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Tim Crothers
June 02, 1997
A 6'10" schoolboy has Randy Johnson beat The Tribe's Justice will not be denied Vaughn and the Padres hit bottom
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June 02, 1997

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A 6'10" schoolboy has Randy Johnson beat The Tribe's Justice will not be denied Vaughn and the Padres hit bottom

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This nonsense is part of the preparation for interleague play, which beginning on June 12 will require American League pitchers to bat in regular-season games for the first time since the designated hitter was instituted in '73.

"I just don't want to make a big fool of myself," Brewers lefthander Scott Karl says. "Batting feels real foreign right now. There are a lot of cobwebs on my swing."

Judging by the last 10 World Series, during which baseball used the same format it will employ for interleague play, Karl won't be alone if he does end up making a fool of himself. American League pitchers—like their National League counterparts—have struggled miserably in their World Series plate appearances (chart, page 76). While many American League pitchers have never batted in the majors, there are some refugees from the National League with hitting experience. Of the current American League pitchers with a minimum of 100 plate appearances, Anaheim's Allen Watson (.255 career hitter), Detroit's Omar Olivares (.229) and Cleveland's Orel Hershiser (.214) pose the greatest threat, while Seattle's Jeff Fassero (.077) and Texas's John Burkett (.088) are little more than mannequins in batting gloves.

Rangers manager Johnny Oates may or may not be alluding to Burkett when he says that two pitchers on the Texas staff are so clueless, he would like to avoid sending them up to bat at all costs. "We've identified them, but we're not naming them," Oates says. "They're so bad, I won't even let them take batting practice anymore."

The First Shall Be Last

Two months into the '97 season the most surprising team to see in last place was San Diego, and the most disappointing player on that team is Greg Vaughn. Having signed a three-year, $15 million contract last winter, Vaughn was hitting just. 178 at week's end and has become a target for the normally mellow Padres fans. "I'm used to heckling on the road, but to get it at home, I'd be lying to say that it doesn't bother me," says Vaughn, who plays leftfield.

These days Vaughn will take his hits any way he can get them. At week's end he had seven homers and just 13 RBIs, due primarily to a feeble .094 average with runners in scoring position. Since coming to San Diego from Milwaukee in a trade last July, Vaughn was batting just .193 through Sunday and had struck out once in every 3.7 at bats. It's a real mystery for a guy who hit .280 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs in 102 games with the Brewers last season. "It's a humbling game, and he's being humbled," Padres manager Bruce Bochy says. "He's got the world on his shoulders."

There has been speculation that Vaughn was more comfortable in the American League, where the breaking ball is more prevalent, or that he is best suited to be a designated hitter. But the facts are that Vaughn has never hit higher than .267 in any full season, and he has always been prone to slumps. Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund believes Vaughn's troubles are mechanical, advising him that he isn't planting his left foot quickly enough when striding into the ball. Says Rettenmund, "When you're swinging the way he has been, it's not the pitcher."

Alas, Vaughn has not been the Padres' only concern. The team has already lost 176 game days to the disabled list, more than half of the time it lost all last season. San Diego has placed 11 players on the DL, including third baseman Ken Caminiti, '96 National League MVP; outfielders Steve Finley and Rickey Henderson; first baseman Wally Joyner; and the team's top two starting pitchers, Joey Hamilton and Andy Ashby. "The key for us is getting everyone healthy," says Caminiti, who at week's end was sidelined with a strained right hamstring. "You hate to put yourself in a hole that's impossible to get out of. We're not there, but it's as deep as I want to go."

San Diego, the defending National League West champ, hopes to compete at full strength in the second half, with a confident Vaughn as a solid run producer. "I've never been through anything like this," says Vaughn, who flew home to Sacramento on a recent off day to consult with a personal hitting coach. "I know I've been thinking about it, and that doesn't help. I just have to trust in myself, man. I'm battling my butt off."

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