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SPORTS EXTRA / BASEBALL '99

Double Feature

Angels Hope $80 Million on Vaughn Provides Them With September Momentum

April 04, 1999|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kevin Morton was one of the first to see it 15 years ago when he played with Mo Vaughn for the American Legion Post 12 team in Norwalk, Conn.

Matt Sczesny, the scout who signed Vaughn out of college, witnessed it from 1987 through 1989 while Vaughn starred at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

The Boston Red Sox saw it for eight years, and Kevin Kennedy reaped the benefits of it when he managed the Red Sox and Vaughn in 1995 and '96.

And now the Angels will get to see first-hand what kind of impact Vaughn can have on a team when they embark on their first season with the slugger they believe can carry them to their first American League West championship since 1986.

Much has been made of Vaughn's power, his clubhouse presence, his willingness to assume a leadership role, his charitable efforts in the community. All are traits worthy of attention.

But if there is one quality that stands out, one that clinched the Angels' decision to commit $80 million over six years to this 31-year-old first baseman, it is Vaughn's ability to come through in the clutch.

Vaughn has a .304 lifetime average in eight major league seasons but is a career .318 hitter with runners in scoring position. In the last three years, Vaughn has a .339 average when hitting in the seventh inning or later.

"Some things you can teach, some things you have," said Morton, who knew Vaughn as a youngster, went to Seton Hall with him and pitched one season for the Red Sox in 1991.

"Mo has an intense focus, an intangible, a quiet confidence about him that allows him to thrive in pressure situations. I wish I had that. I might still be pitching in the big leagues."

The Angels expect Vaughn, who has averaged 39 homers and 120 runs batted in the last four years, to be a force in the lineup throughout the season, but his true impact may not be felt until September, when the glare of a pennant race is the hottest.

That has traditionally been the time of year the Angels melt like a scoop of ice cream on a sweltering sidewalk, when things around Anaheim get sticky and messy and unsightly.

The Angels have a 453-551 (.451) franchise record in September and have gone a pitiful 110-180 (.379) in the last 11 Septembers.

Included in those numbers was the great collapse of 1995, when the Angels blew an 11-game lead to Seattle, and the final fades of '97 and '98, when the Angels could not fend off the Mariners and Texas Rangers and finished second in the West.

Vaughn has hit .331 the last three Septembers and is a career .298 hitter in September and October. He won the American League most-valuable-player award while leading the Red Sox to the 1995 East title, and had a monster year (.337, 40 homers, 115 RBIs) to lead Boston to a wild-card playoff berth in 1998.

Though Vaughn struggled in his first postseason, going hitless in 14 at-bats against Cleveland in 1995, he hit .412 with two homers and seven RBIs in four division series games against the Indians last October.

"Maybe in August and September, when we hit a rut, he's the type of guy who knows what's ahead, knows how to get out of it," Angel shortstop Gary DiSarcina said. "Maybe he's the guy to lead us. To be fair to the guys here, hardly anyone has been to the playoffs. We don't know what it takes."

DiSarcina has admired Vaughn from the opposing dugout for years, and in the few weeks he has spent with him this spring can sense something different about this 6-foot-1, 245-pounder with barrel-like biceps.

"Some players like the big stage and being 'The Man.' Mo wants that responsibility," DiSarcina said. "He has an aura about him, a swagger. As long as I've been here, we've never had someone like that in the prime of his career."

The Angels did not blow huge division leads the last two years, but they crumbled amid the controversy surrounding Tony Phillips' drug arrest in 1997 and wilted among a slew of injuries in 1998. In both seasons, the Angels' late-season offense ground to a virtual halt.

Vaughn seems to feed off such pressure. In 1995, with the Red Sox driving toward the division title, Vaughn hit .340 with 11 doubles, seven homers and 26 RBIs in September.

In 1998, with Boston battling for a wild-card spot and Vaughn embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with the front office, the first baseman hit .356 with six homers and 19 RBIs in September.

"When tough times come, he doesn't panic, he responds," said Kennedy, the former Red Sox manager. "You can just feel the air of confidence he brings, and the club feeds off that. There were tough times in Boston with the front office, but nothing affected him at the ballpark."

Sczesny, the Red Sox scout, remembers Vaughn hitting several late-game home runs to lift Seton Hall to the Big East tournament title in 1989, and marveling at how Vaughn warmed to the spotlight.

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