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"I'm just an average person," says Horner.
Those who have seen the 6'1", 205-pound John Wayne fan take a poke at a fastball—including the Pirates' Bert Blyleven, who was tagged for a homer by Horner in that first game—think otherwise. Horner hit 25 homers in 60 games for Arizona State this season and 56 in his three-year college career—both NCAA records—while batting .387.
Blond, blue-eyed, curly-haired and bull-necked, Horner has tremendous power, a keen eye and a hard, compact swing that has been compared to those of Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews, Greg Luzinski, Sal Bando and Atlanta teammate Jeff Burroughs, the National League's leading hitter. In the 49 games he has played for the Braves, Horner has hit 10 homers and batted in 34 runs, placing him fourth in both those categories among his teammates, most of whom have played in twice as many games. If Horner maintains the same pace for the rest of the season, he will finish with 23 homers and 68 RBIs. And Horner is no slouch when it comes to hitting for average. After going one for one against the Astros on Sunday—his 21st birthday—he raised his average to .278.
"Nobody's ever come straight into the majors and done what he's done," crows Braves' owner Ted Turner. "So all he is is the best there ever was."
Because Horner is simply a ballplayer, which he has been almost all his life, suddenly finding himself a big league power hitter is not unbelievable, just a little "weird." Last Tuesday, when the Cincinnati Reds were in Atlanta, Pete Rose, who was looking to extend his hitting streak to 45 games, made a special point of seeking out "the kid third baseman" to stick him with a needle.
"Be ready, kid," said Rose. "I might make you handle a bunt tonight."
"Come on, Pete," Horner said right back. "Try me."
Rose never did get a bunt down, but he did send a line drive Horner's way, which the rookie speared with a lunge to his right and turned into a double play. Rose went oh-for-four, the streak ended, and the Reds lost 16-4. Horner had three hits, including the game winner, a three-run homer off Pedro Borbon, his fifth in six games.
If Horner seems nonchalant about his success, perhaps it is because he is as comfortable with the major league clich� as he is with the fastball. "I'm just swinging the bat real good," he says, or "seeing the ball real good," or "putting my best foot forward." The Braves, however, are nothing short of ecstatic. "What can I say?" says Manager Bobby Cox. "He's one of the major cogs in our offense. He has one of the best swings I've ever seen. He makes it easier for everybody—for Burroughs, for Gary Matthews, for our pitchers, for me."
He has also kept the heat off scouting director Paul Snyder and vice-president in charge of baseball operations Bill Lucas, who made the decision to move Horner directly to the big club. Not to mention Turner, who would have had to convince critics that playing Horner was not just another gate-hyping stunt. "Horner was the heaviest scouted player in the history of this organization," says Snyder. "We felt we could not afford to make a mistake with the No. 1 pick in the draft."