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NOMO MR. NICE GUY

Mo Vaughn seemed destined to leave his legacy in Boston. So why has so much gone so wrong?

His parents come from Baltimore. He goes to Catholic schools. He signs his first big league contract with the Red Sox. He hits towering homers and sends Fenway fans into frenzies with his patented home run trot. He has huge appetites for food, drink and women. He buys a big house on a large plot of land in the Boston suburbs, but is drawn to nightlife in the city. He is involved in a highly publicized late-night car accident with seamy undertones. He is the biggest sports hero in town kids, especially, love the big guy but he falls out of favor with club management over money and his off-field behavior.

The life of Mo Vaughn in a nutshell? Could be. But it also happens to be the story of another famous Boston slugger Babe Ruth.

So what about it, Mo? After seven years with the Red Sox, are you destined to leave Boston and create new mythology in another hardball town, maybe (gulp) New York? Are you the Black Bambino? I ll tell you one thing, Vaughn says with a devilish grin, I definitely could have partied with him.

Vaughn doesn t believe the Sox are still paying for letting Ruth go to the Yankees. He does believe the uptight Boston front office has paid for not holding onto its best players. Like Roger Clemens. And Jose Canseco. And now, maybe, Mo Vaughn.

When you put a team on the field that s good enough to win the World Series, we ll win it, he says. Curses? I don t believe in that stuff. You got to have the horses. And you got to keep em.

Amid ample evidence that the Red Sox don t want to keep him, Mo Vaughn stands at the crossroads of his professional life, wondering whether he ll leave his mark as a permanent icon of Boston sports hi s tory, a` la Bobby Orr, Bill Russell and Yaz, or whether he ll follow in the path of Ruth, Carlton Fisk and Clemens one-time heroes who had to take their big games and personalities out of town.

I d like to stay and retire here, says Mo, but if it s not possible, I ll go out and try to help another organization. Playing in only one town is important, but it has got to be important to the team, too. Everybody would love to be a Cal Ripken or a Kirby Puckett, but those clubs wanted them to be that.

I look at my life like this: I m 30 years old, I ve been playing since I was eight years old and I ll play 10 more years. I just want to do it right. I just want to go out and be strong for 10 more solid seasons. If it s not here, hopefully I can go somewhere and try to win a ring.

Mo is no Babe, but he is a slugger of Ruthian dimensions. He admires his tape-measure home runs with a flip of the bat and a gaze toward the stadium horizon. His signature play is the home run trot, head bowed, shoulders hunched, black high-tops chugging around the bases. He even looks good when he swings and misses.

Unlike many athletes of the 90s, he has a strong sense of sports history. Mo grabbed the No. 42 jersey before it became trendy to honor Jackie Robinson. He respects the game and the players who came before him. He knows that this season will have an impact on his place in baseball history.

Reggie Jackson, who knows something about history and superstardom as he himself once put it, I underestimated the magnitude of me grabbed Vaughn at the batting cage in Fort Myers in March and told him that the reputation of the game is what matters. Mo is a throwback to Schmidt, Rice or Jackson, Reggie said after a legend-to-prodigy chat. Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, those guys. He s part of the core of what we need sports to be. There aren t a lot of players today that you can look up to. He s a guy making big-time 90s money who gives fans what they should be getting 100% all the time on the field.

Against this backdrop, Vaughn s non-negotiations with the Red Sox lurch toward October, when, unless his contract is extended, Big Mo will be free to walk, as Clemens did two years ago. Hard feelings and irrationality exist on both sides of the stalemate. Sox management feels Vaughn changed the conditions more years, more money after $75 million was committed to Pedro Martinez. Sox CEO John Harrington and GM Dan Duquette asked Vaughn to submit to alcohol evaluation before extending his contract. Vaughn blasted back, warning Sox fans, Watch out for the smear campaign. It ll be coming soon to a theater near you. And it will be a double-feature. Next, I ll be doing drugs. They re going to paint a whole pattern of negativity. That s typical of the way things go around here.

Duquette and Vaughn make no attempt to cloak their dislike for one another. Publicly, Duquette speaks about players having to do more to stay in shape once they turn 30. (For the record, Vaughn has been on the DL just once in his sevenyear career.) Privately, Duquette worries that if he signs Mo to a five-year deal, he ll look like the Nutty Professor come 2002. Ask Dan Duquette if he likes Mo Vaughn, and the GM answers with a cryptic, Mo is a very good hitter.

Vaughn feels the GM has been baiting him, signing a succession of players to long-term pacts without much haggling. When Duquette announced a contract extension for second- year player Nomar Garciaparra ($23.25 million, and a potential $45.25 million over seven seasons), the Duke referred to Nomar as a complete player & (who) can play both sides of the field. He also complimented Nomar s careful eating habits. The GM did everything but come out and say, Nomar s not a fat, drunken slob like Mo.

Put an exact time on the transformation of Vaughn from hero to problem, and it might be 2 a.m., Jan. 9, 1998. Having spent the previous evening at the Foxy Lady strip club in Providence, R.I., Vaughn was arrested for drunk driving after his car careened into an empty vehicle parked in a highway breakdown lane. State troopers later testified that he failed eight sobriety tests and was unable to recite the alphabet past the letter P, in three tries. (A Foxy Lady manager said that Vaughn had eaten the equivalent of the left side of the menu that night.) Other Mo episodes were recalled: a Boston bar fight in 1995, an alleged altercation outside another strip club, this one in Cleveland, in 1997.

Rather than have his client plead guilty, Vaughn s attorney employed a fat defense, insisting that the slugger couldn t stand on one leg for a field test because he was 50 pounds overweight. Rhode Island law prevents the prosecution from informing a jury that a defendant refused a breathalizer test, which Vaughn had. He was acquitted, but the messy case eroded some of his support in Boston. Fat and drunk may have played in Babe s day, but that s a tough sell in 1998.

I felt like a dog after that, like I had committed murder, Vaughn says. What hurt me after the whole thing went down, was, How could I put myself in that type of predicament? After striving all my life to do the right thing and be a person for people to look up to, here I was bringing shame to myself.

Vaughn s community work is well-documented, but entirely sincere. Mo goes to The Nutcracker with 250 kids from the Boys and Girls Club. Mo goes to the Jimmy Fund to cheer up kids with cancer. Mo speaks at an elementary school for the Red Sox Adopt-A-School program. Mo serves as spokesperson for the Greater Boston Food Bank and the Catholic Charities of Boston. Mo oversees his own Youth Center in Dorchester, a neighborhood that has seen its share of trouble.

Does all this change now? I don t know, Vaughn says. I ve always done what I thought was right from the beginning, and I ll continue to do that. I don t know what it would take to smooth the situation over. All I can do is continue to be the man that I ve been and use my capacity in this game to help people.

I can t be angry or upset if some attitudes have changed. That s what I should expect. In life, everybody makes mistakes, but as time passes, it ll ease up. I ve done some good things in Boston that nobody can take away from me. I ll always continue to do that if that s what s needed.

Mo inherited his sense of commitment from his parents, Leroy and Shirley, both retired educators. It was Shirley, in fact, who taught young Maurice to bat lefty in the backyard of the family s home in Norwalk, Conn. She s also the one who still whacks him upside the head when he s bad. My parents are old-school, and Mom is just as physical as Dad, Vaughn explains. They believe in respect. You get out of line, you get smacked. Even now.

Mo felt the unfiltered wrath of Leroy and Shirley after he flipped his truck. All that criticism that I got from the outside? he says. It s nothing next to what I got at home. No one can say anything to me worse than what my parents can say to me.

Vaughn admits he s just like my mom. Sometimes we clash. My competitive edge really comes from her. There s nothing like a relationship between a mother and a son. My mom swears I don t need any other woman in my life but her. Maybe I feel that way because I m not married.

The Red Sox probably wish Vaughn would tie the knot, settle down. During the off-season, he has too much free time to spend away from his 12-room colonial in suburban Easton. (The Babe had a chicken farm on 80 acres in Sudbury.) Mo s house is equipped with a three-room gym, a batting cage, 25 TVs, 100 stereo speakers, 2,000 CDs, two garages and four cars & plus a cadre of weight trainers, chefs, sycophants and friends. Mo often moves about with an entourage that includes Bryan Wilson and Roosevelt Smith, boyhood pals who run his youth center; Terrence Elder, an old friend who lives in nearby Stoughton; and trainer Pete Rappoli, who looks like he swallowed barbells, but is not a bodyguard.

Vaughn actually has an innovative explanation for the strip club forays with the guys: security. I had an incident at Roxy [a Boston nightclub], where there was no security. We started going to strip joints because the men who go there aren t interested in Mo Vaughn. They re only interested in the women. It s more of a security situation than a form of entertainment.

The nudie bar as safehouse? Why not just tell us he reads Playboy for the articles? Too bad, Mo never considered hiking in the White Mountains.

Will Mo change?

He does say from now on he ll use a limo rather than drive himself after nights on the town. But he says he won t submit to alcohol evaluation unless all Sox players and front office personnel do likewise: On the field, I ve been a professional, he says. I ve never had a drinking problem. There s no way I could have been consistent on an everyday basis for all those years and have a problem. Everybody has a couple of beers here and there.

John Valentin, a teammate at Seton Hall and in Boston, says there s no way Vaughn has a drinking problem, adding, If we don t sign Mo Vaughn, who s gonna want to come here? If I owned the team, I d tell Mo, How long do you want to play for? I d let him write his ticket.

The Boston front office cannot afford to discount Vaughn s value in the emotionally charged arena of race relations. This is an organization, after all, that hasn t exactly been a model of progressive behavior. Tom Yawkey s Sox were the last major league team to integrate. As recently as 1991, Boston had only one black on its Opening Day roster (Ellis Burks). And the club is currently defending itself against a suit brought by a former black employee who is charging that he was racially harassed in the workplace.

Mo Vaughn represents a counterpoint to all that: a black star athlete who has chosen to live year-round in greater Boston while promoting themes of racial harmony and free thought. I haven t had any trouble in Boston in terms of it being racist, says Vaughn. I respect myself, and people in turn give me the same type of respect. When I came here, everybody talked about how it was hard for minority players in Boston. The biggest thing I ever did was just walk about with my shoulders back. With that, the community accepted me, and we got along real well. I never thought of it as bridging gaps.

Those words don t sound like what Bill Russell said when he finished playing with the Celtics. Nor do they square with the image of a town with the fewest black faces in any pro sports crowd this side of Salt Lake City. Vaughn gives the Red Sox credibility in Beantown s black community, and that would be missed if he is allowed to go.

While he was bashing the front office this spring, Mo crushed every baseball he saw in Florida: .484, 10 HRs, 24 RBI in 20 Grapefruit League games. He looked almost trim like Ted Kennedy in an election year. During the first week of the season, he hit as if each pitch he saw was one of those Foto-balls with Dan Duquette s face on it: .476 with two homers and seven RBI.

Mo doesn t want to leave Boston, but it pains him to be treated like an eating, drinking fool, distrusted by his own bosses. When it comes time for me to retire, it ll be because I want to retire, not because I m not in shape, he says. People have taken their shots at me, and that s warranted when you put yourself in a position like that. But I m going to have the last laugh. I want to sign here. I d like to retire here. But I can t make the ballclub sign me. The price goes up every day.

At 30, in seven major league seasons, five as a regular, Vaughn has compiled an impressive reLsumeL: .298 BA, 190 HRs, 637 RBI. That places him, at this stage of his career, in pretty good company: Willie Stargell, Albert Belle, Fred McGriff, Ted Kluszewski, Rudy York. But the last three seasons, he has averaged .314, 39, 122. If Mo could come close to sustaining those numbers through the 10 more years he wants to play, he would find himself in even better company: George Brett (who averaged .298, 17 homers, and 82 RBI in his 30s), Frank Robinson (.285, 26, 79), and Hank Aaron (.301, 37, 101).

Mo doesn t have Hall of Fame numbers yet, but he wants the chance to build them. That s not all: I don t know how people look at me on the field. All I ve ever tried to do is go out and help the ballclub win. Numbers are one thing, but I think I bring the attitude of success to my team. I think respect throughout the whole game is the most important thing.

Vaughn has made mistakes, some bigger than others. But none of them compare in size to the one the franchise might be making. The Red Sox once demonstrated to the Bambino who was boss. They shipped his fat butt and his attitude and his demands to New York. They showed him & and he showed them.

Mo s on deck.

Dan Shaughnessy is a columnist for The Boston Globe