He said he didn’t hear the fans calling his name. Thousands of them were at Fenway Park yesterday, rhythmically chanting something about wanting Mo. The Red Sox had lost their final game of the season, 2-1, to the Indians, and this was a way of saying goodbye. But Mo Vaughn was already walking down the creaky wooden runway that leads from the dugout to the clubhouse. It’s hard to hear people calling you from there. It’s even more difficult to hear them calling you when you’re in New York, Baltimore, Toronto, or Texas.
If you attended or watched yesterday’s game, you can probably display the following bumper sticker prominently: ``I saw Mo Vaughn’s last game at Fenway, Oct. 3, 1998.’’ While Vaughn wasn’t ready to say that, he also wasn’t ready to say he was staying. All you had to do was listen and watch. You could see he was constructing the kind of farewell that you don’t see in mainstream films and the kind you don’t hear in Top 40 love songs: It is the kind of exit where you don’t have to say what you’re doing; it is already obvious to those who truly know you.
So never mind Vaughn’s statement to Jim Rice in the midafternoon sun. A couple of hours before Game 4 of the American League Division Series, Vaughn stood near the batting cage and told the Sox hitting coach that this was his last hurrah. More important, you had to see Vaughn strolling through the Sox clubhouse 10 minutes after the loss. He went to each teammate and shook hands with most of them. Some, like John Valentin, Dennis Eckersley, and Nomar Garciaparra, received huge hugs with accompanying slaps on the back. That was the only noise in the Sox’ private quarters for a few minutes. Certainly, there was someone rattling a piece of paper or pounding a baseball mitt. You just didn’t hear it. The focus was on Vaughn.
Eventually, he would walk to his locker and deal with the lines and lines of cameras rotating around his stall. He stood there as only Vaughn can, a wad of tobacco in his left cheek and a water bottle in his left hand. He was asked about leaving Boston several times. Many times he said he wasn’t thinking about it, that the only place he was going was ``to the weight room.’’ Or: ``I’m going home to get some sleep.’’
A few times, you could see tears well in his eyes. But Vaughn handled those like a professional hitter handles a bat on a check swing. He was just skilled enough to hold back. It also helped that there were high-wattage lights flashing in his eyes, hiding the fact that those were tears -- not the light -- dancing in his pupils. ``This team has nothing to be ashamed of,’’ he said. ``I’d go to war with these guys.’’
He would battle with them because he said they took private matters and argued about them as a family. But when outsiders came into their mix and they didn’t want the intruders to know something, they would go back to that eerie quiet. But ``they talked more trash about my [contract] situation than I did.’’ Vaughn said he thanked all the men who helped the Sox win 92 games. He probably didn’t know that his father, Leroy, stood outside the team’s clubhouse doing the same thing.
And that’s the intrigue of Vaughn. He always deals from the heart. You may not agree with the opinions in his outbursts. Or the timing of them. But you have to respect that he is a man of the commoner who is as passionate and as flawed as anyone you know. Earlier this year, he helped the grounds crew roll out a tarp and the next day explained that he has been doing that all his life. He used to work at a grocery store in Norwalk, Conn., called Stew Leonard’s, pushing a mop. He used to work for the city of Norwalk, digging ditches. So he knows about hard laborers and the importance of the underappreciated or harshly judged. Imagine what it must have meant for Tom Gordon to hear Vaughn say, ``I’d go to you again, man.’’ That was after Gordon gave up two runs, the winning runs, in the eighth inning.
That is what you call respect. It is also why Vaughn will leave Boston, taking his severely crouched stance, his mangled batting cap, and various arm pads to another city. This is a man who wants to be respected more than anything. He and Dan Duquette may have stopped their verbal warfare in July, but that doesn’t mean the feelings that produced their arguments went away. If the Sox are to keep Vaughn, they will have to show that they respect him. They also have to understand that paying a man millions of dollars doesn’t mean you respect him; it only means that you believe he can help you get what you want (a championship).
What if yesterday was the final goodbye? Is he satisfied with what he left?
``Look at the numbers, man,’’ he said. He added later that after all the battles between him and Duquette, people forgot that ``I was the one holding the bat.’’ It is a bat that produced 230 home runs and more than 700 RBIs from 1991 until the end of the most recent regular season. It was also a bat that was active in the postseason, good for seven hits in 17 at-bats.
But Vaughn is wrong. This is beyond numbers. He genuinely likes this city, the people who make it run, and the youth who have inspired him to keep the Mo Vaughn Youth Development Center a reality. He likes the fact that he can stroll Blue Hill Avenue and the residents don’t look at him as if something were wrong. Nothing is wrong. Vaughn knows the difference between Roxbury and Dorchester. He can tell you the best neighborhood spot to pick up a dance-hall reggae tape, where to find a good game of pool, and what restaurant has the best jerk chicken. This is truly his city.
I do not envy Duquette this morning. He said he would not let another Roger Clemens situation happen again, watching a player leave and getting nothing in return. Well, that’s happening. Duquette also has to replace Vaughn. He has to replace the bat. He has to replace the clubhouse force. He also has to replace the community contributor. Guess what. That’s not going to happen. Quick. Name an available slugger who can do that here. I don’t think you can.
The Mo Vaughn Era is over. He will remember the rumors of private investigators following him. He will remember being snubbed in front of an ``All-Star Game ‘99’’ sign at Fenway. He will remember the alcohol evaluation tests the Sox asked him to take. He will remember the teammates and city he loves, too. ``Even the bad times were good times, man,’’ he said. ``Tell the fans that.’’ Vaughn will remember all that. And he will leave. Some will say he left here looking for more money. They’ll be wrong. He will leave Boston in search of something he always gives. It’s called respect.