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Vaughn Brings Out Disney's Strength

Analysis: Ownership finally spends the way others figured it would from the start.

November 27, 1998|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Terry Collins was managing the Houston Astros in 1996 when the Walt Disney Co. bought the Angels and stuffed the baseball team into a tiny corner of the company portfolio.

Drayton McLane, the Astros' owner, was a grocery salesman. A rich and successful one, to be sure, but still a grocery salesman. McLane would now compete against Disney, one of the world's most visible corporations, one that recorded a $2-billion profit last year.

"In Houston, we had one guy telling us an individual owner couldn't compete with the corporations," Collins said, "so we thought they'd spend a lot of money."

Agents drooled and owners panicked when mighty Disney strode into the brave new world of professional sports, but not until Wednesday--six years into the lifetime of the Mighty Ducks and almost three years into its management of the Angels--did the company make a free-agent splash in either sport.

Disney dug deep, very deep. In just the kind of move McLane and other owners feared--and fans cheered--the Angels signed first baseman Mo Vaughn to contract that guarantees him $80 million over six years, the greatest average annual value in major-league history.

Why now?

Mickey Mouse is not allergic to spending vast sums of money. Disney paid $19 billion to acquire ABC/Capital Cities, but the company did not consider bidding $19 million for free agents such as Roger Clemens, the dominant pitcher the Angels so desperately coveted two years ago, or Ron Francis, the talented center who could have joined the Ducks' Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne this year and formed the most devastating line in the NHL.

So why now, at four times the cost?

"People think Disney just decided to spend some money. They didn't," Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi said. "They've never been afraid to spend the money, as accused.

"There's a change in action, but not a change in philosophy. We just haven't seen the players we thought were the right fit for the right type of money. If we had seen a player like Mo Vaughn last year, he would have been signed. That's easy to say, but that's the truth. Players like this don't come around very often."

Before Bavasi could sell Vaughn on the Angels, he and Disney sports chief Tony Tavares had to sell Vaughn to Chairman Michael Eisner and the rest of the corporate posse in Burbank.

To Disney, Vaughn is Selanne with a bat. Although the Ducks have yet to sign a major free agent, they acquired a superstar in his prime when they traded for Selanne in 1996. They subsequently extended his contract by two years and $19.5 million.

Selanne, a former kindergarten teacher in his native Finland and the "First Godfather" to the national children's hospital there, works tirelessly with kids and charities that benefit them. Vaughn, a community icon in New England, envisioned and developed the Mo Vaughn Youth Center near Boston.

Vaughn, like Selanne, embraces leadership not only on the playing field and in the community but in the locker room as well, a personality package Bavasi stressed in a seven-page recruiting pitch to Vaughn.

"If you could read the letter he had written to me, along with the deal he had offered, you could tell what kind of people he was looking for," Vaughn said.

"You could see Disney was looking to put itself in position to win. They wanted talent with attitude. Disney really wanted to spend some money to get some attitude."

Attitude doesn't pitch, though, and the Angels need a top starting pitcher. They needed one two years ago, but they refused to bid for Clemens, a five-time Cy Young Award winner. They needed one last year, too, but they passed on the ace of the 1997 market, Darryl Kile. So now Disney pulls an $80-million rabbit out of its hat?

"Right or wrong, maybe we had concerns with Clemens about his age," Bavasi said. "Right or wrong, maybe we had concerns with Kile that he had had just the one strong year. Our judgment is that this is a special guy."

Granted, but what about Randy Johnson, the Angels' remaining target? Vaughn and Johnson each marked the 1998 season by feuding with ownership on a bumpy ride to free agency, but Vaughn hit 40 home runs, batted a career-high .337 and powered the Boston Red Sox into the playoffs.

Johnson grew so disenchanted in Seattle, posting his worst record (9-10, 4.33 ERA) this decade, that Manager Lou Piniella finally told him he ought to pitch better so the Mariners could trade him. While Vaughn never shirked from his role as team leader and spokesman, Johnson typically shrugged off the media and once scuffled with teammate David Segui over the volume of the clubhouse stereo. The next day, the emotionally charged Johnson shut out the Angels, striking out 15.

"He can't pitch better than that, which makes you wonder where it's been all season," Piniella said after the game.

Yet Disney stands ready and willing to pay Johnson the same $13 million per season now committed to Vaughn, albeit over four years, not seven.

Disney wants to win. The Angels need an ace. Johnson would be that ace.

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