Stroke Of Genius

Stroke Of Genius

Sixteen years ago a coach at USC had a brilliant notion: turn Mark McGwire, a pretty good freshman pitcher, into a great hitter. Here's how Mac got his groove
Sixteen years ago a coach at USC had a brilliant notion: turn Mark McGwire, a pretty good freshman pitcher, into a great hitter. Here's how Mac got his groove
December 21, 1998

The story of California is the story of prospecting: chapter upon chapter of hopeful searching by relocated souls. All that changes is the object of the search, be it gold, real estate or a role in the Hollywood myth-making machine. This is another chapter in the story.

Ron Vaughn is a prospector. One bright, clear and cool Saturday morning in December, he pulls out of his driveway in Corona, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, in his pickup, whose odometer is clicking toward 60,000 miles after only 20 months. He's a scout for the Oakland Athletics, assigned to L.A., Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. He is headed to Cypress to watch high school kids play. He's panning for gold with a clipboard, a radar gun and a seat cushion.

"Ninety percent you can eliminate even before they warm up," Vaughn says when he gets to the field. "Just look at their bodies. A kid should have some strength and size." He scans the metal bleachers and recognizes three other scouts among the two dozen or so spectators. "It's always the same guys," he says. "A lot of scouts, this time of year, they shut it down. They figure they can see a guy in the spring. I enjoy baseball. I'm 50 years old. I'd like to still be doing this when I'm 80. My goal is to still be working in baseball when I kick the bucket."

Says Rod Dedeaux, the longtime USC baseball coach who retired in 1986, "If you look at some of the great baseball scouts, you see they are humble people who have such a love for the game. They're Baseball Joes. Ron is a credit to the game. He really loves it. He's a Baseball Joe."

A skyscraper has rivets. Baseball has scouts: unseen, underappreciated but fundamental to the strength of the game. Good thing that rivets don't fail as often. Scouting has an 83% failure rate; that's the estimated percentage of drafted players who never make it to the big leagues. The ragged game at Cypress shows why. Vaughn is watching 16-year-old kids who have never taken razors to their chins and trying to determine whether eight years from now they'll recognize and hit big league fastballs that rise and sink, sliders that break fiendishly late and curveballs that start out headed right for the medulla oblongata. No other sport requires its talent pickers to forecast as far ahead as Nostradamus.

Among scouts Vaughn has become a legend, all because of an evaluation he made 16 years ago as an assistant coach to Dedeaux. Vaughn hit the mother lode. At the conclusion of the 1982 college season he decided that an 18-year-old freshman pitcher, a baby-faced righthander who had batted .200 that year, should go to the Alaska summer league and devote all his attention to hitting. Vaughn prophesied that the future of Mark McGwire, a good pitching prospect, would be even brighter if he were converted to a hitter. With that assessment and his mentoring of McGwire that summer as an assistant coach for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Vaughn launched the career of the most prolific single-season home run hitter.

"I can guarantee you that if Mark had stayed a pitcher, he wouldn't have had anything close to the success he's had," says San Diego State baseball coach Jim Dietz, who was skipper of the Glacier Pilots during the summer of 1982. "He'd probably be out of baseball right now. Because he had someone like Ron who championed him early on, Mark was really blessed."

For getting McGwire to dedicate himself full time to hitting and for tutoring him privately for years afterward, Vaughn gained nothing besides respect in the off-the-radar world of scouts. He didn't get rich, and he certainly didn't get famous. He did, however, get something else for going to Alaska and turning McGwire into a hitter. He got fired. He became an Unemployed Joe.

"I have no doubt Ron lost his job at USC because of me," McGwire says.

Ron Vaughn never had a Ron Vaughn. He grew up in Chanute, Kans., during the 1950s and early '60s, not a major league team within 150 miles. He came to love baseball by listening to Jack Buck and Harry Caray call St. Louis Cardinals games. Before his father would get home from his job as an auto mechanic, Ron would sit close to an old wooden console radio and warm himself in damn near the same way other people warmed themselves before fireplaces. Stan Musial always looked immaculate and heroic on the radio. Ron was 14 the day he heard that Stan the Man had retired. He cried over the news. Even to this day Vaughn--who, if he were any more reserved, would need to be hooked up to jumper cables--gets teary-eyed just thinking about Musial.

In June 1965, just before Ron turned 17, he moved with his family to Glendale, Calif., so that his mother could care for her sister, who was suffering from a tumor on her eye. Ron played baseball at Glendale College, a two-year school, and intended to play at Cal State-Northridge, but he severely sprained his right ankle playing basketball and, despondent about being unable to play baseball, dropped out of school. He took a job as a clerk at the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. "I thought I was done with baseball," he says.

A year later, more or less on a whim, he attended an open tryout for the Los Angeles Dodgers and was signed to a minor league contract. He spent five seasons in the bushes, never rising higher than Double A and playing any position at which he was needed. "I didn't know how to hit," Vaughn says. "In those days you had a manager and maybe a roving hitting instructor, and that was it. I didn't start to learn about hitting until I started coaching and began really studying it."

"Ron was not a guy who could get by on talent," says Grady Fuson, Oakland's director of scouting. "He's really had to work at it. He's always been a low-maintenance guy, with no ego, and I think that's why he connects with people. Scouts aren't going to get rich making their $35,000 to $40,000 per year. People like him are very special--people who don't look at a job as leading to something else or think another $5,000 is going to be the difference between being happy or not."

After he quit playing in 1974, Vaughn worked as an assistant coach at San Diego State before Dedeaux hired him in '77. Four years later Marcel Lachemann, the USC pitching coach, told Vaughn he should go look at a recruit Lachemann had just seen play three American Legion games. "Ron, you've got to see Mark McGwire," Lachemann said.

"McGwire? Isn't he a pitcher?" Vaughn asked.

"You should see him hit the ball," said Lachemann, who added that McGwire had hit five home runs in those three games.

"I thought he could pitch in the big leagues someday," says Lachemann, who left Southern Cal a few months later to join the California Angels as a coach. "He threw in the mid- to upper 80s. You could project him into the 90s easily. But just how far he would go is hard to say."

The Montreal Expos drafted McGwire in the eighth round that year as a pitcher, but since they allocated only $8,500 to signing him, he decided to go to college. As a USC freshman he went 4-4 with a 3.04 ERA in 20 games, striking out 31 batters and walking 29 in 47 innings. Though McGwire struggled in his 75 at bats, Vaughn noticed signs of a fearsome power hitter. He saw the natural leverage and the lift that the 6'5", 200-pound McGwire imparted to the ball.

Toward the end of McGwire's freshman year, Dietz and Vaughn discussed their need for a first baseman on the Glacier Pilots. Vaughn recalls suggesting that they transform McGwire, who would be on their roster as a pitcher, into a first baseman. "Are you sure?" Dietz said.

"I think he can be an outstanding hitter," Vaughn said.

"O.K., sure," Dietz said.

Not long after arriving in Anchorage, McGwire began to miss his girlfriend, Kathy Hughes, who would later become his wife. He missed his parents, Ginger and John, and his four brothers. He broke down and cried in front of Dietz and told him he wanted to go home. Dietz had coached other players in Alaska who had made the same request, and sometimes he gladly accommodated them. Not a player with McGwire's potential. Dietz told him he was there to become a hitter. Then Dietz telephoned John. "I don't think it's in Mark's best interest for him to come home," he remembers saying. "Both Ron and I feel he can be a much better hitter than a pitcher."

"I agree," Dietz recalls John replying. "It's just that since Little League he's always been the biggest kid on the team, so he was always the pitcher. Don't send him back."

Captive 2,500 miles from home, McGwire turned himself over to Vaughn. A batting cage near the rightfield line of a craggy American Legion field in Anchorage became a laboratory for greatness. McGwire was a crude hitter. He wrapped his hands tightly around the bat, opened his left hip and shoulder wide, kept all his weight on his back leg and took a long, loopy swing with no help from his trunk and legs. "I was so raw," he says. "I had hit in high school, but my main concern was pitching. I didn't have any kind of high school coaching. Ron was the best thing that happened to me."

McGwire was a mustard seed of a student. He was determined to get it. The first thing Vaughn did was get him to quit stepping into the bucket. "We had to keep his body square," Vaughn says. So he told McGwire to take some swings while imagining that he was squeezing a volleyball between his knees. It worked. McGwire still bats with his toes and knees pinched inward as if a volleyball were there.

Every day and every game in Alaska taught him a lesson. How to recognize pitches. Work the count. Quicken his swing. Get extension with it. "The biggest thing that separates Mark from other players I've seen," Vaughn says, "is that you'd give him something and he'd work on it until he had it down cold."

McGwire stopped thinking of himself as a pitcher. "It happened quickly," he says. "I liked playing every day. You had every day to prove yourself, rather than waiting every fifth day to pitch."

Eureka! McGwire led his team in hitting, with a .403 average and 13 home runs. Then he returned to USC, but Vaughn didn't. Dedeaux fired him, Vaughn says, for coaching in Alaska over the summer instead of remaining in L.A. and working with Trojans players who stayed close to school. Dedeaux says he doesn't recall dismissing Vaughn, but Vaughn says, "It doesn't matter. It wasn't a big deal then, and it's not now."

"When I got back to school," McGwire says, "I talked to Rod Dedeaux about not pitching anymore. He didn't want to hear it. He thought I should do both. I told him I always thought I could be the best I could be if I focused on only one thing. It wasn't until I started hitting all the home runs that he came around."

As a sophomore McGwire hit 19 homers in 53 games, more than any player in USC history had hit in one season. Dedeaux used him as a starting pitcher seven times that season, but never again. As a junior first baseman, McGwire hit 32 home runs in 67 games, as many as any Trojan had hit in his career.

"Everything had changed when he got back from Alaska," says Randy Robertson, McGwire's roommate at USC, who had played with and against him since grade school. "You could see he was more familiar with the strike zone and was getting the most out of his power. He dedicated himself to hitting. It didn't matter if I brought a girlfriend over; he'd sit on the couch in front of the TV in his boxer shorts doing curls with weights."

The A's drafted McGwire with the 10th pick in 1984, two years after his work with Vaughn in Alaska. Two years later he hit the first of his 457 home runs in the majors.

Vaughn, meanwhile, took substitute-teaching jobs and served as a volunteer coach at two Southern California colleges before landing a job scheduling maintenance work on machinery at a nectar-making factory. "I still had the baseball bug," he says, so he continued to work with McGwire in the off-season, giving him free help in two-hour sessions about three times a week at Mount San Antonio College. After the 1986 season Vaughn recalls McGwire saying to him, "They want me to get another foot out of my swing. I don't understand what I'm supposed to do."

Says Vaughn, "He needed more extension. I told him, 'If you get your hip going through to the pitcher, that will guide your hands through.' Once he started to get that idea, the ball just jumped off his bat."

Vaughn also worked with Rob Nelson, a lefthanded power-hitting first baseman in the Oakland system who was seven months younger than McGwire. The A's thought so much of Nelson that they moved McGwire to third base in the minor leagues. Nelson was Oakland's Opening Day first baseman and its All-Star ballot representative at that position in 1987. But after only 24 at bats, in which he hit .167, the A's sent him back to the minors and gave the first base job to McGwire, who would go on to hit a rookie-record 49 home runs. Nelson's big league career ended in 1990. He had a .178 lifetime average and four homers.

In 1987 Vaughn landed a job as a scout for the Chicago White Sox. He joined Oakland three years later. His has been the typical scout's career of hits and misses, of four Nelsons for every successful major leaguer. Vaughn was certain that college player Alex Sanchez, for example, would be a star in the big leagues. He was wrong. But he signed Eric Chavez and Ryan Christenson, rising young players for Oakland.

Vaughn, who is married and has a grown stepson, continued to work with McGwire until "five or six years ago," he says. The Athletics once called him to Oakland for an emergency checkup on McGwire during his troublesome 1991 season, in which he hit .201 with 22 home runs. "I found out it had more to do with what was going on with him mentally than physically," Vaughn says. "There really wasn't much I could do."

Their visits are social now, such as Vaughn's appearance at McGwire's annual Christmas party. They occasionally chat by telephone or meet for lunch in the off-season. "He knew my stroke real well," McGwire says. "I know my stroke the best now."

At 6:18 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 8, Randy Robertson, having just prepared the softball fields for his church league in Pomona, Calif., turned on his car radio in the parking lot and sat transfixed with the engine off. The Cardinals game was on. Robertson's three sons and even his mother-in-law had been spellbound by the 1998 baseball season. "Before, she didn't know the first thing about baseball," says Robertson, who sells software to educational institutions. "This year she'd say to me, 'Oh, I saw Mark hit another home run.' If someone like her, who's around 60 and never followed baseball before, was into it, imagine how many people are now interested in the sport just because of Mac."

At precisely the same minute, Rob Nelson was watching the Cardinals on television in his Sierra Madre house, where he keeps a framed copy of the 1987 All-Star ballot. He watched McGwire come to bat against Steve Trachsel of the Chicago Cubs. It made Nelson think about his own career, about how fortunate he had been just to be in the big leagues, but also about what might have happened if some team had given him 300 or even 200 at bats to prove himself. "I don't dwell on it," he says, "but it's something I'll always be curious about."

He never was Mark McGwire. Maybe he can be Ron Vaughn. Nelson operates Hit One Deep hitting camps in the San Gabriel Valley and gives private lessons to kids as young as eight. "Keep it simple and keep it positive, like Ron" is how he describes his method. Over the last two years he has written to 25 major league teams, asking about a job as a scout. He has received 25 rejections, most of them form letters. There must be a million Baseball Joes out there.

As McGwire stepped to the plate, with Robertson listening in his car and Nelson watching at home, Vaughn was following the game on TV in the press box of Edison International Field in Anaheim. He was working, of course--sent on a rare assignment to scout a major league team, to file reports on the Angels. Then, after the Minnesota Twins finished batting practice, the fans let out a cheer. All over the country, anybody who knew or saw what had just happened in St. Louis had to smile. No one, though, smiled as knowingly as Vaughn. His star pupil, the former pitcher, had become the first major leaguer to hit 62 home runs. And he had done it in the uniform of Vaughn's beloved Cardinals, the uniform of Musial, another pitcher turned hitter, who played his last game in the week McGwire was born.

"It's like a fairy tale," Vaughn says eight more McGwire homers later. "It's unreal. Some people thought somebody might break Roger Maris's record someday. But by nine? Maris broke the record by one. That's how you break records. But nine?

"And who am I? I'm just some guy nobody knows. And Mark goes on TV and gives me credit. Most players don't do that. It just goes to show you the kind of man he is. It was a great feeling watching him break the record. It was almost like watching someone in my own family do it."

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)