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Vaughn is eager to hit the ground hitting for Rays

Confident of his ability, the 36-year-old knows he might move on.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 18, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The billboards around town feature younger players. The 28-date promotion schedule for the season doesn't include a bobblehead night in his honor.

Anybody remember Greg Vaughn?

The 36-year-old began his third season with the Rays, albeit belated because of a sore left calf, by going 0-for-3 with a walk in a 7-4 loss against the Twins on Sunday at Florida Power Park.

"It felt strange," said Vaughn, who is 36 homers shy of 400 for his career. "I can't do anything about what I've already missed. I'm just trying to focus on where I want to be when the season starts."

Where he'll be at season's end is uncertain.

There is a possibility Vaughn could be with the team in September as its designated hitter and/or outfielder.

But the Rays likely wouldn't mind shedding his $8.75-million salary sooner rather than later, and Vaughn, who has a limited no-trade clause, surely wouldn't pass on a chance to play for a contender.

"I want to play on a winner," he said. "If I was going to sit here and say, 'I wanted to not win a championship' I might as well go home. I think that should be everyone's goal. If it's here or somewhere else then so be it.

"But I don't have any control over any of that stuff. All I can do is go out there every day while I'm here and do what I can do to help this team win. If somebody thinks I could help them and it works out where I can go somewhere else and play, and play for a chance to win a ring, then I don't see any hesitation of me leaving."

For now, Vaughn is a Ray, and unless he can convince manager Hal McRae otherwise, it appears Vaughn will spend most of his time as the team's designated hitter where his power will affect an opposing team's approach to the Rays order.

"He gives us an air game as opposed to a ground game," McRae said. "He's more of a legitimate threat (to hit homers) than anyone we have in the lineup."

Jason Tyner (leftfield), Randy Winn (centerfield) and Ben Grieve (rightfield) likely will handle the bulk of the outfield duty though Vaughn will play some.

"I know I'm a good leftfielder and I know what I do when I play the outfield," said Vaughn, who started 57 games in leftfield and 77 at DH last season. "I have a lot of energy to be a DH. I enjoy playing defense. It's tough to sit ... for sometimes 40 minutes and go up there and try to hit."

As an assortment of injuries mounted in the past two seasons, primarily involving his legs, Vaughn's statistics have slumped.

He batted .259 with 95 home runs and 237 RBIs in 311 games with the Padres and Reds during the 1998-99 seasons. Compare that with his .243 average, 52 homers and 156 RBIs in 263 since joining Tampa Bay.

"When you don't have your legs, it's tough to hit," said Vaughn, who hit .233 with 24 homers and 82 RBIs in 2001. "You try walking around with a bad leg. Imagine going up there trying to hit big-league pitching and stuff.

"If I stay healthy, I'm going to do what I do."

Beside answering questions about his health and ability, Vaughn can expect just as many inquiries from teammates this season.

As one of only a handful of players with playoff experience, and by far the most vocal of those, Vaughn is the designated leader of the youngest team in the majors.

"He's a positive presence," said shortstop Chris Gomez, who also played with Vaughn in San Diego in 1997 and 1998. "I see a guy who can stay professional and positive and making winning a priority in tough times. That's what impressed me the most (in San Diego). That's a true professional in my eyes."

It's not always an easy job.

"Without a doubt it's tough, especially when you have so many young guys," Vaughn said. "It's tough to get through to everyone. I don't have all the answers, but I do know what it feels like to go out there and expect to win and expect to compete on a daily basis. I know what that's like.

"If I didn't believe that we could play better than we've shown since I've been here, I wouldn't probably be talking to you guys because there wouldn't be anything to talk about. But I feel we can. It takes work. It takes hard work. It takes a lot of dedication, before the game, after the game. Good teams do things differently. ... They just don't pop in, play the game and leave. Hopefully we're on the right track."

Vaughn will play every other day this spring until he and McRae decide he's fit to play the outfield. His objective in the final two weeks isn't logging a certain number of at-bats. It's getting his timing down to be prepared when the season starts next month.

"I want to be right on schedule," Vaughn said, "getting three hits a night, driving in runs. That's exactly what I want to do."

That and win.

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