaughn, "Nothing's more exciting than knowing you've got four at bats every day. There's nothing better in life than that. I don't have kids, I don't have hobbies. This is what I do—I hit. I feel like hitting is a war, and you better be a warrior and you've got to be crazy."
He obsesses so much about hitting that he wants to add life-sized video images of major league pitchers to his batting cage. In addition to working with Red Sox hitting coach Jim Rice, he also confers regularly by telephone with Rice's predecessor, Mike Easier, who besides working with Vaughn is the baseball coach at National Christian University in San Antonio. They have such a rapport that when Vaughn broke a knuckle on his right hand this year, Easier fitted himself with a cast on the same finger so that he could better understand the sensation Vaughn felt while hitting.
"If it's [within reach], I'll be going for it," Vaughn says of the Triple Crown. Unlike Thomas and Bagwell, he does not have a contending team to support him. The only player to win a Triple Crown playing on a losing club was Chuck Klein of the 1933 Phillies. "It's been very tough for our team," Vaughn says of the Red Sox, who through Sunday were 30-43 and 14 games out of first. "I don't like to talk about individual things, but you look for whatever you can to drive yourself on a daily basis. I'll look at the box scores, and if I see Frank got an RBI, I'll go, Damn, I got to get me two today.
"The hard part is the home runs. Late in the year the wind blows straight in at Fenway Park. I hit balls that are outs in front of the bullpen at Fenway, 380 feet away. They're bombs everywhere else."
Nonetheless, Fenway is the Buckingham Palace of Triple Crowns. Three of the past five winners played there: Yastrzemski and Ted Williams, who did it twice. Williams chased the Triple Crown with such regularity that it ought to be renamed the Ted Williams Award. In six seasons from 1941 through '49 (he served in the military from '43 to '45), Williams nearly won the Triple Crown five times. He missed it by five RBIs in 1941, won it in '42, finished second in all three categories in '46, won it in '47 and just missed winning it when he finished second in the batting race (.3427 to George (Cell's .3429) in '49. Needing a hit in his last at bat to win the Triple Crown, with the Red Sox trailing the Yankees 5-0 and nobody on base in the ninth of a game that decided the pennant that season, Williams walked against Vic Raschi.
Four years later Al Rosen of the Indians also chased the Triple Crown to his last at bat of the season. He knew from a clubhouse radio report that Mickey Vernon of the Washington Senators, who had two hits in four at bats that day, finished the season at .337. Rosen, at .336 with a 3-for-4 day, needed one more hit to win the Triple Crown. He batted against Al Aber of the Detroit Tigers, a former teammate whom Cleveland had traded earlier in the season.
"He was trying to throw strikes, but he was wild," Rosen says. "He couldn't get the ball over, but I was fouling off pitches. A walk didn't do me any good. Then I topped the ball down the third base line. I ran as hard as I could, took one of those long strides for the bag and came up a foot short, so then I took a smaller step and the umpire called me out. My manager, Al Lopez, and my teammates were all out of the dugout arguing. I quelled it, though. I knew I was out. It wasn't meant to be."
When the story is repeated to Vaughn in the visitors' clubhouse in Cleveland, he grimaces and shouts, "Damn! So close!" A few minutes later an attendant presents him with some of his rookie trading cards to sign. A younger, thinner, clean-shaven Vaughn is looking back at him. "I hate signing these," he says. "That's when I couldn't hit. Couldn't hit a damn thing. Tried to pull everything. Had no clue."
Now here he is, a chunk of muscle and desire, hitting .362 and swinging the heaviest bat in baseball like a ball peen hammer. Would you like to be the one to tell this guy he can't win the Triple Crown? "I could content," he says, "and it wouldn't be a surprise to me. That's all I do is hit. It's all I think about every day. This ain't no fluke here."