Angels Sign Vaughn for $80 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mo Vaughn is an imposing 6-foot-1, 240-pound first baseman with barrel-like biceps, a shaved head, goatee, tattoo and earrings. He wears a perpetual scowl that could turn stone to powder, he is no stranger to controversy and is generally considered a menace to opposing pitchers.

Today he is an Angel.

A franchise notorious for its penny-pinching ways made Vaughn the highest paid player in baseball Wednesday when the Angels signed the former Boston Red Sox slugger to a six-year, $80-million contract with an option for a seventh year.

With an average annual value of $13.33 million, Vaughn's new deal tops the $13 million New York Mets' catcher Mike Piazza will average in his seven-year, $91-million contract and pays more per season than the seven-year, $87.5-million deal Bernie Williams signed with the New York Yankees on Wednesday.

Vaughn will receive a $13-million signing bonus, $5 million to be paid now and $8 million in 2003. He will be paid $5 million in 1999, $9 million in 2000, $11 million in 2001, $10 million in 2002, $15 million in 2003 and $15 million in 2004. There is a team option at $14 million for 2005, which the Angels can buy out for $2 million.

It marks the Angels' first signing of a marquee free agent since pitcher Mark Langston in 1990, and their most prominent free-agent acquisition since Reggie Jackson came to Anaheim from the Yankees in 1982.

And the Angels might not be done waving their Disney dollars.

They are one of the favorites to acquire free-agent pitcher Randy Johnson. And if the dominating left-hander accepts their four-year, $48-million offer, the Angel spending spree could reach almost $130 million, which is more than the Walt Disney Co. paid to purchase the team in 1996.

"No one guy can win a pennant for you," Angel Manager Terry Collins said, "but guys like Mo can have a huge impact on a team. It makes us a lot better and gives us great credibility. . . . I hope Randy Johnson sees this and says, 'Holy cow.' "

The Angels wilted in the heat of pennant races in three of the past four seasons, suffering one of baseball's greatest collapses in 1995 and losing nine of their last 13 games in 1998.

Vaughn, who has a career .304 batting average with 230 home runs and 752 RBIs in eight seasons and was the American League most valuable player in 1995, is the type of player--a tough guy with charisma--the Angels believe can prevent such disasters.

"What we were missing at the end of 1998 was a guy who was willing to say, 'Get on my back, I'll take care of this team, let's go,' " Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi said. "We want him to take a leadership role--that's important to us."

Vaughn, 30, loves the responsibility.

"I'm just going to go there and be myself," Vaughn said by telephone from his home in Massachusetts. "There's not a lot of great speeches that have to be made, it's about playing hard every day. I'm not a rah-rah guy, but I will speak my piece."

Wanted: 'Linebackers in Baseball Uniforms'

The Angels, spectators at the high-end of the free-agent market for most of this decade, made a statement on Nov. 6, stunning Vaughn with a six-year, $72-million proposal on the first day teams could bid for outside players.

The team that passed on a trade for Mark McGwire in 1997 because it didn't think it could afford to re-sign the eventual home run champion followed the offer to Vaughn with a seven-page letter saying how much the Angels coveted him. Several Angels players and coaches phoned Vaughn on the team's behalf.

"If you could read the letter they sent me, you could tell the kind of people they're looking for," Vaughn said. "They want guys who are linebackers in baseball uniforms. That's the kind of attitude they're trying to instill."

Though the Angels' pursuit of Vaughn officially began three weeks ago, Bavasi has had his eye on him for years. Asked when he decided to go after Vaughn, Bavasi said, "Oh, I don't know, around 1994."

Vaughn seemed a perfect fit for the Angels.

"Watching him from his rookie season, he took a leadership role in a city where there's a lot of pressure," Bavasi said. "I liked the way he handled himself, how his teammates fed off him. He's that kind of guy."

Vaughn was one of the most prolific sluggers in Red Sox history, following his MVP season (.300, 39 homers, 126 RBIs) with an even more productive 1996 (.326, 44 homers, 143 RBIs).

He was a driving force in the clubhouse--often outspoken and emotional and always accessible--a favorite among Boston fans, in part for his wide-ranging charity efforts, which focused primarily on children.

But his relations with the Red Sox front office were always strained, beginning with his temper tantrum after being demoted to triple-A in 1992 and ending with his bitter split from the team on Nov. 11. That's the day Vaughn rejected Boston's five-year, $63-million offer.

In between, there was much haggling over contracts and constant discord, the sources of which stemmed from Vaughn's feelings of being underappreciated by ownership, and management's concerns about Vaughn's life off the field. The result: neither side trusted the other.

Vaughn got into a fight in 1995 with a gang member who allegedly tossed a drink into his girlfriend's face. He was arrested last January and charged with drunken driving when, on the drive home from a Providence strip club, Vaughn hit a parked car in the breakdown lane. He was later acquitted.

A native of Norwalk, Conn., Vaughn signed a three-year contract with Boston before the 1996 season, but despite a weight clause that was part of the deal, he rarely allowed the team to weigh him.

Vaughn was close to signing a three-year, $30-million extension after the 1997 season, a deal team CEO John Harrington claimed could not be improved because of the team's lack of revenue in their antiquated stadium, Fenway Park.

Then the Red Sox signed pitcher Pedro Martinez to a six-year, $75-million contract, and Vaughn felt betrayed. The final straw came when the same organization that sent several representatives to a Cambridge courtroom to support Wil Cordero during his 1997 trial on wife-beating charges was a no-show at Vaughn's trial for drunk driving last winter.

Even after Vaughn was acquitted, the team insisted he enter an alcohol evaluation program. Vaughn accused the team of hiring a private investigator to monitor him off the field.

There were even indications the Red Sox wanted to include both a weight clause and a "character clause" in their last contract offer, giving the team the right to void a deal. There are no such provisions in the Angel package.

"I knew this was coming for a long time--I really had a whole year to think about this," Vaughn said. "I was not blindsided by it. . . . The way the Angels came forth as professionals, as people, the way they bargained in good faith, it showed they wanted me. Bavasi treated me with a great deal of respect. I haven't been used to that."

With Vaughn signed, the Angels will turn their attention to their pitching, which would look a whole lot better with Johnson as the team's ace. "Some might look at this and think we're done," Bavasi said of the Vaughn signing. "That's not the case."

Vaughn, the Angels' newest recruiting coordinator, has phoned Johnson, urging him to sign with the Angels. And he plans to be persistent in his efforts to woo the pitcher.

"He has an aura, he's the kind of guy who can strike fear into other teams," Vaughn said. "I'm going to call him again, do what I can to get him signed. . . . If we get him, he would make us one of the top teams in baseball, and the way the Angels go about business, they have a pretty good chance."

* J.A. ADANDE: Eighty million bucks doesn't just buy a ballplayer, it buys credibility for the Angels. D1

* DIANE PUCIN: It is still to be determined what the Angels want to be--Yankees or Cubs. D1

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