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To Vaughn, pride is far bigger than any bat he wields

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- So he stunk last year. You think that's a revelation? You think the thought doesn't creep into Greg Vaughn's head every hour or so?

The man would wake up in the middle of the night. Big, comfy bed. Deep, sound slumber. And he would bolt upright and wonder where it went wrong.

So he could be released this spring. You think that's going to scare him? You think, at this point, he isn't aware of the possibility?

Wilson Alvarez, Jose Canseco, Vinny Castilla, John Flaherty, Roberto Hernandez, Juan Guzman, Fred McGriff, Kevin Stocker, Steve Trachsel, Gerald Williams. All gone. The team he came to anchor. Poof. It exists no more.

Look, here's the thing.

Vaughn's career is winding down. His shoulder is weak and his production has been in decline. At 37, he has little time remaining. He will never be part of a winning team in Tampa Bay and he will never live up to the $34-million contract he signed in the winter of 1999.

Just one thing remains. Pride. It brought him to the majors. It made him who he is. And he's determined to leave here with it intact.

"Way after I'm done playing this game, I want people to say, 'I remember the kind of person Greg Vaughn was.' That's what's important to me," Vaughn said. "I'm more proud of that than hitting 350 home runs. When they talk about what type of person you are, that's more of a reflection of who I really am. The person my mother raised."

This is one of his roundabout ways of explaining, and maybe apologizing for, comments made last week about Rays general manager Chuck LaMar.

LaMar said Vaughn had not performed up to expectations and suggested the veteran had to prove he belonged on the roster this spring.

Vaughn responded, via a telephone interview with the Times, that he had nothing to prove. And that his accomplishments in the game were more impressive than LaMar's.

When Vaughn arrived Tuesday for spring training, LaMar tracked him down and they cleared the air. Vaughn later said the issue was dead.

But what set him off originally? Why would a player so self-critical get bent out of shape by the somewhat mild criticisms of a GM?

Perhaps Vaughn felt he was blindsided. That, despite his numbers, he has been a loyal soldier. That he has mostly held his tongue while the payroll has gone backward and the roster has been ripped apart.

"I never bad-mouthed this organization. Not one time," Vaughn said. "This organization gave me a tremendous amount of respect by bringing me here. They gave me a tremendous amount of money and I know I haven't played like I'm capable of playing. But some things have changed as far as the team. A lot has changed since I've gotten here. I never once complained.

"I helped as many young guys as I could. I tried to be there for everyone. I tried to continue being a professional. I don't know. Maybe I overreacted."

Which may also explain his horrid 2002. Typically a slow starter, Vaughn got off to an even worse start than usual last season. Like a fish caught on a hook, he seemed to make it worse the more he fought.

By the time a shoulder injury sidelined him in June, Vaughn seemed incapable of setting himself free.

"It was like being in a roller coaster without being fastened in. You think you're going to fall out every time you go over the hill," Vaughn said. "Hard work had gotten me to the majors, so I thought it was the only answer.

"So I worked harder. It was stepping harder on the gas. I never used the brakes. Sometimes you have to ease off the gas. Maybe take a couple steps backward before trying to go forward. I never took those two steps backward. I kept going full bore."

Tricky thing, pride. It can push you ahead and it can push you too far. Some players are so lacking in pride, their passion never matches their potential. Others, like Vaughn, can lift an entire clubhouse with it.

It was not just his 40-homer potential that moved the Rays to sign him. It was his reputation as a leader in Cincinnati, and before that San Diego, that convinced them he was a good match.

The Rays had been a team without a lot of spark. The biggest names in the clubhouse, McGriff and Alvarez, lacked strong personalities.

The Rays wanted Vaughn to rule by force of his personality. The only problem is there has never been enough talent on the roster to make his personality much of an issue.

He has done his part where he can. Vaughn has been particularly good taking young hitters under his wing. But nobody appreciates a leader when a team is going the wrong direction.

This is not the kind of team Vaughn agreed to work for. Nor has he been the type of player the Rays paid to bring aboard.

Somewhere between his slump and Tampa Bay's salary purge, the two sides have passed in the night. Now, they are stuck with each other for one more season. That is, unless the Rays release him sooner.

"I'm not going to make the organization the scapegoat because things haven't worked out, because we haven't won games," Vaughn said. "I made the choice to come here. I can only try to get back to being the player I know I can be. If they decide they want me to move on, then I'll move on."

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