This evening finds me sitting in the press box at Raley Field, home of the San Francisco Giants Triple-A affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats. I covered the River Cats as a freelance journalist in 2004 and 2005, and one thing I learned early on is that there are often interesting, unexpected people to be found in press boxes. In my time here a decade ago, I crossed paths with Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers and Moneyball author Michael Lewis, among others.
I came out this evening in hopes of interviewing Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who was on-hand to be inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame. I took part in a group interview with Perry, highlights of which I’ll post Saturday. Unexpectedly, though, I ran into former All Star and Sacramento native Greg Vaughn, whose son Cory plays for the River Cats opponent for the evening, the Las Vegas 51s.
Unlike Perry, I got to chat with Vaughn one-on-one for about 10 minutes just prior to game time, having a wide-ranging discussion with him. Highlights of our exchange are as follows:
Baseball Past and Present: Are you out here tonight for your son?
Vaughn: Yeah, I’m a baseball fan, and I love the River Cats, but my son’s with Las Vegas. So for me, I wouldn’t miss it.
That’s awesome. What’s he rated as a prospect? Is he in the top 100?
Vaughn: I’m not sure. You know, I don’t look at any of that stuff to tell you the truth. I figure, if he plays the way you’re supposed to play, he’ll get where you’re supposed to get. So if he goes out there and plays and does what Cory’s supposed to do, Cory’ll be in the big leagues. I mean, what good is it to say, ‘Oh you’re a top 100 prospect.’ What’s that mean? You still have to produce.
What does he do best as a player?
Vaughn: Well, I think, he’s a tool freak. He’s a tool box. He can run, he can hit for power, he has a great arm. It’s just being able to process it and do it on a consistent basis, night in and night out.
How much has baseball changed since you retired?
Vaughn: It was always numbers. We were always taught, ‘Put it down in black and white,’ and you can’t take that away from you. But at the same time, I don’t know what OPS is or [WAR] and all that stuff. I was taught to hit and produce runs and all that stuff took care of itself.
Were there any guys who were into the advanced numbers?
Vaughn: Probably towards the end of my career all that stuff was coming out, but like I said, thank God I was fortunate enough to play for organizations that knew that they had good baseball people around me. So it wasn’t a computer telling me I was supposed to go up there against Randy Johnson and take three or four pitches and get one swing of the bat. It’s too hard to hit. This game is hard. A round bat with a round ball, a guy that’s throwing 100 miles an hour, and you got the best athletes in the world out there fielding baseballs. I wasn’t that good. I needed three swings, if not more, every at-bat.
How do you think you’d fare in today’s game? I know strikeouts are really high. Do you think your strikeouts would be higher if you were playing today?
Vaughn: I don’t think they’d be higher. They were what they were when I played. I don’t know. I think I’d be okay you throw a lot of fastballs. It just depends what organization I’d be with because If I had to take pitches, I probably wouldn’t do very good. If they were going to let me be me, I think I’d be alright.
Why do you think the strikeout levels have gone up so much in the majors? Do you have any idea?
Vaughn: I just don’t think kids are getting enough swings. Also, coming up, kids aren’t allowed to figure things out on their own. Ever since they’re eight, nine, ten, eleven years old, you have coaches, ‘Don’t swing, don’t do this, don’t do that,’ so you can’t go out in the driveway and play strikeout, learn how to take balls off your chest, rifle them to right field, play where left field is closed, and do all those things. So it’s a situation where as good as these coaches [are] and thankful I am that we have these coaches coaching our youth, they’re hurting them in the sense that they’re not letting them play. They’re not letting them experience certain things that allow them to become players.
You mentioned you’re a coach yourself, right?
What do you try to impart to your players?
Vaughn: For me, compete. Play and compete. That’s the biggest thing for me. You know what, go out there and hopefully I can make you better today and it will be fun… We don’t bunt. We teach them how to bunt, and if it’s a certain time of the year and we have to get a bunt down to win the championship, or something, yeah. But I’m not going to bunt on day one of the season just because I’m trying to put a notch on my belt. I’d rather kids learn how to play the right way and how to have fun when they play.
I wanted to ask you as well, yesterday was Jackie Robinson Day, and baseball today, it seems like African American players are represented at some of their lowest levels since integration. Does that bother you at all?
Vaughn: Oh without a doubt. Living in Sacramento, living out in the country, it costs $250, $300 for a kid to play Little League now. And then, they have five coaches on the coaching staff. Those five coaches have five kids. So you got the rest of the team battling for four spots. Those five kids are never coming out… African Americans, you know, first of all, if my mom had to pay $250, $300 for me and my brother and sister to play, being a single parent, it wouldn’t have happened. The bats are $400. The shoes, the spikes, the travel, it’s just really an expensive sport.
Do you think the R.B.I. Program is doing enough these days?
Vaughn: Well, I don’t think there’s ever anything doing enough [but] the R.B.I. Program definitely helps. It gives kids an opportunity that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity. So, for me, I thank the R.B.I. Program for going into those cities. We need more of them. We need Major League Baseball to help us out and get more of them so we can get more kids in baseball.
One thing there’s been some debate about, even just on my website, is there’s some people who say these days, more African American kids are coming up and they’re playing football and basketball instead. I’ve heard other people say that’s nonsense, if somebody’s really good at baseball, they’re going to play baseball. What do you make of it?
Vaughn: The African American has to be really, really good. You know what I’m saying? He has to be really, really good to get on the field. In those other sports, they’re faster, they don’t have to sit and clean up the field, and I think they have a better opportunity to play, a fairer chance. Because like I said, you got five coaches, you got all the rest of the people vying for four spots, so that African American player is going to have to be really, really good.
As a major league veteran and an African American, is there anything in particular that you try to do to promote baseball among younger black youth?
Vaughn: Yeah. For me, like I said, you know growing up, everyone played when I was coming up, Hispanic, black, white, upper class white, lower class white, the neighborhood as we called it. We need to get back to that. But it’s our job as society to give these kids an opportunity, to give them a fair shake, to let them go out there and hone their skills… A lot of these kids are coming from single parent homes. They never have a dad out there playing catch with them. They’re not going to camps. They might have the tools or more tools than some of the other players, but they don’t have the experience. So now, if they don’t get it done, they’re just going to sit on the bench, and we need to give them opportunity to fail and coach them right.
Hasn’t it kind of always been that way in baseball? I thought even during like the 1950s, if blacks came up in the minors and they weren’t a star player, their opportunity didn’t last as long.
Vaughn: I agree 100 percent. That’s life in general. I don’t play the race card, but it is what it is. What my grandmother told me a long time ago, ‘If he’s right here, if someone’s right here, be three times above that. Don’t make it close.’
That’s gotta put pressure on you hearing something like that. Was it ever intimidating to know in the back of your mind that you had to be that much better?
Vaughn: No, but I expected it from myself. It was something that I think fueled me. It inspired me. It gave me the ammunition to go out there and do better.
With that kind of competitive drive, is it ever tough being retired from baseball? Do you ever miss it?
Vaughn: Oh without a doubt. Competing, you do miss it. But all I gotta do is go to a golf course and it’ll humble me very quickly.