The situation was already pretty special. It was the third inning of last week's All-Star Game at Chicago's Comiskey Park, and the American League, winless for 11 straight years, had taken a 5-1 lead. But with the bases loaded and California's Fred Lynn awaiting a 2-2 pitch from the Giants' Atlee Hammaker, two players on the American League bench sensed that something epochal was at hand.
"He better not throw an inside slider," Milwaukee Catcher Ted Simmons told Lynn's Angel teammate, Third Baseman Doug DeCinces.
"If he does," said DeCinces, "Freddie'll put it in the seats."
Seconds later Hammaker threw an inside slider, a pitch American Leaguers know from long and painful experience that Lynn frequently hammers. Lynn, who had moved closer to the plate, bent lower and choked higher on the bat with a two-strike count, uncoiled from his closed, pigeon-toed stance and took a swing that resembled a classic topspin tennis backhand, following through with his left knee low and his right hand high. The ball headed straight for the rightfield seats and history: Surprisingly, it was the first grand slam in 50 years of All-Star competition.
Normally a reserved fellow, Lynn thrust his right fist high over his head as he ran around the bases. "All right, we might win the game!" he thought, and so of course the American League did, coasting to a 13-3 victory.
Despite having been a Rookie of the Year (1975), and a Most Valuable Player in both a playoff series (1982) and for a whole season (1975), Lynn had been a suffering star when it came to All-Star Games. He had been a participant and a loser in each of his eight full seasons as a major leaguer. "That was eight years of frustration disappearing in all that emotion," he said.
No sooner had he been named the game's MVP than Lynn was headed for the scene of his major league birth, Boston's Fenway Park, where he played from late 1974 through '80. To Lynn's old Red Sox teammates, his homecoming evoked sweet—and wistful—memories. "There was no way to pitch him when he played here," said Leftfielder Jim Rice. "I wish we still had him."
"Probably the best all-around talent I've ever watched,' said Rightfielder Dwight Evans. "Just a graceful, beautiful athlete. Hitting a ball for him was like chopping wood for me."
Old Bosox weren't the only ones singing Lynn's praises. He has been an All-Star starter six times and this year led all American League outfielders in the balloting. "Someone appreciates my style of play," he says.
Alas, not everyone. Though he's averaged .300 with 18.5 homers and 78.5 runs batted in from '75 through '82, many observers feel he has only scratched the surface of his talent. They say he's forever taking himself out of the lineup with questionable injuries, especially when his team is about to face lefthanded pitching. "Fred is as good as he wants to be, day in and day out," says California Shortstop Rick Burleson, who was also Lynn's teammate in Boston. "As far as ability goes, he's among the best in the game. I sometimes wonder if his motivation is there all the time."
In his defense, Lynn has suffered a considerable variety of real injuries—sprained wrist, torn ankle ligaments, pulled groin muscle, broken toe, broken ribs and a generally wrecked left knee that required surgery. On average, he misses 17% of a season's games.
"As an outfielder, you can only play if you can run," says Lynn, "and the only time I don't play is when I can't run. You're a liability if you play half-speed when you're hurt and can't contribute. Also, you might reinjure yourself. Is it better to play two games and then miss two months, or miss two games and play two months?"
He has a point. Many a player, succumbing to peer pressure and macho pride, has returned too soon after an injury and ruined his career. Even the gritty Burleson—a man hitting an extraordinary .538 since returning on June 30 from a 1½-year absence because of an injured rotator cuff in his right shoulder—understands that lesson. Early in his rehabilitation Burleson discovered that trying to do too much too soon set him back.
But neither injuries nor a dislike of tough southpaws can fully explain Lynn's in-and-out behavior. The pattern isn't that simple. Indeed, in 1977 he played most of the season on bad ankles; during a series against the Yankees several years ago he rested against two righthanders he hits well and played against two lefties he doesn't. "He often takes himself out because he's mentally tired," says a veteran Lynn-watcher. "Some people are good for 162 games; he's good for about 140." Lynn himself suggests as much when he says, "Baseball is a very grueling sport, and when you play a full schedule of 162 games, you're more susceptible to injury."
When Lynn does play, there's no questioning either his attitude or performance, especially in pressure situations. "I'm an aggressive hitter and fielder," says Lynn. "I'm a free swinger who likes to drive the ball and doesn't like to bunt. If a ball is hit anywhere near me in the outfield, I figure it's mine."
Lynn was one of the first players to begin using weight training and immediately thereafter had his best year—1979. A successful lefthanded hitter in righthand-oriented Fenway Park, he learned how to drive the ball to left-center to take advantage of The Wall.
Switching in 1981 to Anaheim Stadium, where left-center is more distant, Lynn adjusted and has become a successful pull hitter, willingly sacrificing a higher average for greater power. It matters not that he was hitting .257 at week's end, having earlier suffered a 4-for-52 slump; he had also contributed 14 homers, 43 RBIs and a team-leading total of eight game-winning RBIs.
Lynn particularly enjoys being able to play near his boyhood home of El Monte. A Southern Californian by upbringing and temperament, he likes nothing more than to fish alone for hours, unless it's to lie by the pool beside his wife. Dee Dee, and children, Jason, 5, and Jennifer, 3. "In the off-season, I just want to relax, spend time with my family, be a normal person," he says.
During the season, however, he's totally captivated by baseball. "This time of the year I tell the kids, 'The ballplayer's living with us now,' " Dee Dee says. Last week the ballplayer was living it up.