It’s that time of year again, in the wonderfully wacky world of baseball, when someone is ahead of Babe Ruth’s home-run pace.
This time it’s Dale Murphy. Sure, it’s only May, but apparently it’s not too soon to get excited.
Then, there’s Rick Mahler. The Braves’ pitcher is 7-0 after just 25 games. Let’s see, if he keeps up that pace, he’ll win, uh, 45.36 games. And Chief Noc-a-Homa will lead a resurgence of the Indian nation.
Doesn’t anyone remember the Frank Sinatra lyric? You know the one: flying high in April, shot down in May.
Which brings us to Vince Coleman. Yeah, him.
He’s 23, he’s a rookie, he can run like the wind, he plays right field for the St. Louis Cardinals and he’s your latest phenom.
Fresh up from the minor leagues, he has played 19 games and has stolen 20 bases. He’s the kind of guy that made calculators popular.
“I’ve had a lot of ‘em, from Willie Wilson to Willie McGee,” Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog said of base stealers he has known. “But he could be better than any of them.”
He’s got the speed, he’s got the knack and right now he’s got the Cardinals hoping he’s the real thing.
“I’ve never had a streak like this,” Coleman said.
Not in the big leagues anyway. Of course, he had played before in the big leagues. Not a game. But he has St. Louis abuzz.
And the great thing about this particular phenom is that he even has a story to go along with him.
It seems that when Coleman, a sturdy 6-footer with a running back’s build, was in college at Florida A&M;, he was a heck of a football player. Why not? He could run the 100 in 9.4.
But he didn’t carry the ball and he didn’t catch the ball. He kicked the ball.
“I wanted to be a wide receiver,” Coleman said. “But they wouldn’t let me. My cousin (Greg Coleman, a punter in the NFL) played there before me. He was a punter and he wanted to play wide receiver. One time they let him, and he got hurt.
“So when I asked, they said, ‘No way.’ I never asked again.”
He didn’t think about it again until the Washington Redskins asked him to a free-agent camp. They wanted him to play wide receiver.
“I figured I’d try baseball,” he said.
So, the fastest punter in baseball signed with the Cardinals, and he has been in the fast lane ever since.
In 1982, his first year as a pro, Coleman stole 43 bases in 58 games at Johnson City, Tenn. He was just getting warmed up. The next year, he move up to Macon, Ga., a Class-A team, where he stole 145 bases, a pro baseball record. He also hit .350.
“That got some people excited,” Herzog said.
People started making plans. Already they had turned him into a switch-hitter. “They told me what it had done for people like Willie Wilson and Maury Wills, so I figured I’d go along,” Coleman said.
They also moved him up to Louisville, Ky., the Cardinals’ Triple-A team. He hit only .257 and struck out 112 times. But he stole 101 bases.
One more year, the Cardinals figured.
But then, a week into the season, Willie McGee got hurt and Tito Landrum got hurt. Coleman was 3 for 22 at Louisville, but the Cardinals were desperate. Coleman got the call.
The first night he sat. The second night he got four hits.
He stole one base that night, and he has stolen 19 since, 20 out of 25. And he’s hitting over .300.
“Some people were surprised, but they’d never seen him,” fellow rookie Terry Pendleton said. “I wasn’t surprised. He can flat fly. In two steps, he’s going full bore.”
Coleman has beaten out two-hop grounders to second base. And Pendleton has this advice for shortstops: “Do not hesitate.”
Another person who wasn’t all that surprised is Vince Coleman.
Like most base stealers, he’s a little on the confident side. He’d stolen bases before, remember.
“He doesn’t think anyone can throw him out,” Herzog said.
Steve Yeager got him Wednesday night, but the Dodger catcher really had to work at it. Coleman led off the fifth inning with a single to right. Six times Rick Honeycutt threw over to first base. Twice he tried pitching out. One was fouled off, however.
With a count of two balls and one strike, Honeycutt pitched out again. This time, Coleman was going, and Yeager threw him out.
But the batter, Lonnie Smith, then walked. You could say the Dodgers respected Coleman.
“They have a job to do, and I have a job to do,” Coleman said, smiling. “I just try to do mine first.”
He said he has always had a passion for stealing. “Starting with hubcaps,” chimed in a teammate.
Coleman laughed. He’s enjoying all this, all the attention, all the fuss.
“The folks in St. Louis are going crazy,” Herzog said. “I tell you, the kid is fun to watch.”
Coleman: “People have been hearing for a couple of years that they had this guy in the minors stealing all those bases, so I guess there was a lot of expectation.
“I can hear them. I can hear the ‘there he goes.’ When I do break, they start to roar. When I steal a base, they clap--real loud. You can’t miss it. Yeah, I enjoy that.”
As a kid, he would love to watch base stealers. “Chills would run through my body,” he said.
Now the Cardinals have the chills, a team that loves to run, a team that has stolen more than 200 bases in each of the last three seasons.
The question is: Can Coleman hit well enough to play in the big leagues?
“Can’t tell,” Herzog said before Wednesday night’s game. “He’s made an awful big jump. He’s struck out 13 times in 76 at-bats. As long as he hits the ball, he’s got a chance (to get on).”
Coleman, who is switch-hitting, is working at it. He has only been hitting from the left side for three years, and it takes awhile. Last winter, he went to Puerto Rico, and he figures to be back next year.
“It has taken a lot of hard work,” he said, “but the one thing I’ve never lacked is a willingness to work hard. I’ve got a lot more work, I know. But I’m willing.”
Herzog is rooting for him.
“I can’t say he’s here to stay, or I’d be lying,” Herzog said. “But I sure like what I’ve seen so far.”