CHICAGO — He's built like a minivan with the power of a Mack truck. Just ask Delino DeShields, who had the unfortunate experience of colliding with Raul Mondesi one night. It knocked DeShields cold.
Mondesi's arm is rated by scouts as one of the top three in the National League, and for confirmation of that, ask first baseman Eric Karros, who practices self-preservation by keeping an eye on right field. "If I'm not looking all the time, I'm liable to get a ball in the back of my head," Karros says.
Mondesi stops at nothing in his quest to throw a runner out, especially if it's at first base, a feat he accomplished in spring training. He leads NL outfielders with 12 assists, though his reputation took a while to spread.
"I don't know why they keep running on me," Mondesi said about a month into the season, "they know I'm going to throw them out."
When he hits the ball, Mondesi simply keeps running, often turning singles into doubles and, on occasion, doubles into triples. His .336 batting average, .574 slugging percentage, 16 doubles, five triples, 75 hits, 22 multi-hit games and 30 extra-base hits rank him among the top seven in the league.
He prefers playing video games to giving interviews, partly because he is not comfortable with his English, but he is starting to get used to the attention, and that's fortunate. Because if Mondesi, 23, keeps this up, he will be the Dodgers' third consecutive NL rookie of the year.
"I don't feel any pressure," Mondesi said. "A
lot of people are talking about it, but I just go and play hard and see what happens."
For three years, Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda has raved about the virtues of the young player from the Dominican Republic, calling him a five-point player--"He can run, hit, hit with power, field and throw," Lasorda said.
But there were many who questioned Mondesi's dedication, believing that he was too flighty, too moody, too stubborn and too inconsistent to be an impact player.
"I've had to kick him in the shins and slap him in the face," said Ralph Avila, Dodger vice president, who has been instrumental in the discovery and development of many of the team's Dominican players.
"He's not an easy guy, he's tough. He was too aggressive on the field, and off the field he was the same, chasing too many girls, staying out too late. I have to give him credit, he doesn't drink, smoke or fool with drugs, but he liked to be that macho type; we Latin players are all this way. When we get some recognition from the fans, we get pumped up."
Avila was so concerned about Mondesi's off-the-field activities that a couple of winters ago, he had him tailed for two months. "Everywhere I went, there were these same guys," Mondesi said, smiling. "I realized later what he had done."
When Avila received the report, he was relieved to find that even though Mondesi was partying, he wasn't abusing any substances.
"He would play in the game, then go out every night until 3 or 4 in the morning," Avila said. "I would tell him that he could not keep up that pace, that even though he was 18 and as strong as a mule, he would destroy his body. He would listen, then five minutes later he was at it again. So I sat him down in front of Tommy (Lasorda) and said, 'This is your last chance. You have to shape up.' I knew he wasn't drinking, but what if he gets in a fight in a bar? I told him he was being selfish, that he wasn't thinking of his family."
Marriage seems to have calmed Mondesi down somewhat. He and his wife, Ada, have an 18-month-old son, Raul Jr.
He has even cut down on his eating. Former Dodger Pedro Martinez delights in a story about Mondesi eating 22 pieces of pizza one night while they were both in the minor leagues. Mondesi explained that he was hungry. "I still like to eat, but not that much," he said.
Mondesi started working harder, playing harder and smiling more. He was able to put behind a much-publicized incident that occurred during the 1992 season when he pouted after outfielder Tom Goodwin got the call to Los Angeles instead of him, and he reacted by purposely missing an Albuquerque Dukes game. He was immediately demoted to double-A San Antonio.
"He called me after the Dukes' plane left and knew he'd made a mistake," Avila said. "He was scared."
Shortly after the demotion, Mondesi injured his wrist, which required surgery. Then he hurt his left knee and underwent more surgery but still managed to record 14 assists in only 53 games.
He started the 1993 season at Albuquerque, then made his major league debut in July, one of two stints with the Dodgers last season. By October, though, the Dodgers still weren't sure whether Mondesi, a center fielder, was ready to replace Brett Butler, so they picked up Butler's option for 1994.
It was during the Caribbean World Series that Mondesi convinced the Dodgers of his readiness, earning most-valuable-player honors while playing in front of Executive Vice President Fred Claire.