Wednesday, February 24, 1999

Vaughn gets in the swing of things




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — The Cincinnati Reds need not open their gates early on account of Greg Vaughn.

        His batting practice is long on purpose and short on spectacle, the work of a deliberate craftsman instead of a crowd-pleasing entertainer. It is something to see, but not much to gawk at.

        “If someone is looking for me to hit home runs in batting practice, it's probably not going to happen,” Vaughn said Tuesday afternoon. “I'm sticking with my game plan.”

        Spectators drawn to Vaughn's first public hitting demonstration as a Red came away conspicuously short on souvenirs. The slugging left fielder, who hit 50 home runs for the San Diego Padres last season, failed to smash a single pitch beyond the fences of the Reds spring training complex despite taking approximately 70 swings against coaches paid to build his confidence.

        It's all part of his plan.

        When Vaughn went to work Monday in the indoor batting cage, his first move was to position the batting tee on the outside corner of the plate. He wanted to sharpen his right-field stroke rather than reiterate what everyone already knows about his preternatural power.

Batting practice low-key
        Same thing Tuesday. Only twice did Vaughn seem satisfied with his swing, and both times after he had scorched line drives to right field.

        “Oh, yes sir,” Vaughn said on both occasions.

        “He wasn't trying to pull it,” said bullpen coach Tom Hume, who pitch ed part of Vaughn's batting practice. “He was trying to hit it to right field. But you could tell he's strong, just from seeing different guys hit the same pitch.”

        Pulling the inside pitch, Vaughn said, is mainly a matter of reacting to the ball. Taking the pitch up the middle or to the opposite field demands more discipline. Vaughn devotes his practice hacks to reinforcing the idea of going with those pitches he is unable to pull.

        “For the most part, I'm a pull hitter,” Vaughn said. “But I can go the other way. If I take away a weakness, then they have to go to my strengths.”

        Mark McGwire makes no pretense of using batting practice as a development tool. He is there to swat balls into the seats, not to simulate advancing runners with ground balls to second base. Nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes. Just as John Daly is a bigger draw on the driving range than he is on the putting green, McGwire is paid to slacken jaws with his strength.

        Yet there is more to hitting than home runs — even after the unprecedented power surge of 1998 — and there are still some situations where a single will suffice. Some days, Vaughn need not hit the ball at all to help. The menacing sight of him in the on-deck circle should mean more fastballs to whoever hits in front of him.

He has ticket sales soaring
        Vaughn's presence has already had a profound impact on ticket sales — General Manager Jim Bowden said spring training sales are up 100 percent over last spring — and has altered the Reds' profile from helpless to hopeful.

        If the Reds had wanted Vaughn to put on a show Tuesday, they would probably have staged things differently. They would have moved his batting practice group to one of the two fields adjoining the road, with a breeze at his back, instead of having him hit toward the trees and into the wind. A single shot off a passing car would have made for a priceless piece of free advertising.

        Instead, Vaughn seemed embarrassed by the attention focused on his drills. After kissing his bat and telling it, “Come on baby, you've got to work,” Vaughn spotted two cameramen training their lenses on him.

        “You guys,” he said, “are wasting a lot of film right now.”

        Earlier, in his fifth trip in the cage, Vaughn found a fat piece of a Ken Griffey pitch. “Did you get that one?” Griffey asked, without turning to follow the ball's flight.

        “No,” Greg Vaughn said. “I missed it. I don't want homers now.”

        “That's the way to approach it,” Griffey told him.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE