Sweet Swinger

Hyperactive, Elvis-loving Gregg Jefferies is happily hitting a ton for the St. Louis Cardinals
July 17, 1994

"For some reason," Gregg Jefferies, the St. Louis Cardinal first baseman, says amiably, "I seem to be fascinated by people who are dead."

Jefferies was dressing for batting practice when he said that, and, indeed, he had on a T-shirt bearing a portrait of Elvis Presley with the caption I'M DEAD. Earlier in the day Jefferies had worn a T-shirt with the visage and statistics of Ty Cobb. Until they were stolen on a road trip last year, T-shirts bearing the likenesses of dead rock star Jim Morrison and long-departed film idol James Dean also were part of his collection. "I don't know," says Jefferies. "Maybe I'm kind of sick."

More likely, he's just intrigued that the dead can go so long without moving. In Jefferies, 26, the Cardinals have a man who can't nap, who sleeps for five hours or less a night and who snaps awake at the slightest sound. On a typical day when the Cards are in St. Louis, he will get up early, play golf, shoot pool, run errands, play video games, crawl on the floor with his 11-month-old son, Jacob, sing with a karaoke machine, go to the movies, disrupt clubhouse card games by filching the odd ace, spray line drives around Busch Stadium (from both sides of the plate), watch late-night TV and finally nod off around 3 a.m.

"He's hyper," says his wife, Melanie.

"He's always been hyper," says his father, Rich.

"I would describe him as...energetic," says his teammate and friend Todd Zeile, who upon further reflection adds, "hyper."

Jefferies hasn't yet produced his own line of SLEEPLESS IN ST. LOUIS T-shirts, but it's common these days to see Missouri youngsters wearing his number 25 on their backs. Last year, in his first season as a Cardinal, Jefferies batted .342, hit 16 homers, drove in 83 runs, stole 46 bases and made the All-Star team for the first time, as a reserve. This year, with free agency beckoning after the season, Jefferies continues to pile up the hits. At week's end he ranked sixth in the National League in batting (.330) and ninth in on-base percentage (.405), had had the league's third-longest hitting streak (17 games) and had been voted the National League's starting first baseman for this week's All-Star Game.

The Cardinals, it is said, may not be willing to pay the prevailing wage for this kind of production, so next year Jefferies could move to his fourth team in five years. Then again, he may continue to rotate his dead-teen-idol T-shirts under his Cardinal jersey. "I don't want to play anywhere else," he says. "This team is close to being a great team if we can just stay together a few years."

At this point one has to remind the reader: This is the Gregg Jefferies, the once petulant phenom who wore out his welcome with the New York Mets when he was barely 24. This is the same Jefferies who was reviled by the tabloid press and teammates as sulky, immature, coddled, arrogant and tantrum-prone; the same fellow who wrote Met fans a stop-picking-on-me letter that was characterized in a New York Times headline as VINTAGE WHINE.

"He was perceived as a selfish player," says David Cone, a former Met pitcher who is now with the Kansas City Royals. "I knew him a little better, and I didn't think he was. He was just an intense competitor who wasn't good at controlling his emotions."

In 1992 the Mets traded Jefferies to the Royals in a five-player deal also involving Bret Saberhagen, who won two Cy Young Awards while pitching for Kansas City. Interestingly, Jefferies' reputation seemingly was passed on to the likable Saberhagen, who soon became one of the Mets' resident boors and miscreants. Jefferies, by way of contrast, wound up with a club he describes as "the greatest bunch of guys I've ever met in baseball." As a Royal he found himself golfing regularly with veterans George Brett and Wally Joyner, trading barbs with younger players Brian McRae and David Howard, and schmoozing with a less volatile media. His teammates even gave him an affectionate nickname: Pugsley, for the Addams Family character.

In appreciation Jefferies became a regular guy and decorated his clubhouse stall with ELVIS MARRIES MISSISSIPPI WAITRESS clippings and other Presley artifacts. "He wasn't spoiled at all," recalls K.C. broadcaster Fred White. "I got the impression he just wanted someone to like him."

On the field Jefferies was the most productive player in an anemic K.C. lineup, batting .285 with 10 homers, 75 RBIs and 19 steals and striking out only 29 times in 604 at bats. As a third baseman, though, he was a liability, committing a league-high 26 errors. So worried was Jefferies about his defensive lapses that his hitting suffered. "I remember riding the bus to Tiger Stadium and counting how many righthanders they had in the lineup," says Jefferies. "That's how much it wore on my brain."

The Royals burned a little gray matter, too, trying to find a position for the trisacophobic Jefferies, before finally deciding to trade for defense and power. In February 1993 they sent him to St. Louis in a four-player deal for switch-hitting, strikeout-prone outfielder Felix Jose. "Gregg was a hard-nosed guy, ready to play every day," says Royal manager Hal McRae. "But we were trying to improve ourselves—especially defensively."

If it was clear what Kansas City had in mind, it was less certain what the Cardinals planned for Jefferies. Eyebrows were raised when St. Louis manager Joe Torre announced that the new Cardinal, who stands 5'10" and throws righthanded, would be his first baseman. Eyebrows are still raised when line drives sail over the glove of the leaping Little Elvis. But diligent practice has made Jefferies a more than passable fielder: He was fourth in fielding percentage among National League first basemen last year and at week's end was second this year. "He's made some tough plays at first," says Torre. "He's quick, got good hands and when he dives for a ball he usually catches it."

Even more surprising was the speed with which Jefferies blossomed into the hitter scouts had long predicted he would be. Here, as in other areas, Jefferies credits experience and maturity. "I thought I would hit home runs in New York, and it hurt me," says the former free swinger. "I'd see four pitches a game." Now, a more patient Jefferies usually sees at least four pitches an at bat. "He has tremendous bat speed," says Cone, "and he has the same stroke from both sides of the plate, which is very unusual."

Maintaining that stroke is an obsession with Jefferies, although he doesn't like to call it that. When the Cards are hitting, he goes to the clubhouse and studies his last at bat on a VCR, frame by frame. If ever his swing feels off, he phones his father, Rich, the baseball coach at Parkside Intermediate School in San Mateo, Calif. And like the fabled Lou Piniella, who treated every mirror as a teaching aid, Gregg always has hitting on his mind. Entering a St. Louis restaurant with his visiting parents recently, he suddenly assumed a batting stance and asked Rich for a critique. "Looks great," said the father. "I said that so he'd go to dinner," Rich said later, jokingly. "If I'd said something else, dinner wouldn't have been the same."

What makes Jefferies such a good hitter? Pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who before joining the Cards this season had faced him when Jefferies was with both the Mets and Royals, says it's Jefferies' awareness of what pitchers are trying to do. "He takes more 2-0 pitches than anybody I've been around," says Sutcliffe. "He figured out that 2-0 is not the count the pitcher has to give in on." Another St. Louis pitcher, Bob Tewksbury, stresses Jefferies' ability to wait on the ball—"He can just use his hands and react"—and his refusal to swing at pitches he can't handle. "He won't do that," says Tewksbury. "When he does, on occasion, that's when you've got to run for cover in the dugout."

That suggests that Jefferies, who now confines his helmet-smashing to the relative privacy of stadium tunnels, has not lost his intensity. The difference is, he now plays for a team that values it. "The whole franchise was a little drowsy, so he was just what this team needed," says St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jeff Gordon. Says Torre, "He's a Cardinals-type player. He manages to get dirty on an AstroTurf field."

The only cloud on the Jefferies horizon, then, is his next contract. That it will rain voluminous bucks is not in doubt—he won a $4.6 million contract in arbitration this year. But where will it rain the bucks, and will he be happy there? "We like the spark he adds, and I'd like to have him in a Cardinal uniform for a lot of years," says St. Louis general manager Dal Maxvill, "but we want to see what kind of [player-compensation] system will be in place before making a big commitment."

"Obviously, I'd like to stay here," Jefferies says. "My son was born here, the fans are great, and it's a great young team." But his talks with the Cardinals, whose disappointing 42-42 record at week's end indicates they may not be quite the team Jefferies thinks they are, are on hold until the owners and the players' union reach a new collective bargaining agreement, which the owners hope will include a salary cap.

In the meantime, work proceeds on Jefferies' new house in Pleasanton, Calif. There will be a special room for his growing collection of Elvis memorabilia, which already includes Presley family scrap-books and unpublished photographs of the King. "Gregg wants an Elvis cape or a guitar, something to use as a centerpiece," says Melanie, a former Miss Kentucky whom Jefferies met in a Florida restaurant during spring training in 1990.

Wherever he plays next, even in New York, it's unlikely that Jefferies will again be labeled a sulker. After Sean Berry of the Montreal Expos came down on Jefferies' heel in a bang-bang play at first on June 22—splitting Jefferies' shoe and leaving a six-stitch gash in his foot—Jefferies was sidelined for three games and lost a 14-game hitting streak. He handled the layoff with equanimity.

"He's in heaven right now," Rich said before a recent home game, watching Gregg clown around with teammates. "If there's a Utopia for anybody, for Gregg it's when he puts on a uniform." Jefferies put it differently earlier in the day, while walking from the clubhouse to the field. "I'm just happy," he said, "because now people can see who I really am."

Soon after, baseball's most valuable insomniac was out on the sun-scorched turf, waving his arms and yelling and burning some of that excess energy. His demeanor said it all: a shout instead of a pout.

TWO PHOTOSBILL FRAKESTo keep his cut picture-perfect, Jefferies constantly checks it on videotape, in mirrors and with his dad, Rich (above). PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONA flop in the field with the Mets (above), Jefferies has energized the Cardinals with his intensity. PHOTOBILL FRAKES[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL FRAKESDad's team plays on artificial turf, but Jacob prefers natural grass.

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)