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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

Dec. 21, 1998
Dec. 21, 1998

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Dec. 21, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

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

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.

This is an article from the Dec. 21, 1998 issue Original Layout

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."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [Mark McGwire]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [Ron Vaughn]B/W PHOTO: USC BASEBALL [Mark McGwire as a USC Trojan]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Mark McGwire at bat as a St. Louis Cardinal]
"I'd like to still be scouting when I'm 80," Vaughn says. "My
goal is to be working in baseball when I kick the bucket."
"I thought he could pitch in the big leagues someday," says
Lachemann of the 18-year-old McGwire.
"Mark goes on TV and gives me credit," Vaughn says. "It just
goes to show you the kind of man he is."