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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN

This Kind of Leadership Worth the Cost for Angels

November 27, 1998|ROSS NEWHAN

At 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds, Mo Vaughn provides an imposing frame that the Angels were talking about riding Wednesday. A bat and back they can climb on. A missing aspect, General Manager Bill Bavasi and others said after Disney joined the ranks of big spenders, agreeing to pay Vaughn $80 million for six years to provide that lift.

Maybe there has been no bigger signing in the history of a club seemingly committed now to reach a higher level. This bird comes with all the trimmings: left-handed slugger, clubhouse leader and community activist. On wintry Cape Cod on Wednesday, thinking of Vaughn's power and presence, shortstop Gary DiSarcina gave thanks.

"I would sure as hell hope he would walk into the clubhouse thinking this is his team," DiSarcina said. "I would want him to think that way. He's won the MVP, he has the respect of his peers, he should have no problem doing that. As for his presence, I don't think he minces too many words and he backs up what he says."

Indeed. The new first baseman of the Angels is much like the former catcher of the Dodgers in offensive capability.

Mo Vaughn and Mike Piazza provide that rare combination of prodigious power and high average potential.

Vaughn, for instance, was second in the American League last year with a .337 batting average and 205 hits--prolific totals considering he also slugged 40 home runs and drove in 115 runs. In his six full seasons with the Boston Red Sox, the American League's most valuable player of 1995 averaged 38 homers and 115 RBIs, batting .304.

Unlike Piazza, however, no one has ever questioned Vaughn's presence and leadership.

When the Toronto Blue Jays swept a four-game series from the Red Sox in September and generated a late charge in the American League wild-card race last season, it was Vaughn who called a clubhouse meeting and told teammates to relax, stop pressing, "Let me carry you."

When the Boston media was expressing concern about a sudden siege of errant throws by shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, it was Vaughn who requested of reporters that they "ease up on Nomar and get on me if you want."

When Pedro Martinez precipitated a bench-clearing brawl by hitting Matt Lawton of the Minnesota Twins with a pitch, it was Vaughn who got to the mound first, 240 pounds of security for the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Martinez.

And when Vaughn was acquitted of driving under the influence with nobody from the Red Sox front office in court to provide support last spring, he rejoined his team in Florida, powered three in-your-face home runs against the Cleveland Indians in his first game and announced to Red Sox management that his contract price "just went up."

Mo Vaughn carries a big stick but doesn't walk softly. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, is a go-to guy for teammates and reporters and isn't afraid to confront a clubhouse controversy or four-seam fastball with the game on the line.

"He wants to be the man, and every team needs that," said Dick Pole, the new Angel pitching coach and a member of the Boston coaching staff last year.

Pole was hunting Wednesday in Northern Michigan. He came up empty but was excited to hear that the Angels snared Vaughn.

Disney laid the trap with that preemptive offer of six years for $72 million and brought in this bear of a first baseman at a record $13.3 million a year--the ever-escalating price for an elite player and proven presence, the first of this magnitude in Anaheim since Don Baylor helped drive the Angels to division titles in 1979 and 1982 while policing the clubhouse for managers Jim Fregosi and Gene Mauch.

"Mo is the type player who is willing to carry his team, willing to say, 'Get on my back and go for a ride,' " Pole said. "He wants to be up with the winning run on base in the ninth and wants his teammates to feel that way. He's emotional, says what he thinks, and lifts the performance level of his teammates."

The Angels have generally played hard for Manager Terry Collins. While the 1998 season is likely to be remembered for another September meltdown, an undermanned team basically overachieved in the face of frequent injuries. There is a solid leadership base with DiSarcina, Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad, but Vaughn brings a powerful dimension. He is more vocal than any of those three and, in his prime at 31 on Dec. 15, a seven-year veteran who has twice been to the playoffs and on four occasions hit 35 or more home runs in a season.

"He's one of those guys who makes a team better in a lot of ways," Collins said. "He gives us that big horse in the middle of the lineup and that takes some of the pressure off the other guys. We still have a lot of young players who were suddenly on the firing line in September. Mo is not afraid to stand up and say, 'Let's not be intimidated, we're as good as anybody.' Leadership in the clubhouse is very important if done the right way. Mo prepares right and plays right. He carries credibility."

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