Padres Hope Vaughn’s Bat Reappears
SAN DIEGO (AP) _ Will this be the season the Greg Vaughn riddle finally gets solved?
The San Diego Padres hope the struggling slugger rediscovers the pop in his bat. It would certainly help during this crucial season, when a winning record could help in their campaign to get a new downtown ballpark.
If Vaughn falters again, the boo-birds will be out and detractors will again question that $15 million, three-year contract the Padres gave him in February 1997. This year, he becomes the highest-paid Padres player at $5.25 million, earning $1.25 million more than eight-time batting champion Tony Gwynn.
Since he was acquired by the Padres on July 31, 1996, Vaughn has hit just .213 with 28 homers and 79 RBIs in 502 at-bats. He’s struck out 141 times and popped up countless more.
San Diego thought it had traded Vaughn to the New York Yankees last July 4, but the Yankees voided the deal because of an old rotator cuff injury.
Days before the trading deadline, the Padres issued a press release that basically said Vaughn was not damaged goods. No takers. He was available in the expansion draft. He remained Padres property.
It’s safe to say that Vaughn, who’s hit 197 career homers and was a two-time AL All-Star, has never experienced a season like that.
``No, but it made me stronger,″ Vaughn said, ``because I made it through it.″
This will be a clutch year for Vaughn. With Rickey Henderson gone and the Padres still on the hook for $11 million of Vaughn’s contract, he’s got the left field job as he did at the start of 1997, although he could start out on the disabled list with a hamstring injury.
``Nothing is guaranteed in life but to die,″ Vaughn said. ``I thought it was mine last year, but things started slow. You never know what happens. The next thing you know, things change. Life’s a game of changes. I’m just going to try to have fun, go out there and do the best I can.″
With Vaughn not having to look over his shoulder at Henderson, there’s no reason to expect he won’t revert to form, owner John Moores said.
``He’s clearly a wild card for us, because he was very disappointing for us last season,″ Moores said. ``But I’ve seen him hit a ball about as far and hard as a human being can hit one, in spring training, so clearly he’s got the skill and the power.″
Vaughn, a lifetime .242 hitter, will get the four at-bats daily that he says he needs to stay sharp.
``I have the opportunity to go 0-for-4, or even 0-for-8 and still play. I don’t have to worry about trying to get a hit every single time I’m up there, or if I’m going to play tomorrow, or just worrying about things out of my control.″ he said.
That’s what has happened from the day the Padres sent three players to Milwaukee for Vaughn, who had 31 homers and 95 RBIs through the first four months of 1996. Problem was, the Padres still had Henderson, creating an awkward situation in left field. And they still had him on opening day 1997, then all the way through his mid-August trade to Anaheim.
``I can’t worry if the person in section B-28, Row 10 likes Greg Vaughn or not,″ the slugger said. ``Those things are out of my control. But I was trying to make everybody happy, trying to justify everything, make the city of San Diego accept Greg Vaughn.″
Vaughn was hitting just .203 on Sept. 10, but batted .311 in his last 14 games of 1997, with three homers and 14 RBIs.
``What was going right was I was playing every day,″ Vaughn said. ``Rickey was gone and I got an opportunity to play.″
He finished with a .216 average, 18 homers, 57 RBIs and 110 strikeouts in 361 at-bats. He had only a .215 average with runners in scoring position.
There still will be pressure on Vaughn to produce runs, and continuing struggles could mean playing time for James Mouton or Mark Sweeney, who have played well this spring.
Vaughn’s spring swings have been tension-free, batting coach Merv Rettenmund said.
``When there’s such a change from your batting practice to your game swing, it’s just tension,″ Rettenmund said. ``He looks normal.″