Pitchers will be facing a smaller Horner this year. He no longer sits in front of his locker in the corner eating the clubhouse cold cuts. With his striking blond curls and burly body, Horner used to resemble a professional wrestler, namely Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream. But by working hard and eschewing—rather than chewing—fattening foods, Horner has shed 20 pounds in recent weeks, bringing his weight down to 210 for the first time since college, even though that is the weight at which the Braves have always listed him.
Horner is running faster, moving better at third base and suffering no apparent loss of power. Last week against Baltimore's Steve Stone, the American League Cy Young Award winner in 1980, Horner hit a pitch into the face of a strong wind. It finally stopped rolling just short of second base on a practice field beyond the leftfield fence of the Braves' spring training stadium in West Palm Beach, a journey of some 500 feet.
Horner is confident, not cocky; proud but private. He's not stat-conscious like Pete Rose; in fact, he can't recall the five home runs he hit off Houston pitching last year. As for his success in the major leagues, he says, "I didn't expect it to happen quite this fast, but I'm not surprised, either."
According to Horner's best friend on the Braves, Infielder Jerry Royster, "Bob's so confident at what he does, baseball or golf or Space Invaders, that people get the wrong idea."
The wrong idea is that he's lackadaisical. "I just try to stay on an even keel, not get too excited or too down," says Horner. "But people see me as not caring, as not trying, as being lazy. Believe me, I give 100% all the time. The only person I have to answer to is me." One example of his independence is that he won't take batting practice if he's happy with his stroke. Some observers interpret that as dogging it.
Horner's new physique should go a long way toward convincing his detractors that he's serious. Some of his teammates used to call him Piggy—though not to his face. The Braves have wanted him to lose weight for some time now, and trainer Dave Pursley put Horner on a strict regimen resembling the Scarsdale Diet. Yet it's a measure of Horner's independence that he says the diet was his own idea.
The three things that impress pitchers most about Horner are his strength, his savvy and his stroke. He can actually bring a Nautilus machine to its knees. Sometimes he will take batting practice using only his bottom, or left, hand and still hit ringing line drives. Last week in an exhibition game against the Astros, Niekro threw him a perfect 3-2 slider that Horner, obviously fooled, flicked his wrists at. The ball bruised the 410-foot sign in centerfield.
Horner, by his own admission, is a guess hitter. And he has been guessing right since his first game in the majors, when he dialed eight (baseball talk for a home run, eight being the number one dials to get long distance on a hotel phone) on a Bert Blyleven curveball. "I was watching the Braves' game with the Orioles the other day on TV," says La-Corte. "His home run off Stone was something, but what really scared me was a double he hit to the opposite field. He went the other way with that pitch, and if he starts doing that, we're in trouble."
Horner's swing is unusual for a power hitter—compact. His 34½-inch, 35-ounce Adirondack swings down quickly on the ball. Most sluggers, like a Schmidt or a Dave Kingman, trace sweeping arcs in the air. As a consequence, Horner doesn't hit many tape-measure home runs. He also doesn't strike out very much—only 50 times last year. It's an unusual swing, but Horner's father, Jimmy, says his son has always had it. Jimmy was Bob's coach in the Cypress (Calif.) Little League, and if major league pitchers tremble at the prospect of throwing to Horner, think how those Little Leaguers felt. In his first season playing on a field with a fence, little Bob Horner, then 10, hit 10 home runs in 21 games.
Jimmy knows this because at home in Glendale, Ariz. he has 18 scrapbooks filled with reports of Bob's exploits. Because Bob's mother, Elaine, had a serious sinus condition, the Homers moved from Cypress to Glendale when Bob was a freshman in high school. In four years as a shortstop for Apollo High, Horner set all sorts of state home-run records and attracted the attention of most of the big-time baseball colleges. He was also drafted by the Oakland A's but chose instead to attend Arizona State. In 1977 the Sun Devils won the College World Series, and Horner was named the MVP. He also was selected as the All-America second baseman. As a junior the next year he set a single-season NCAA record of 25 homers. He also met his future agent, Bucky Woy.