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That Ancient master of Paradox, Zeno of Elea, proposed that because motion is a series of discrete moments, you're moving just as fast standing still as in full flight. Vince Coleman is therefore just as much in motion when he's perched on first base as when he's attempting to steal second. Then again, on a single to right, the New York Mets' new centerfielder is much more likely to score after having swiped second than if he had remained at first, contemplating philosophy.
The Mets are paying Vince of New York nearly $12 million over the next four years in hopes that he'll keep them in motion, and make up for the emotion they lost when Darryl Strawberry defected to the Los Angeles Dodgers. "We didn't want to go backward," says infielder Howard Johnson. And reverse is not a gear that Coleman uses.
His problem is getting started. Despite batting a career-high .292 last season with St. Louis, he got on base only 34% of the time—a somewhat puzzling statistic for a leadoff man. But once he's on, he shifts into overdrive. He has stolen two bases in the same inning 66 times in his career. He has led the National League in steals in each of his six seasons in the majors. Whether his speed will compensate for the loss of Strawberry's power is an unanswerable question of the sort baseball minds have been grappling with since the days of John McGraw.
Paradoxically, for all his daring on the bases, the 29-year-old Coleman is perhaps best known for something that happened six years ago while he was standing still. A tarp began unrolling on his foot by accident before Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. Trying to yank his foot away, he fell on the Busch Stadium turf. The 1,200-pound tarp inched toward his thigh. "It was a female tarp machine," he says with a pert, twisted smile. "She wanted a good-looking young man." By the time the man-eating tarp was stopped, Coleman was almost swallowed. "The worst part wasn't the blood or the chipped bone in my foot," he says. "The worst part was having to sit out the World Series."
Pain, Coleman can tolerate. Sitting, he can't stand. You can't sit and steal, and stealing is pretty much Coleman's raison d'être. This is a guy who after hitting his first big league homer—an inside-the-park job, at that—said, "It's a big thrill, but it ain't like no stolen base!"
Warm and amiable, Coleman often displays a slapdash, insouciant impudence. "I'm like a snake," he says, smiling the smile of a kid with all the toys. "When I slither toward second, pitchers get rattled. My venom runs through their veins and into their minds."
Coleman's conversations sometimes spin off into abstract arabesques. He likens basestealing to watching Cybervision tapes, which enable players to immerse themselves in three-dimensional images. "When I'm running, I'm watching a big picture that's been frozen in time," he says. "Second base looks like a huge pool. As I get closer, the image becomes larger and larger. I tell myself: You're almost there, you're almost there.... As I dive in, I think, It's my bag, my territory, my world. I own it. Nobody can stop me."
Invincible Vince's baserunning braggadocio is grounded in the real world. He has stolen 549 bases in 664 attempts, an astonishing 83%. And his success rate at stealing third is 87%. "He turns walks into triples," says Mets reliever John Franco. "He can really mess with your head."
Pitchers often balk because of Coleman: He's caused 72 in his career. "Instead of choosing pitches, you start throwing all fastballs," Franco says. "The next batter gets a hit, and now it's first and third. Vince is a big pain in the butt; he makes you feel like you need surgery."
Mike Boddicker was in need of a Coleman-ectomy last month during an exhibition game in Port St. Lucie, Fla. The Kansas City hurler walked Coleman on five pitches to open the bottom of the first. Boddicker kept him close with a sly little slide step and throw to first. Coleman took a modest lead. Boddicker slide-stepped him back to the bag. Another lead. Another slide step. Lead, slide step. Lead, slide step. The fourth time, Boddicker nearly nailed him. Three pitches later, Coleman took off. He beat the throw easily. A few pitches later, he took third. A bloop single brought him home.