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WAITING TO SPLASH DOWN

March 21, 1988
March 21, 1988

Table of Contents
March 21, 1988

Canadiens
Metro Conference
Southeastern Conference
The Rookies
Larry Bird
Women's Sports
Tyson
Focus
First Person
Television
Point After

WAITING TO SPLASH DOWN

A novel, sometimes even watery, regimen has helped make the Mets' Gregg Jefferies the best prospect in the minors

The Cafeteria-Gym at Parkside Junior High in San Bruno, Calif., is plastered with gigantic red and pink construction paper-hearts for the following night's Valentine's dance. Gregg Jefferies, a 20-year-old shortstop in the New York Mets farm system, circles the room, drawing the vinyl drapes across the overhead windows and closing the heavy stage curtain. He's about to take batting practice in this dim indoor setting. It's an element in the 17-part Gregg Jefferies Workout, one of the most unusual regimens anywhere.

This is an article from the March 21, 1988 issue

Next to a makeshift pitcher's mound sits a container of 100 worn tennis balls in assorted colors. Rich Jefferies. Gregg's father and Parkside's baseball coach and phys-ed teacher, fires the balls—he'll deliver about 400 pitches during this drill—from behind a shield of yellow plastic garbage cans. He needs protection because Gregg takes his cuts only 20 feet from the mound instead of the regulation 60 feet six inches. "To get a hit Gregg has to keep his head still and his eyes glued on the ball," Rich says.

To sharpen his son's concentration, Rich has drawn inch-high numbers (from one to three) on some of the balls with a black marker. When the pitch leaves Rich's hand, Gregg is supposed to call out the number. "There's a 1-in-300 chance I'll be able to read it," Gregg says modestly. In fact, he usually picks up the number on every ball.

"Slow down, Nolan Ryan," Gregg cries, smashing a yellow ball into the piano in short leftfield.

Although she isn't here today, on many occasions Gregg's mother, Joan, is on hand to tape the drill with a video camera. Later the family gathers in the rec room at home and analyzes Gregg's swing on a big-screen TV.

"I'm just a father trying to help," Rich says. "I am not a coach. A coach dictates. I make suggestions for drills, and Gregg throws out what he doesn't like. The most important part is the time we spend talking, when I ask, 'What are your plans? How do you really feel about...anything?' "

When Jefferies arrived at the New York Mets spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Feb. 26, he was arguably the best baseball player not on a major league roster. For the past two seasons he was voted Minor League Player of the Year by the tabloid Baseball America. In the first of those seasons, while playing A ball for Columbia, S.C., and Lynchburg, Va., and Double A for Jackson. Miss., Jefferies's combined figures were .353, 16 home runs, 111 RBIs and 57 stolen bases in 125 games. Last year, when he played the whole season for the Jackson Mets, he hit .367, with 20 homers, 101 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 134 games.

Some experts are already comparing Jefferies's skills to those of Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Wade Boggs. Like Mantle, Gregg, who's 5'10" and 175 pounds, is a switch-hitter with mirror-image swings from both sides of the plate. Like Rose, he's highly aggressive; like Morgan, a smart, challenging base runner; and like Boggs, an immensely talented all-fields hitter. He's so effective at the plate, in fact, that three times umpires have confiscated his custom-made black SSK bats at the behest of rival managers who thought, erroneously, that the bats were doctored.

"Gregg can hit right now in the major leagues," says Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' vice-president of baseball operations. But it's unlikely that Jefferies will make the jump to the big club this year. The big stumbling block is his fielding: His 35 errors last season were the most in the Mets organization. Says McIlvaine, "We want his defensive skills to catch up with his offensive skills."

Even if Jefferies were more polished on defense, however, it might be hard to find a vacancy for him on the Mets' 24-man roster. He has been a shortstop his whole career, but the Mets traded Rafael Santana to the Yankees in the off-season to make room for 23-year-old Kevin Elster at that position. And the rest of the infield may be even harder to break into, with Keith Hernandez at first, Howard Johnson at third, Tim Teufel and Wally Backman platooning at second and two superb young hitters, Dave Magadan and Keith Miller, on call at first and second, respectively. This spring the Mets have Jefferies practicing at three positions (short, third and left field). "When Gregg's ready," McIlvaine says, "we'll create a position for him."

The Mets are leery about bringing Jefferies up too soon partly because of the difficult time outfielder Darryl Strawberry had during his rookie year He was 21 at the time and came under a lot of pressure when baseball people compared him with Willie Mays and Ted Williams. "The hardest thing to deal with is the New York media attention," says Strawberry, who came in for a lot more of it last week because of an Esquire story in which he blamed his teammates and manager Davey Johnson for the Mets' failure to repeat as National League East champions last year. "All those writers, every single day," says Strawberry. "Nothing can ever prepare you for that. You can't compare a 20-year-old kid to a Hall of Famer because he'll only disappoint."

Jefferies admits that he's not yet ready for the New York spotlight. "The Mets know what's best for me," he says. "I've had a few good years. But there's so much more to learn."

That's why, during the off-season, Jefferies spends eight hours a day, six days a week honing the skills that will get him to the major leagues. The Workout, designed by his father, a good-hitting infielder at San Francisco State in 1963 and '64, requires so much concentration Gregg prefers to do it with his dad rather than with other players.

The Workout starts at 9 a.m. when Gregg drives his blue Camaro (license plates 4 FOR 4 GJ) to the diamond at Parkside, where he meets his father. The infield is filled with rocks and clumps of crabgrass. "This is the worst field I'll ever have to play on," says Gregg, taking his spot at short, behind a deep gouge in the earth.

Using 75 waterlogged baseballs, Rich smacks dozens of grounders to the left side of the infield. This time Gregg cleanly fields all but three. Last fall when Rich introduced this drill—the Workout has evolved into its present form over the past four years—he made Gregg wear a wooden paddle instead of his glove for several weeks. "I wanted to simulate failure," he says. "I wanted to teach Gregg to control his emotions on a muff and recover to make the throw to first for the out."

A six- by three-foot chain-link backstop serves as the first baseman. This forces Gregg to throw to a spot. "I've had friends volunteer to play first," Rich says, "but they'd stretch for the catch. This way he has to be on the mark."

Then Gregg practices bunting, emphasizing bat control. Instead of a standard bat that's about eight inches in circumference, Gregg uses one that's only three inches around. He lays down 75 bunts righthanded, then 75 lefthanded.

Next father and son move up to blacktop basketball courts nearby to practice fielding on a fast surface, similar to artificial turf. Rich hits a hardball wrapped in black electrical tape to make it skip wildly across the pavement. "Mike Schmidt me a couple," Gregg says. Rich obliges with a bolting grounder. "Now give me a Vince Coleman." A high chopper explodes off the bat.

Finally, they do a pickoff drill to improve Gregg's reaction time. He's in a crouch, leading off from an imaginary first base, and for several minutes Rich will randomly hold up one of two tennis balls, one green, the other orange. "On green, Gregg sprints to second," Rich says. "Orange, he gets back."

At 10:30 Gregg barricades himself in Parkside's tiny weight room to work on his "hitting" muscles. He pounds a speed bag to develop hand quickness and lifts 35 pounds of weights tied to a sawed-off broomstick, holding the stick waist high and twisting the rope around the shaft. Then, for stronger hands, he does several reps on the wrist-roller and handgripper machines.

Around 11, Gregg returns home to do batting exercises in the family's 45-foot-long backyard pool. Standing chest deep, Jefferies takes 50 swings each way, pulling his bat through the water as smoothly as possible. Then, holding the bat fully immersed, he lifts it up and down 20 times with each hand, often struggling to wrench it to the surface.

Next he runs—or thrashes—10 laps in the five-foot-deep pool, lifting his knees as high as he can. Then he swims another 40.

By now it's noon. Lunchtime? No way. Jefferies dashes to the Prime Time Athletic Club in nearby Burlingame for nearly two hours of weightlifting and fingertip push-ups. That's followed by a two-mile, 12-minute run and 10 sprints up a steep hill.

At 2 p.m. it's finally time for a snack—yogurt and fruit—but Jefferies doesn't get too comfortable. He has to do an upper-arm drill: throwing footballs into a net 70 times.

After that he zips to his alma mater, Serra High in San Mateo, to practice with the baseball team. He takes batting practice in the $15,000 cage he donated to the school with money he's earned over the last three years. Then he returns to Parkside for the tennis ball drill. At 6:30 p.m. he gets back home for a 20-minute romp on the treadmill, followed by a shower and dinner.

So the Can't Miss Kid is a self-made man. "I'm not a natural," Gregg says. "I don't know any naturals. You can't go through the off-season anymore without working out. No matter how well I do in baseball, I will never be too old to practice my hitting or listen to my father."

All of the family's decisions are made at the large oval pine table in the kitchen of their house in Millbrae, Calif., about 12 miles south of San Francisco. Sometimes the discussions turn into heated arguments, like the one that erupted when the Mets made Gregg their first-round selection (20th overall) in the June 1985 amateur draft.

Gregg wanted to sign, and he got support from his mother and his brother Dean, now 22 and an infielder at the University of San Francisco. But Rich felt Gregg should go to college on a baseball scholarship. "What if you go oh for 17 one week?" Rich asked. "And there's nobody around to talk to? How will you respond to that?"

"I won't know. Dad," Gregg replied, "until I try."

After two weeks of soul-searching, Rich allowed his son to sign on two conditions: that the Mets set aside guaranteed money for Gregg's college education, and that most of his $110,000 signing bonus be invested.

Almost immediately the Jefferies feared they had made a big mistake. As soon as Gregg joined the Kingsport (Tenn.) Mets in the Appalachian League that spring, he became acutely homesick. "The minute I got there I was lost and depressed," he says. "I was 17 and living alone in a Sheraton."

Two days after Gregg left home, Joan and Rich arrived for a short visit and ended up staying 10 weeks. Gregg moved in with teammate Mark Willoughby's aunt and uncle, who happened to live in Kingsport, and his parents took up residence in a trailer in the backyard. "When I had a bad night at the ballpark, I'd go to the trailer and stay with my folks," Gregg recalls. "They were my support system. They helped me cope with disappointments."

After the season was over Gregg asked his parents to spend 10 weeks with him every summer. They agreed, deciding to stay in hotels near the ballparks, but not too near Gregg's apartment. "We are always there if he needs us, but we want him to grow up on his own," Rich says.

The Mets called up Jefferies for five weeks last September. When he arrived at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego to join the team, the security guards refused at first to let him into the clubhouse because they said he looked too young for the majors. Later, on a day off in Los Angeles, he bumped into several of his new teammates in the hotel lobby. They were dressed in jackets and slacks and were on their way to Las Vegas. Gregg was wearing surfer shorts and was headed to Disneyland with his folks.

His first big league at bat came on Sept. 6, in the 14th inning of a 16-inning 3-2 loss to the Dodgers in L.A.. "When Davey told me I was going to hit, I wanted to, but I didn't want to," Gregg says. "After I popped out to third, people in the stands yelled that I was overrated, that I should go back to Jackson."

On the flight back to New York, Strawberry sat next to Jefferies. "Darryl was the first player to tell me what the majors were going to be like," Gregg says. "He calls me Kid."

What wisdom did the Straw impart?

"I told him the most important thing is to be himself," Strawberry says.

Two days later, on Sept. 8, Jefferies got his first major league hit, a single, off the Philadelphia Phillies' Bruce Ruffin at Shea Stadium. By the time his big league stint was over, he had picked up three hits in six at bats.

Back in San Bruno, in February, Gregg staged a surprise 25th anniversary party for his parents. The menu included a prime rib dinner with champagne and a miniature wedding cake for dessert. Gregg even hired a disc jockey who played Wake the Town and Tell the People by Les Baxter and his Orchestra. In the eighth grade, Rich had asked Joan to go steady to that song.

At the end of the evening Gregg flipped on the VCR and presented a video tribute he and his brother had produced. First, it showed Gregg doing a hilarious Elvis Presley imitation for his mom, strumming his black bat like a guitar. Next he told a few baseball stories for his dad. Then an image of his first big league hit flashed on the screen. As the ball sailed into the outfield, Gregg said, "It's because of you, Mom and Dad, that this was possible."

There wasn't a dry eye in the room.

PHOTOV.J. LOVEROTo strengthen his stroke, Jefferies takes 100 swings a day while standing in a pool.PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINBefore moving to the big leagues, Jefferies will have to improve his fielding.TWO PHOTOSV.J. LOVEROHitting tennis balls in a dimly lit room and pounding a bag are parts of the Workout.PHOTOV.J. LOVEROJefferies used some of his earnings to buy a batting cage for the Serra High ball team.TWO PHOTOSV.J. LOVERORich, who created Gregg's regimen, hits a ball to his son that skips across the blacktop the same way it would on artificial turf.