Horner likes to stand right on the plate. The pitcher's recourse, naturally, is to throw the ball inside, but as Horner says, "That's the pitch I want." LaCorte moans, "When you try to brush him back, he just stares at the ball as it goes by. Nothing fazes him."
Horner's approach to the vicissitudes of life is much the same: nothing fazes him. And goodness knows, since making him the first choice in the draft in 1978, the Braves have tried to brush him back several times. Atlanta wanted to send Horner down to its Double-A farm in Savannah when he signed, but he and Woy persuaded the Braves to let him start in the majors. Actually, persuaded isn't quite the right word. "We threatened to go back to Phoenix," says Woy. In 89 games in 1978, Horner batted .266 with 23 homers and 63 RBIs and was named the National League Rookie of the Year.
The next season the Braves offered Horner a $100,000 contract, pointing out that they were obligated only to offer him at least 80% of his first year's wage of $21,000. However, Woy insisted that Horner's previous year's wages also included his $162,000 signing bonus. Horner held out through most of spring training, and the dispute went to arbitration. He won the money but lost the hearts of the Braves' fans, who booed him on Opening Day for his ingratitude and then gasped when he injured his ankle.
When Horner came back six weeks later, he went on an unconscious binge, finishing the season with 33 homers and 98 RBIs in just 121 games while batting .314. Hostility was in the air, however. Ted Turner, the Braves' owner and forever the soul of tact, intimated that the contract dispute had caused the death of Braves' Vice-President Bill Lucas. Horner called Turner a jerk. Turner said he would never deal with Woy again. Somebody, though, agreed to sign a three-year, $1 million contract with Horner and Woy at the end of the '79 season.
That should have been the end of the dispute, but last spring the tag team of Horner and Woy found themselves in a Cajun Death Match (five minutes with no referees) with Turner and his vice-president for sycophancy, Al Thornwell. The Braves had gotten off to a horrendous start, and Horner was a convenient scapegoat since he was batting .059 with six errors after 10 games. (John Vukovich he's not.) Against the advice of both Cox and Aaron, Turner and Thornwell decided to send Horner to Richmond to teach him a lesson. With some justification Horner refused to report, but was finally reinstated after three weeks. He spent the rest of the season teaching Turner a lesson. "I didn't play angry," says Horner. "Let's just say I remembered what they tried to do to me."
In a sense, Horner will be making his fourth major league debut this season. There was his first major league game, his first post-arbitration game and his first post-Richmond game. He hopes the hassles are behind him, but he got upset when the Braves recently traded away Gary Matthews, a very good outfielder who had also provoked Turner's ire. If Turner sailed his yachts the way he runs his sports teams, he'd be continually ducking flying jibes. Says Horner, "Why can't they just put the nine best guys on the field and let us play?"
Horner's outside interests include golf and oil. He plays the former to a seven handicap, and it goes without saying that he is long off the tee. He has invested in the latter, and Woy says his wells should give him a comfortable income even if a strike cuts his season short once again.
As most stars go, Horner is a recluse. He has no major endorsements; he does no soft drink commercials à la George Brett and Schmidt. He's even reluctant to do promotions for the Braves. But Woy says, "This is the year America will be introduced to Bob Horner."
It should be a banner year for him. He and his wife, Chris, are expecting their first child about the time of the All-Star Game. He batted .370 with three HRs and 14 RBIs in 18 spring training games. As for his own expectations, Horner says, "All I want to do is become as good as I can be."
That's a frightening prospect for pitchers. "I was kind of hoping that his troubles with the Braves would reach the point where he'd have to retire," says Sutton. "Seriously, he's the best young hitter I've seen come up. He'll hit 60 some day. Make that 61."