Invincible

Acquired to add a new dimension to the Mets lineup, an undaunted Vince Coleman is off and running
April 14, 1991

That Ancient master of Paradox, Zeno of Elea, proposed that because motion is a series of discrete moments, you're moving just as fast standing still as in full flight. Vince Coleman is therefore just as much in motion when he's perched on first base as when he's attempting to steal second. Then again, on a single to right, the New York Mets' new centerfielder is much more likely to score after having swiped second than if he had remained at first, contemplating philosophy.

The Mets are paying Vince of New York nearly $12 million over the next four years in hopes that he'll keep them in motion, and make up for the emotion they lost when Darryl Strawberry defected to the Los Angeles Dodgers. "We didn't want to go backward," says infielder Howard Johnson. And reverse is not a gear that Coleman uses.

His problem is getting started. Despite batting a career-high .292 last season with St. Louis, he got on base only 34% of the time—a somewhat puzzling statistic for a leadoff man. But once he's on, he shifts into overdrive. He has stolen two bases in the same inning 66 times in his career. He has led the National League in steals in each of his six seasons in the majors. Whether his speed will compensate for the loss of Strawberry's power is an unanswerable question of the sort baseball minds have been grappling with since the days of John McGraw.

Paradoxically, for all his daring on the bases, the 29-year-old Coleman is perhaps best known for something that happened six years ago while he was standing still. A tarp began unrolling on his foot by accident before Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. Trying to yank his foot away, he fell on the Busch Stadium turf. The 1,200-pound tarp inched toward his thigh. "It was a female tarp machine," he says with a pert, twisted smile. "She wanted a good-looking young man." By the time the man-eating tarp was stopped, Coleman was almost swallowed. "The worst part wasn't the blood or the chipped bone in my foot," he says. "The worst part was having to sit out the World Series."

Pain, Coleman can tolerate. Sitting, he can't stand. You can't sit and steal, and stealing is pretty much Coleman's raison d'‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢tre. This is a guy who after hitting his first big league homer—an inside-the-park job, at that—said, "It's a big thrill, but it ain't like no stolen base!"

Warm and amiable, Coleman often displays a slapdash, insouciant impudence. "I'm like a snake," he says, smiling the smile of a kid with all the toys. "When I slither toward second, pitchers get rattled. My venom runs through their veins and into their minds."

Coleman's conversations sometimes spin off into abstract arabesques. He likens basestealing to watching Cybervision tapes, which enable players to immerse themselves in three-dimensional images. "When I'm running, I'm watching a big picture that's been frozen in time," he says. "Second base looks like a huge pool. As I get closer, the image becomes larger and larger. I tell myself: You're almost there, you're almost there.... As I dive in, I think, It's my bag, my territory, my world. I own it. Nobody can stop me."

Invincible Vince's baserunning braggadocio is grounded in the real world. He has stolen 549 bases in 664 attempts, an astonishing 83%. And his success rate at stealing third is 87%. "He turns walks into triples," says Mets reliever John Franco. "He can really mess with your head."

Pitchers often balk because of Coleman: He's caused 72 in his career. "Instead of choosing pitches, you start throwing all fastballs," Franco says. "The next batter gets a hit, and now it's first and third. Vince is a big pain in the butt; he makes you feel like you need surgery."

Mike Boddicker was in need of a Coleman-ectomy last month during an exhibition game in Port St. Lucie, Fla. The Kansas City hurler walked Coleman on five pitches to open the bottom of the first. Boddicker kept him close with a sly little slide step and throw to first. Coleman took a modest lead. Boddicker slide-stepped him back to the bag. Another lead. Another slide step. Lead, slide step. Lead, slide step. The fourth time, Boddicker nearly nailed him. Three pitches later, Coleman took off. He beat the throw easily. A few pitches later, he took third. A bloop single brought him home.

"I was reading Boddicker's gestures, getting a cadence down," Coleman explains. "If his left knee bends, he goes home. If his right heel spins, he throws to first. I watched his legs and waited. He's a one-looker, so when he came set, I took off. Boddicker was at my mercy. I wonder when he thought I'd steal."

Coleman never stops thinking about stealing—even in his sleep. "I always used to dream of stealing stuff and running away," he says. "Even now my dreams are just running, running, running. I think that just carried over to sports, so that stealing bases was a natural."

He got off to a running start in Mixon Town, a rough section of Jacksonville. "I was always small," he says. "I had to survive as best I could, and a lot of times I got out of trouble with my feet."

Vince's mother, Willie Pearl, raised Vince by herself. "I was her one and only," Vince says proudly. "She got it right the first time, and stopped at perfection." He hung out mostly with his older cousin, Greg. "Vince used to be known as Greg Coleman's cousin," says Greg, a former punter with the Minnesota Vikings. "Now I'm known as Vince Coleman's."

Young Vince found a father figure in his Uncle Carter, a deacon at Abyssinia Baptist Church. "He was an excellent cook," says Vince. "Nothing beat his sweet-potato pies." Vince's hands begin to shape the air as if he is preparing a pie right in front of you. He pantomimes slicing up butter, folding milk and sugar into the mashed sweet potatoes and distributing cinnamon and nutmeg into the lumpy orange sludge.

When not doling out fat slices of pie, Carter dispensed lean wisdom. "He always told me, 'Whatever you do, never forget home,' " says Vince. "I guess that's why I like crossing the plate so much."

Scoring runs came naturally to Coleman; stealing bases was more an afterthought. He didn't start his career of theft until he enrolled at Greg's alma mater, Florida A&M. "I wanted to do something to catch the eye of the scouts," he says. "So I figured I'd lead the nation in steals."

In his junior year, he did. The Philadelphia Phillies drafted him. but he decided to stay in school and play football. Initially a walk-on, Vince wound up breaking all of Greg's kicking records. The Washington Redskins invited him to a minicamp in 1982. The Skins tried to turn him into a wide receiver, but all he turned was an ankle. When the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in 1982, he switched to baseball.

Coleman elbowed into the minors with a brash self-confidence, stealing 43 bases for Johnson City in 1982 and 145 for Macon in '83—an alltime pro mark. Nobody thought too much of his fielding. He wasn't a natural fielder any more than he was a natural hitter. He batted .257 for Louisville in '84 but stole 101 bases, an American Association record.

St. Louis brought Coleman up for what was supposed to be a cup of coffee in 1985. But he stuck around for dessert, stealing a rookie-record 110 bases as the Cards won the pennant. He added 107 in '86 and 109 in '87. But manager Whitey Herzog needed another Willie McGee, not another Willie Sutton. Though Coleman swiped a record 50 straight over the next two seasons, he often held up until late in the count. Herzog wanted him to go on the first or second pitch to keep the batter from falling behind. He berated Coleman for becoming complacent and on the final day of the '89 campaign hinted that the outfielder wouldn't be in his 1990 starting lineup. Everywhere Coleman went that off-season, he heard people talking.

"Why ain't you running?"

"Why ain't you playing?"

"You're all washed up, Vince."

Coleman began to believe it himself.

He was working out one day at the Y when an old lady approached. "You're a great ballplayer," she said.

"I am?" said Coleman.

"You don't deserve all the abuse you're getting in the papers."

"I don't?"

"I want you to go back next season and prove Whitey wrong."

Inspired, Coleman regained his old cockiness. He raised his average nearly 40 points and ran with abandon. When he stopped, he was a free agent. He wanted to stay in St. Louis, but he thought the Cards were stacked against themselves. "We once had All-Stars at every position," he says. "Management wouldn't resign them. Now all that's left are Ozzie Smith and that little dog that rides around in the fire truck on Opening Day."

Coleman wanted to play for a contender. Three clubs made his A-list: the Mets, the Dodgers and the Padres. Of those, only New York had him on their A-list. With Strawberry gone, the Mets were looking for a quick fix. And who could be quicker than Coleman?

His wife, Lynette, was against moving to New York. She didn't like the fast pace. "The funny thing is that she calls me Speedy," he says, adding, "It's just a nickname. Ain't no romance behind it. It has nothing to do with my sex life."

The two finalists were New York and St. Louis. "The Mets offered $2 million more," he says. "It doesn't take a math teacher to figure that one out."

Most centerfielders would sooner navigate Scylla and Charybdis than battle Shea's swirling winds. Coleman, who patrolled left at Busch, downplays the dangers. "It's just a matter of working the angles," he says. "I'll be moving back and forth in the little angles in the gap. I only worry about the angles of balls coming right at me. Line drives hit by lefties tend to hook on you; the ones by righties slice." Still. Cards manager Joe Torre predicts, "If Vinnie plays center and doesn't do a good job, it may affect him offensively."

Coleman takes this in stride—a long, loping stride. "The Mets expect no more and no less of me than the Cardinals did," he says. "My job is to get on and score. In St. Louis, the media said, 'How Coleman goes, so go the Cards.' In a sense that was true. But on this team, everyone complements each other. I'm just part of the awesome offense they already have."

Likewise, Coleman shrugs off comparisons to the moody Strawberry. "You never heard of me being late to the ballpark," he says. "Or not showing up. Or beating up my wife." His logic is impeccable.

"Vince brings an attitude of intensity to the clubhouse," says Johnson. "You see it in the way he runs the bases. He gives us one dimension we didn't have."

"One-dimensional" is what Coleman's critics have labeled him. He can't hit on grass, they say, or field on dry land. And surely he'll upset the team's delicate chemistry. "I've never been much of a chemist," offers Syd Thrift, former general manager of the Pirates and Yankees. "I'm more of a physicist. Coleman gives you electricity, and electricity makes the lights come on. In fact, he's a light unto himself, leading the way for the Mets."

Call him a Coleman lantern.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRA PHOTORONALD C. MODRAJOHNSON BELIEVES COLEMAN'S "ATTITUDE OF INTENSITY" WILL KEEP THE METS FROM BACKSLIDING PHOTORONALD C. MODRAMAKING THE SHIFT FROM LEFT TO CENTER IN SHEA MAY PUT COLEMAN UP AGAINST A WALL

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)