After their first meeting, Bob Hope, the publicist for the Atlanta Braves, sensed that 20-year-old Bob Horner would generate some excitement. On June 6 the Braves, who had first pick in the free-agent draft, chose Horner, a slugging junior infielder from Arizona State, and 10 days later—a week after Horner made the final out against victorious USC in the College World Series—Horner was to play third base for Atlanta in a game against Pittsburgh. So Hope met Horner in a corner of the Braves' clubhouse "to find out some of the little quirks about him."
"How long have you wanted to be a big league ballplayer?" asked Hope.
"Since I was four."
"What do you like to watch on television?"
"I don't watch TV. Only baseball games."
"How about books? What's your favorite?"
"I don't really read many books."
"Movies? Who's your favorite movie star?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe John Wayne."
That was all Hope could take. "John Wayne!" he recalled later with horror on his face. "Can you believe that? I expected him to say John Travolta, Woody Allen, anybody. He's got to be the only 20-year-old in America who likes John Wayne. You know what that kid is? He's a baseball player. And that's it."
"I'm just an average person," says Horner.
Those who have seen the 6'1", 205-pound John Wayne fan take a poke at a fastball—including the Pirates' Bert Blyleven, who was tagged for a homer by Horner in that first game—think otherwise. Horner hit 25 homers in 60 games for Arizona State this season and 56 in his three-year college career—both NCAA records—while batting .387.
Blond, blue-eyed, curly-haired and bull-necked, Horner has tremendous power, a keen eye and a hard, compact swing that has been compared to those of Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews, Greg Luzinski, Sal Bando and Atlanta teammate Jeff Burroughs, the National League's leading hitter. In the 49 games he has played for the Braves, Horner has hit 10 homers and batted in 34 runs, placing him fourth in both those categories among his teammates, most of whom have played in twice as many games. If Horner maintains the same pace for the rest of the season, he will finish with 23 homers and 68 RBIs. And Horner is no slouch when it comes to hitting for average. After going one for one against the Astros on Sunday—his 21st birthday—he raised his average to .278.
"Nobody's ever come straight into the majors and done what he's done," crows Braves' owner Ted Turner. "So all he is is the best there ever was."
Because Horner is simply a ballplayer, which he has been almost all his life, suddenly finding himself a big league power hitter is not unbelievable, just a little "weird." Last Tuesday, when the Cincinnati Reds were in Atlanta, Pete Rose, who was looking to extend his hitting streak to 45 games, made a special point of seeking out "the kid third baseman" to stick him with a needle.
"Be ready, kid," said Rose. "I might make you handle a bunt tonight."
"Come on, Pete," Horner said right back. "Try me."
Rose never did get a bunt down, but he did send a line drive Horner's way, which the rookie speared with a lunge to his right and turned into a double play. Rose went oh-for-four, the streak ended, and the Reds lost 16-4. Horner had three hits, including the game winner, a three-run homer off Pedro Borbon, his fifth in six games.
If Horner seems nonchalant about his success, perhaps it is because he is as comfortable with the major league clichè as he is with the fastball. "I'm just swinging the bat real good," he says, or "seeing the ball real good," or "putting my best foot forward." The Braves, however, are nothing short of ecstatic. "What can I say?" says Manager Bobby Cox. "He's one of the major cogs in our offense. He has one of the best swings I've ever seen. He makes it easier for everybody—for Burroughs, for Gary Matthews, for our pitchers, for me."
He has also kept the heat off scouting director Paul Snyder and vice-president in charge of baseball operations Bill Lucas, who made the decision to move Horner directly to the big club. Not to mention Turner, who would have had to convince critics that playing Horner was not just another gate-hyping stunt. "Horner was the heaviest scouted player in the history of this organization," says Snyder. "We felt we could not afford to make a mistake with the No. 1 pick in the draft."
The Braves needed someone who could play third base—where Barry Bonnell and Rod Gilbreath, among others, had proved inadequate—and someone who could drive in runs. The consensus of opinion from eight scouts, plus Snyder and Lucas, was that Horner would eventually be good for 26 to 29 home runs a year.
Lucas' instinct was to start Horner off in Double-A ball at Savannah, where he could get used to his new position. In college, Horner had played mostly at second base and shortstop.
"That sounded about right to me," says Horner. "Coming out of college, I didn't want to do something I wasn't ready for. What you dream about and what comes true are two different things. I knew that when I got to the majors I would want to stay. I didn't want to have all my hopes shattered like one of them David Clydes—stay a year and then go down."
But when Horner came to Atlanta to sign, he saw things differently. "I went down to the clubhouse and out on the field," he says, "and got a completely different perspective. When you see guys like Johnny Bench or George Foster on Monday Night Baseball, they look like supermen. Unreal. Down there I saw for myself how they look and what they do. They looked just like me."
Horner went back to Lucas and said he felt he was ready to play for the Braves after all. Lucas didn't want to blow the signing and have Horner go back to school. "What if it doesn't work out?" Lucas asked Horner. "Then I'll go wherever you say," Horner replied. "He had so much confidence," says Lucas, "that I had to believe him."
Horner took his first batting practice in a Braves' uniform the next day, an off date for the Atlanta team. "Of his first 12 swings, six balls ended up in the blue seats," says Snyder. "I never felt such jubilation in my life." The next night Horner was batting fifth and playing third base against the Pirates.
"It was weird, it really was," says Horner. "Guys came up one by one and introduced themselves. Nobody knew who I was." At least one was skeptical. "I just heard the same stuff I hear about the No. 1 pick every year," says Burroughs. "I wished him good luck and hoped he wouldn't embarrass himself."
"When I walked out onto the field for batting practice," says Horner, "I felt like I was playing a different game. In a way I was, since I had been using an aluminum bat for the last three years. Then when they announced my name in the lineup I got a big ovation from the fans. That sort of shook me."
His first two times up Horner hit a grounder to short and flied out to centerfield. Just before Horner's third at bat, his father Jim, an automotive parts salesman, called the Atlanta press box from the family's home in Glendale, Ariz. to see how Bob was doing. "Hang on," said a Braves' aide, "he's coming up right now." Jim Horner heard a sudden explosion of cheers. "You won't believe this," the aide said, "but he just hit a home run off Blyleven."
Horner has been learning how to play third base under the tutelage of Clete Boyer, the former Yankee Golden Glover who also tutors the rest of the Braves' "Infant Infield"—Shortstop Jerry Royster (25), First Baseman Dale Murphy (22) and Second Baseman Glenn Hubbard (20), who has missed the last 14 games with an arm injury.
"That's our future," says Cox, the rookie manager who inherited a team that finished dead last in 1977 with a 61-101 record and now has the Braves within eight games of .500 at 51-59. "Two or three years and we'll be right there."
"Two or three years, hell," says Turner. "How many games we got left, 50? Will 99 wins get us a pennant? Those teams out there better be worried."