The face is round, slightly puffy. And it's somewhat pouty, especially when he is asked to describe, for the twelve-hundredth time, what life was like in Japan last season. His dour demeanor notwithstanding, Bob Horner is happy to be back in the good ol' U.S. of A., where menus are menus and chicken isn't duckling. Or whatever those things were that he was eating over there.
"Funny anecdotes?" asks Horner, the former slugger for the Atlanta Braves who spent the 1987 season as the gaijin ("foreign") star of the Yakult Swallows and has come home to roost as a Red-bird. "I don't have any funny anecdotes. Life last year was not amusing."
Lucrative, yes, but definitely not amusing. After failing to come to terms with the Braves, for whom he had hit 215 home runs in nine seasons, Horner threw himself into the free-agent market. But when no major league club surpassed the Braves' offer of $3 million for two seasons—$300,000 a year less than he received in 1986—Horner developed a yen (actually, several hundred million of them) to see the Orient. He signed a one-year, $2.4 million contract with the Tokyo-based Swallows, perennial cellar-dwellers in Japan's Central League. Horner was the first major leaguer to go to Japan while still in his prime—he is 30 now—and his signing caused a sensation.
"We flew over on Japan Air Lines," recalls Horner's agent, Bucky Woy. "The stewardesses and pilots were posing for pictures with us. Then the captain told us there was more press waiting for us at the airport than there had been for President Reagan in 1986. At first, Bob got kind of a kick out of it. When we got off the plane, people were lined up 10 deep the length of a football field. It was unbelievable."
March 28, 1988
Horner got off to a torrid start with the Swallows, hitting six home runs in his first four games, including three in one game. "After that, we couldn't go to lunch or anywhere," says Woy. "Michael Jackson, Madonna.... You can't be any bigger than Bob was in Japan. People would come over and want to take a picture of him or just touch him. It got to be too much for him."
"They mostly wanted to gawk and touch his hair," recalls Horner's wife, Chris, who joined him after their two boys, Tyler, 6, and Trent, 4, had finished the school year in Irving, Texas. "The people were as friendly as you can be without communicating. That was the single most stressful thing—you couldn't communicate. I thought there'd be more people in the street who spoke English."
Horner shudders at the memory of thousands of palms patting his curly golden locks. "That's not bad manners in Japan," he says. Touching is the means by which Japanese express adoration for some public figures, as sumo wrestlers and rock stars have discovered.
"It wasn't any one thing that made life difficult," says Horner. "It was a compilation of things—not understanding the language, not being able to read the street signs or the menus, not being able to buy magazines. Coming back with a lot of mystery foods from the supermarket—it looked like steak or chicken, but was it steak or chicken?"
At six feet one and 220 pounds, Horner stood out everywhere that he went. When his family took a trip to Tokyo's Disneyland, Horner stayed behind, fearing that the commotion his presence might cause would ruin the day for Chris and the boys. The Swallows provided him with a chauffeur-interpreter and a limousine, but because of the attention he drew when he went out, it was easier, and more pleasant, to stay in his $15,000-a-month condominium. Horner couldn't understand the TV shows, which were in Japanese, so he rented videocassettes to pass the time. "I watched John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies all summer," he says, "and learned a lot about patience."
Horner's lesson in patience extended to the ballpark. Japanese pitchers stopped challenging him, and his bat cooled off. Still, he finished the season with a .327 average, 31 homers, 73 RBIs and 51 walks in 93 games—respectable totals, but 19 homers short of the number that Swallows' owner Hisami Matsuzono had hoped Horner would hit. Nevertheless the team's attendance soared because of Horner, and the club offered him a three-year, $10 million contract to stay.
"Some things mean more than money," says Chris. "Bob's dream was to play baseball in the States, not halfway around the world." But when no major league team offered him a satisfactory contract at baseball's winter meetings in December, it seemed as if Horner would not recapture his dream anytime soon.
Then, free-agent Jack Clark, the Cardinals' hard-hitting first baseman, signed a two-year, $3.5 million deal with the New York Yankees. The move took the Cardinals by surprise. Clark had driven in 106 runs and slammed 35 homers for the defending National League champs and was the only power hitter in the Cards' slap-and-dash attack. When reports surfaced that Woy and St. Louis general manager Dal Maxvill were talking about a contract for Horner, St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Rick Hummel called Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog late one night for a reaction.
"I don't want Horner," Herzog said, still miffed that the Cards had dragged their feet in trying to sign Clark after a season in which the club drew more than three million paying customers. "He can't hit, he can't run and he can't field."
Nor could he speak Japanese. And he was still none too fond of sushi. After reading Herzog's remarks, Horner called him to say he still wanted to be a Cardinal and that he thought he could help the team. Facing the prospect of a first base tandem of Mike Laga and Jim Lindeman (combined major league totals: .221 average, 21 homers in 201 games), Herzog reassessed the situation. The Cards signed Horner on Jan. 14 for one year at a base salary of $950,000. Should Horner play at least 135 games—a total he has surpassed only twice in his injury-plagued career—he will make another $500,000.
Clearly, St. Louis is a better team with Horner than it would have been without him. He doesn't have Clark's raw power, but he doesn't strike out as often. And Horner hits to all fields. A lifetime .278 hitter in the States, Horner has an average of .288 in spacious Busch Stadium, and batting behind an anticipated Opening Day lineup of speedsters Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, he will find himself coming up with runners on second and third base more often than he did in Atlanta. So a lot of Horner's RBIs—he drove in 652 runs in 960 games with the Braves, an average of 109 per year—should come not on dingers through the muggy air of Mizzou, but on singles, doubles up the gaps and sacrifice flies.
Herzog was impressed with Horner's physical condition—a relatively trim 215 pounds—-at the start of spring training. "If I can get 140 games out of him, and he hits his lifetime average," says Herzog, "I'm not going to worry about how many home runs he hits."
The Japanese, meanwhile, are in mourning for their departed Red Devil, as he was nicknamed by the Tokyo press. Japanese reporters and film crews—not to mention an inordinate number of their American counterparts—have been hovering around the Cardinals' training camp complex in St. Petersburg, Fla., asking. What was the worst part? What was the food like? How did you spend your time? "I wish I could hold up cards," Horner says.
"We never intended to stay more than a year," says Woy, who thinks Horner may earn $1.5 million in Japan for a book about his sojourn in that country and from sales of an instructional videocassette. "Still, it's nice to know he could go back tomorrow."
Kicking and screaming.