The season of Greg Vaughn began with a mustache. More accurately, a goatee. It was well-groomed and altogether unremarkable—the kind that cable-knit-wearing dads sported in the Lands’ End catalog. You see, Greg Vaughn loved his goatee. Loved it as much as his pair of Rottweilers, Pebbles and Bam Bam. And he loved those darn Rottweilers so much so that he had one tattooed on his biceps “Hit or Die” Kesey-style.
The goatee fueled his 50 home run season in 1998. It was a signifier, a source of comfort. His two children (real ones, not the dogs) only knew their father as a goateed man and he was not about to frighten them by unveiling the secrets hidden beneath those chin and upper lip follicles. (I feel you on that on, Greg. My dad shaved his mustache at some point in the ’90s, after living a fully mustachioed life, and my little sister wept.)
Problem is that on February 2, 1999, Vaughn was traded from the San Diego Padres, along with Mark Sweeney, to the Cincinnati Reds for Reggie Sanders and a pair of minor leaguers that never made it to the majors. He had spent three years in San Diego after playing seven years in Milwaukee with sporadic production throughout: Vaughn had four seasons of less than 20 home runs and two of more than 40 over that stretch. He had been to three All-Star Games, won a Silver Slugger award after that aforementioned 50-homer year, but was also in the last year of his contract. So the Reds, fresh of a 77-win season that saw the team finish 25 games behind the Houston Astros, pounced on the chance to rent the slugger.
Alas, Marge Schott still owned the team and enforced an arcane team rule first enacted in 1967 when GM Bob Howsam was hired: no facial hair. The team was to be clean cut and clean shaven, an idyllic visage playing the country’s national pastime.
Immediately after being traded, Vaughn spoke to The Cincinnati Enquirer. “That’s my main concern—to find a way to keep my goatee,” he said. In the ensuing days, the Enquirer covered the controversy like Watergate. Paul Daugherty wrote a column defending the goat. Reon Carter wrote some sort of explainer that compared goatees to makeup and said they can be perceived as “everything from bohemian to sinister.” Fans weighed in too, with the scant few defending the policy as a representation of Middle America heavily outnumbered by those wanting to exact real change in the world.
Two weeks after the trade, in a rare moment of reason from Schott that was perhaps spurred by her impending exit as the team’s owner, the ban was lifted and Vaughn was able to let his goatee roam the hills and valleys of his chin freely.
After that 1998 campaign, he was being mentioned in the same breath as McGwire and Sosa. He exerted incredible power considering his frame (6 feet tall, 195 pounds) and it should be noted that his name never came up in reports or books relating to performance enhancing drugs. The plan was for Vaughn to add the element of the long ball to a team that had hit just 138 home runs the year before, 31 fewer than the league average and nearly 100 fewer than the league-leading Seattle Mariners. Those homers were going to translate to wins.
But Vaughn’s on-field results were just as strange as the facial fiasco that welcomed him to the city. He had never been known much for hitting for a high average or really even getting on base a lot—before coming to Cincinnati, he had a career average of .246 and an OBP of .336. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when his average was stuck at a measly .213 heading into July. The home runs were still coming—17 over that same stretch—but that was essentially his only contribution to the team. He was a mediocre defender at best, but that’s also not what he was here for. He was acquired to smack home runs and win baseball games, and the second part was starting to come true.
At the All-Star Break, the Reds were 13 games over .500, just a game and a half behind the first-place Astros thanks to help from a few surprising young players: 24-year-old Sean Casey was hitting .371 and matched Vaughn’s 17 home runs, while new leadoff man Pokey Reese was hitting .298 and on his way to earning a Gold Glove at second base. Vaughn meanwhile kept plodding along. He wasn’t an All-Star that year. (Casey, Barry Larkin, and Scott Williamson represented the Reds.) He was just a man with a goatee swinging for the fences.
Then came September. Vaughn went 0-for-9 in the first two games that month, but in a blowout win against the Phillies, Vaughn belted a home run. The next game, Vaughn hit a three-run shot in the first inning. Two days after that, Vaughn belted three home runs in one game against the Cubs. The next day, he hit a home run. The day after that? Another home run. Over the span of 22 games, Vaughn launched 14 home runs, tallied 32 RBI, and hit .337 with a 1.284 OPS while the Reds went 16-6 and surged into first place. It was tied for the second-most home runs ever hit in September by a National League player, just two short of the record set by Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner. Vaughn was named Player of the Month and the Reds seemed poised for a feel-good playoff run.
There was still October, though. The Reds had lost three straight going into Game 162 and were clinging to slipping playoff hopes. Vaughn showed up for that final game in a big way, going 2-for-5 with a homer and 3 RBI as the Reds moved to 96-66 and into a tie with the New York Mets for the lone Wild Card spot. That left Game 163, a de facto one-game playoff, the kind of moment that Greg Vaughn was brought in for.
It was not to be. The Reds were shutout and managed to reach base just six times against Al Leiter, one of those times being Vaughn’s walk with two outs in the ninth inning. Vaughn finished the game 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and the Reds limped home.
In a wonderful case of recency bias, Vaughn’s September flurry gave him 45 home runs on the year and catapulted him to fourth in the voting for NL MVP despite finishing with 3.3 Wins Above Replacement. (For reference, Chipper Jones won the award that year and finished with 6.9 WAR. Mark McGwire came in fifth and finished with 5.2 WAR.) Hell, Vaughn wasn’t even among the top four in WAR on his own team. Mike Cameron and Larkin had 5.5 and 5.1 WAR respectively while Casey and Reese each totaled 4.0.
Twenty-four days after that loss to the Mets, Greg Vaughn became a free agent. He signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and proceeded to hit 60 home runs over the next three seasons before finishing out his career in Colorado.
At his last sighting, the goatee still remained.
Adam Flango is an Associate Editor at Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @adam_flango.