When Fred Lynn's
name reappeared atop a list of American League hitting leaders a couple of
weeks ago—this time the category was home runs—a guy with a microphone asked
him, "Where exactly did you go after 1975?"
The answer, of
course, was that in 1976, '77 and '78 Lynn had been right there in the Red Sox
lineup. Last year he hit .298 with 22 homers and 82 RBIs, started the All-Star
Game in centerfield and earned a Gold Glove for defensive excellence. Despite
this outstanding performance, Lynn had, in the view of many fans, all but
disappeared since '75. In fact, so many of Boston's unforgiving rooters kept
jabbering about how he had let them down that even Lynn began believing it.
"I feel as if I'm starting all over again," he says. "It's as if I
no longer know exactly what my capabilities are."
When Lynn first
appeared in Boston, his talents seemed limitless, and he became the first
player to be named MVP as a rookie. He was mentioned in the same breath with
DiMaggio and Musial, and with a .331 average, 21 home runs and 105 RBIs in his
first season, he had no reason to doubt those comparisons. Now, at 27, all he
knows is that there's nothing he can do about the curse of having
"unlimited potential"; what he is trying to do is play an entire season
making full use of the capabilities he possesses.
high for home runs in a season is 22, which he had last year. At the end of
last week, after 18 games, Lynn already had hit eight. His barrage began on
Opening Day with a shot through the cold, damp east wind at Fenway Park and
continued on a colder, damper day in. Cleveland when he hit two. Thereafter he
had a ninth-inning, two-run drive that beat Milwaukee, and last week in
Seattle's Kingdome, that. HO-scale ball park, he became the third player to hit
a ball into the third deck. As Lynn's home-run total climbed, so did the Red
Sox, who took the American League East lead and accumulated a team-record 12
wins in April.
technical reasons for Lynn's sudden burst of power. He has dropped his hands to
quicken his swing and gone back to upper-cutting the ball, "the way I
remembered doing in home-run-hitting contests." But the main reason for his
increased power is obvious from a glance at him. He is decidedly more muscular
as the result of off-season sessions on a Nautilus weight-training machine.
"At the end
of last season I looked back over my career and tried to evaluate it," says
Lynn. "It took me four years to appreciate what a physical grind a major
league season is. In 1975 nothing seemed real. It was all a daze. Even that day
in Detroit when I had three homers and 10 RBIs seemed like just another day. I
got tired and wore down that year in August, but I didn't think about it much.
I opened my stance, didn't stride, hit to leftfield and kept going, so my
average stayed up. The next two years were hard to learn from."
In 1976 Lynn
indulged in what Bostonians regarded as heresy by hassling over his contract
with owner Tom Yaw-key until early August. Despite the confusion and the fan
animosity the controversy engendered, Lynn hit .314. In 1977 he tore ligaments
in his left ankle in spring training and limped through a .260 season.
Then came 1978.
He was hitting .331—ah, his rookie-year figure—at the All-Star break. Even on
August 1, his average was as high as .323. "Then I felt as if someone had
let the air out of me," he says. He hit .257 over the last nine weeks, and
as the Red Sox slid from their nine-game lead of late July to a second-place
finish, Lynn became the main scapegoat.
"It takes a
few years to appreciate how difficult it is to stay strong over the grind,"
Lynn says, "especially for a player like me who has a college background.
While a kid who signs out of high school plays every day in the minors, a
college guy plays three times a week. So I decided to dedicate the winter to
preparing myself for the full season." He gave up fishing—as with Ted
Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, it is his first love—and off-season baseball.
Instead, he pumped Nautilus equipment three times a week from October to
February, the first time he had ever lifted weights. When he showed up for
spring training, Lynn had put on only a few pounds but he was so much bulkier
that Sox announcer Ken Harrelson, spotting Lynn from behind, asked Manager Don
Zimmer who the new man was.
wasn't to hit home runs but to play to my capabilities all season," Lynn
says. "But there has to be a more than coincidental relationship between my
strength and the home runs. It surprises me, considering my previous home-run
totals and our park." Fenway is a batter's paradise for everyone but a
lefthanded pull hitter. In September 1974, when Lynn first came up from the
minors, he was a dead pull hitter who used a big, heavy bat. He took one cut at
a major league fastball, looked around at the ball park and decided to use a
lighter bat—and all parts of the field, especially the Monster that lurks
behind shortstop. "Now I think I'm strong enough to go both ways," says
Lynn, who will stay on a weight program throughout the season.