The Padres once tried to ship Greg Vaughn away. Then he helped power them to the World Series.
With the Padres advancing the NLCS for the first time in 24 years, I’m taking a look back at the 1998 team. The following text is adapted from my book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever.
McGwire. Sosa. Griffey.
The 1998 season was all about power, and there was a fourth player—Padres outfielder Greg Vaughn—who slugged at least 50 home runs that season.
He endured the most unconventional journey of that year’s super sluggers.
My book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever is available wherever books are sold.
Vaughn, who roomed with Ken Caminiti after his trade from Milwaukee to San Diego in 1996, was left for dead by the Padres as his average in 1997 neared the so-called Mendoza Line, .200, that separates bad from really bad hitters.
He was still getting accustomed to the National League, and never could get comfortable platooning with Rickey Henderson… the Padres decided to ship the slumping left fielder to the damn Yankees for Kenny Rogers and Mariano Duncan, but a rotator cuff injury showed up on Vaughn’s physical and the Yanks voided the deal.
Now Vaughn was effectively unwanted by two teams.
The 1998 Padres came out ahead because they were such a tight-knit team. The players even had special nicknames — like "Cousin It," "Beetlejuice" and "Hootie."
But by working on vision exercises and getting hitting tips from Tony Gwynn, and getting to play every day, Vaughn was hitting the ball again in 1998, and hitting it hard — he knocked 12 homers in May, with a .330 average.
He crushed 10 more home runs in June, and 11 in July, and seven more in August.
On the last game of the regular season, Sept. 27, Vaughn was stuck on 49 home runs. One away from 50, a mythical number that, in the age of Big Mac and Sammy, didn’t mean quite as much, but still meant a lot to the Padres — San Diego had never had a player reach that milestone.
Vaughn walked in the first, lined out in the third, flew out to center in the sixth, and found himself batting against Aaron Small with the game knotted at one and George Arias on first base.
Small delivered, and Vaughn turned on it, just like he'd done those 49 other times, and the ball floated to left, tucking over the left field wall.
In his final at-bat, Vaughn reached 50.
There would be more heroics and more homers in the playoffs. But fifty was a nifty number.