The Cafeteria-Gym at Parkside Junior High in San Bruno, Calif., is plastered with gigantic red and pink construction paper-hearts for the following night's Valentine's dance. Gregg Jefferies, a 20-year-old shortstop in the New York Mets farm system, circles the room, drawing the vinyl drapes across the overhead windows and closing the heavy stage curtain. He's about to take batting practice in this dim indoor setting. It's an element in the 17-part Gregg Jefferies Workout, one of the most unusual regimens anywhere.
Next to a makeshift pitcher's mound sits a container of 100 worn tennis balls in assorted colors. Rich Jefferies. Gregg's father and Parkside's baseball coach and phys-ed teacher, fires the balls—he'll deliver about 400 pitches during this drill—from behind a shield of yellow plastic garbage cans. He needs protection because Gregg takes his cuts only 20 feet from the mound instead of the regulation 60 feet six inches. "To get a hit Gregg has to keep his head still and his eyes glued on the ball," Rich says.
To sharpen his son's concentration, Rich has drawn inch-high numbers (from one to three) on some of the balls with a black marker. When the pitch leaves Rich's hand, Gregg is supposed to call out the number. "There's a 1-in-300 chance I'll be able to read it," Gregg says modestly. In fact, he usually picks up the number on every ball.
"Slow down, Nolan Ryan," Gregg cries, smashing a yellow ball into the piano in short leftfield.
Although she isn't here today, on many occasions Gregg's mother, Joan, is on hand to tape the drill with a video camera. Later the family gathers in the rec room at home and analyzes Gregg's swing on a big-screen TV.
"I'm just a father trying to help," Rich says. "I am not a coach. A coach dictates. I make suggestions for drills, and Gregg throws out what he doesn't like. The most important part is the time we spend talking, when I ask, 'What are your plans? How do you really feel about...anything?' "
When Jefferies arrived at the New York Mets spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Feb. 26, he was arguably the best baseball player not on a major league roster. For the past two seasons he was voted Minor League Player of the Year by the tabloid Baseball America. In the first of those seasons, while playing A ball for Columbia, S.C., and Lynchburg, Va., and Double A for Jackson. Miss., Jefferies's combined figures were .353, 16 home runs, 111 RBIs and 57 stolen bases in 125 games. Last year, when he played the whole season for the Jackson Mets, he hit .367, with 20 homers, 101 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 134 games.
Some experts are already comparing Jefferies's skills to those of Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Wade Boggs. Like Mantle, Gregg, who's 5'10" and 175 pounds, is a switch-hitter with mirror-image swings from both sides of the plate. Like Rose, he's highly aggressive; like Morgan, a smart, challenging base runner; and like Boggs, an immensely talented all-fields hitter. He's so effective at the plate, in fact, that three times umpires have confiscated his custom-made black SSK bats at the behest of rival managers who thought, erroneously, that the bats were doctored.
"Gregg can hit right now in the major leagues," says Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' vice-president of baseball operations. But it's unlikely that Jefferies will make the jump to the big club this year. The big stumbling block is his fielding: His 35 errors last season were the most in the Mets organization. Says McIlvaine, "We want his defensive skills to catch up with his offensive skills."
Even if Jefferies were more polished on defense, however, it might be hard to find a vacancy for him on the Mets' 24-man roster. He has been a shortstop his whole career, but the Mets traded Rafael Santana to the Yankees in the off-season to make room for 23-year-old Kevin Elster at that position. And the rest of the infield may be even harder to break into, with Keith Hernandez at first, Howard Johnson at third, Tim Teufel and Wally Backman platooning at second and two superb young hitters, Dave Magadan and Keith Miller, on call at first and second, respectively. This spring the Mets have Jefferies practicing at three positions (short, third and left field). "When Gregg's ready," McIlvaine says, "we'll create a position for him."