Baseball is the sport that cackles back at can't-miss kids.
Baseball humbles every player sooner or later. Baseball confers
greatness stingily, in its own sweet time.... At least that's
what the bow-tied essayists and sandlot scouts solemnly tell
us--until a phenom like Los Angeles Dodger outfielder Raul
Mondesi comes along, first lighting up the big leagues as a
rookie and then making it clear that as good as he already is,
the best is yet to be.
Mondesi is only 24. He has played little more than one major
league season. His 5'11", 220-pound physique is as squat as a
washing machine. The raves that followed his unanimous selection
as 1994 National League Rookie of the Year might be more easily
dismissed if his statistics weren't even better this year.
Through Sunday he was batting .320 and was among the National
League's top five in runs (23), home runs (eight) and RBIs (21).
On top of that he has exceptional speed and defensive skills.
During the course of a game Mondesi is liable to crush a
tape-measure home run, make a Gold Glove-caliber catch at the
warning track and tear around the base paths so brazenly that
even a veteran outfielder like Ellis Burks of the Colorado
Rockies is left shaking his head. "I was playing him a little to
left center," Burks said after a recent game against the
Dodgers. "I busted my butt to get to a ball he hit a little to
right center. Yet when I looked up he was already sliding into
second base. I didn't have a chance."
Welcome to the club. As impressive as Mondesi's stats were for
the strike-shortened 1994 season--a .306 average, 27 doubles,
eight triples, 16 home runs and 56 RBIs in 112 games--it's the
anecdotal asides like Burks's that stick with you.
May 28, 1995
Last season, for instance, Mondesi threw out the Houston Astros'
Craig Biggio at second base by such a big margin that Biggio
thought someone had played the old hidden-ball trick on him. The
play the Dodgers mention most, though, is the time Mondesi cut
down the Cincinnati Reds' Tony Fernandez from the rightfield gap
last season. "I'm sure Fernandez has hit that ball to the same
spot 100 times and had a stand-up double every time," Los
Angeles general manager Fred Claire says. "Raul threw him out by
10 feet. When you see a play like that, you say the only people
who've ever made that kind of play are the greatest who ever
played the game."
When Dodger coach Manny Mota is asked who Mondesi reminds him
of, he doesn't stop at Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds. "Raul
reminds me," Mota says, "of Roberto Clemente." In addition to
playing the outfield like the late Pittsburgh Pirate great,
Mondesi, who led major league outfielders with 16 assists last
year, also is a free swinger like Clemente was. Mondesi hit
safely in 28 out of 30 games during one stretch in '94 and twice
hit game-winning home runs.
"How would I pitch him?" L.A. catcher Mike Piazza says, laughing
and pounding a fist into his mitt. "How about just putting down
a couple of fingers, then saying a few Hail Marys?"
Still sound like too much hyperbole? Watching him play two games
picked at random, like the ones on May 5 and 6 against the
Rockies at Coors Field, is all it takes to understand. In those
games the righthanded-hitting Mondesi smacked a triple to the
opposite-field wall, stretched a flare single into a double and
sent a 450-foot home run hurrying out of the park, the ball's
trajectory low and unyielding as it headed toward the leftfield
seats. Twice over those two days Colorado manager Don Baylor
ordered intentional walks to Mondesi though it meant pitching to
Piazza, the Dodgers' cleanup hitter who was batting .481 at the
time. And twice Rocky coach Ron Hassey held runners at third
when Mondesi fielded hits in center and reared up with his
throwing arm cocked like the hammer of a pistol.
The one time a Colorado base runner did test him, Mondesi tore
into the right-centerfield gap with his back to second base, cut
off a base hit by Larry Walker, then wheeled and threw a
letter-high strike to the bag. On the fly. While falling
backward toward the rightfield line. Dodger shortstop Jose
Offerman calmly tapped the tag on Walker, who, clearly stunned,
stood staring out at Mondesi for several moments before
returning to the dugout.
"That was the ball game," L.A. rookie pitcher Todd Williams said
later, fingering a game ball from his first major league win.
The Dodgers had blown all but three runs of a 10-run lead when
Mondesi made that play to open the bottom of the eighth, and the
Rockies did not score again.
Asked about his performance over those two days, Mondesi
playfully said, "Am I doing good?''
The Dodgers were lucky to have found Mondesi. He was a
17-year-old boy from a barrio in the Dominican Republic, when,
in June 1988, a neighbor wrangled him an invite to Campo Las
Palmas, the major league club's year-round training center in
Santo Domingo. The mass tryout was well under way when scout
Pablo Guerrero rushed over to the camp's director, Dodger vice
president Ralph Avila, and said there was a kid Avila really
ought to see.
"What I remember first was the sound--just the sound of ball
coming off bat," Avila says. "If you've been around long enough,
you don't have to see the distance the ball goes to know it's
flying out. There's this clean sound of the bat that tells you
it probably is. Even before I could see him hitting, I heard
At the plate, of course, stood Mondesi, then a 5'9",
155-pounder, who'd grown up playing ball with the standard
equipment of a poor Dominican kid: a milk carton for a glove, a
sock stuffed with paper for a ball and a guava tree limb hewn
into a bat. Mondesi says he had no idea Avila was watching him.
The pitches just kept coming, and he just kept smashing the ball
beyond the mound of grass that served as the leftfield wall 385
feet away. His speed and throwing arm had already tested above
average. "Sign him immediately," Avila told Guerrero. "Don't let
him get away.''
When Guerrero and another Dodger employee drove Mondesi home to
San Cristobal that afternoon to get his mother's approval to
sign him, word raced through the neighborhood. Dominicans like
to brag that their country of seven million people is known for
two exports: sugar and big-time baseball players. The
three-month winter league season is a highlight of the year,
with the returning major leaguers received like national heroes.
Passion for the game runs deep. "So when the Dodgers said they
wanted to sign me," Mondesi says, "my heart was just pounding,
His father, Ramon, had died when Raul was seven, and his mother,
Martina, raised her six children on wages she scratched out
working at a laundry. As quickly as the Dodgers could produce a
contract, Mondesi and his mother signed it. Then an impromptu
neighborhood party began. "Everyone came over, and some guys
poured beer on my head and rubbed it in to celebrate," says
Mondesi, who received $4,000 as a signing bonus. "It was the
best day of my life--that and my first day in the big leagues."
Mondesi's skills were so raw that the Dodgers left him in Santo
Domingo to play for their team in the Dominican Summer League in
1988 and '89. But he was a quick study and hit .303 the next
year for L.A.'s rookie league team in Great Falls, Mont. During
the '91 season he shot up three rungs in the Dodger system,
starting the year at Class A Bakersfield and finishing at Triple
Mondesi began the next season as the Albuquerque Dukes' hottest
hitter. But when the Dodgers came looking for an outfielder to
get them through a couple of weeks in late May, they promoted
Mondesi's more seasoned teammate Tom Goodwin. Mondesi was
The Dukes left on a road trip the next morning, but Mondesi
purposely missed the team plane. Dodger officials were notified,
and a stiff fine seemed in order. But Avila, who was by now
something of a father figure to Mondesi, said, "If you really
want to punish him, choose something that will really hurt him."
That same afternoon Mondesi was called and told to get to the
airport immediately. He was being sent down to Double A San
Antonio. Mondesi spent the rest of the year there.
Los Angeles still had serious misgivings about Mondesi's
attitude when he went home to play in the Dominican League that
winter. Long worried about his top prospect's fast living off
the field, Avila had Mondesi tailed for two months during the
winter season. Mondesi often stayed out until 3 or 4 a.m., as
Avila well knew, but the hired hands reported back that he
didn't drink, smoke or take drugs. "He was being the macho man,
enjoying the attention after games,'' Avila says. "He was
driving too fast and chasing girls, things like that.''
The admonishments from Avila, as well as those from Dodger
coaches Mota and Reggie Smith, manager Tommy Lasorda and Claire,
finally started to sink in that winter. Mondesi married Ada
Sanchez, whom he had met at a birthday party, and they soon had
a son, Raul Jr. (he's now 2-1/2, and another child is on the
way). The Dodgers and Mondesi were feeling better about each
other by the time he reported to spring training in 1993. Even
though Mondesi was ticketed to start the season in Triple A,
Smith and Lasorda went out of their way to build Mondesi's
confidence and prove they held no grudges. They threw him 100
to 150 breaking pitches daily to hasten his development at the
Mondesi earned two call-ups to the majors that year and hit .291
with four home runs in 42 games. Smith believes a talk Lasorda
had with Mondesi after the '93 season made a lasting impression.
"Tommy sat Raul down and told him, 'If you want to play in the
big leagues for me, you're going to have to do what I tell you
to do, when I tell you to do it, or I'll make sure you stay in
the minors as long as I'm managing here,'" says Smith. "Now no
one here works harder than Raul. He can be tough to handle, but
I think he just wanted to be in the big leagues more than
And now that he is? "He gets so excited," says Offerman. "He's
like a little kid.''
Lasorda calls Mondesi "my wild stallion." He's still liable to
snap a bat handle with his bare hands or slam his batting helmet
against the dugout wall after making an out with the bases
loaded--he had just such outbursts in those two games against the
Rockies earlier this month. But even in those cases when he
lashes out, his good humor returns quickly. Asked how he decides
when to risk stretching a single into a double, he smiles
impishly and says, "I look to see if Reggie [Smith] is saying,
'Go, go, go!' at first. And if he doesn't, I go anyway."
The Dodgers are willing to live with his daring. For his part
Mondesi seems committed to a work ethic that could help make him
a great player. In the midst of his season-opening 12-game
hitting streak, Mondesi asked Smith if they could start the
100-curveballs-a-day routine again. When asked which achievement
he would like to pull off most this season--leading the league in
hitting, home runs or RBIs--he says, "I'd like to go straight
across the board."
Win the Triple Crown?
"Yeah,'' Mondesi says, breaking into a smile. And who's to say