Los Angeles — The first time you see slugger Bob Horner of the Atlanta Braves, you wonder which railroad in the area is missing one of its freight cars. There are linebackers in the National Football League who don't have the power through the shoulders that Bob is able to generate.
This is the bull-necked kid the Braves took first in the 1978 college player draft, dropped into their lineup at third base without any minor league training , and then grinned while he hit 23 home runs in 89 games.
Veteran pitchers who thought they could get him out consistently with breaking stuff gave up that idea quicker than the Ford Motor Company discontinued the Edsel. They were also wrong when they decided that maybe he would go for balls just off the plate. Instead he either waited for the pitch he wanted or walked.
"There are certain guys who come into this world with the ability to hit, and Horner is one of them." Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox explained. "You don't try to teach strike zones or anything so obvious to someone like Bob, because with them it's all instinct anyway. The other thing is his strength. There isn't an opposing pitcher he can't pull most of the time. Even balls he doesn't meet squarely sometimes reach the fences."
If you were to look at Horner's low-rent batting average right now, you'd think the guy was swinging with a piece of wet spaghetti instead of half a tree trunk. But this current home run total (26), compiled despite missing spring training because of a salary hassle with mangement, still makes him the No. 2 slugger in the National League.
"I don't care how good a hitter you are, nobody does much against major league pitching unless he's got his timing, and you don't walk in off the street and find it," Cox said. "That was Horner's problem at the start. He needed time to find his groove and then capitalize on it."
July 1980 was all Bob Horner -- the kind of month Joe DiMaggio had in 1937 when he hit 15 home runs, a record for July that would later by duplicated by Hank Greenberg and Joe Adcock.
The Braves slugger only made it to 14, but he did bat .327 and drive in 32 runs. Some of his homers traveled so far that the Braves front office didn't know whether to measure them or conduct an aerial survey.
Horner is so nonchalant during interviews that his answers to questions kind of take you by surprise. He seems less impressed than he has a right to be with his talents, and credits a lot of his success to the fact that he has never had any trouble hitting the breaking ball.
"Usually I don't get many fast balls, because when you're able to time a fast ball properly you've got a good chance of hitting it out of the park," Bob explained. "Mostly I try to stay with balls that are in the strike zone and not do the pitchers any favors.
"When a guy isn't hitting the way he thinks he should, there is a tendency to want to change things right away," he continued. "But if you've got any confidence in yourself at all, the best answer is to just ride it out. Evry good hitter has his own groove and eventually he's going to find it."
Although Horner has had contract disputes with owner Ted Turner almost since the day he signed his first bonus pact, leading to speculation that he might be traded, things have been much calmer lately.
"This is a subject I don't want to get into right now," Bob said. "There are still problems, but I'm willing to live with them for a while, and maybe we can get something settled at the end of the season."
Hall of Famer Luke Appling, who played 20 years in the majors with the Chicago White Sox and is currently a troubleshooter in the Atlanta organization, says Horner is one of the strongest men he has ever seen.
"This kidhs talent with the bat is 100 percent natural, and basically there is no set away for the pitchers to get him out," Appling explained. "I also like him for another reason -- his guts. People never write much about it, but even though Bob gets thrown at and knocked down a lot, he never gives any ground. Today some of these kids want to run and hide in the clubhouse if they even see a brush-back pitch."