Hall is one tough Yankee, even if he looks out of place in pinstripes

July 28, 1991|By Ira Berkow | Ira Berkow,New York Times News Service `

It is the fate of us all to take seriously anyone who is hitting .300 or better. This includes, of course, Mel Hall, the New York Yankee outfielder and currently the team's leading batter, who has been around the .320 mark.

Hall, in his ninth full season in the major leagues, first came to the attention of this corner when he was with the Cleveland Indians several years ago and carried three batting gloves in both of the back pockets of his uniform pants.

The gloves were carefully placed in each pocket in such a way that the fingers extended and flapped as he ran. The purpose, Hall explained, was that after he hit a home run he could "wave goodbye as I'm trotting around the bases."

He ended that practice when he discovered he was hurting the feelings of the pitcher. How did he know? On his following at-bats, he said, he noticed "a tendency to have balls flying around my head and face area."

One time, in 1987, he was indeed hit in the face with a fastball. It turned out that this was an accident, and the pitcher was a friend of his, Bryan Clutterbuck of Milwaukee, and it was on an 0-2 pitch. Hall didn't fall down, or leave for the hospital.

"I picked up the ball and tossed it back to Clutterbuck," Hall said. "He sort of pulled his hat off and scratched his head."

"I have a pretty high threshold of pain," Hall said the other day, at his locker at Yankee Stadium. "That pitch hit me right in the jaw, and sure, I felt it, but it was something I could deal with. You know, I've had 10 fillings in my teeth and I've never once taken Novocain.

"I'm just a different breed," he added.

He was so different, in fact, that last summer the Yankees were looking to show him the door. This was after he busted up the one in the manager's office. It was in Baltimore. Hall was being platooned in left field, and was unhappy.

He wanted to play more often. He had words with Manager Stump Merrill, and then walked out of the manager's office, slamming the door behind him so hard that both hinges fell off.

Hall was so riled that day that he threw things around in the clubhouse and threatened a reporter. He demanded to be traded.

"Over the winter," said Gene Michael, the Yankees' general manager, "I called every club in the big leagues to unload him. Everyone said no."

Hall's reputation for combustibility and individual flair had preceded him. The Yankees, meanwhile, who are paying him $1.1 million this year, the second of his three-year contract, told him that he was not assured a place on the roster for this season.

This plus his devaluation among other teams surely sobered the 30-year-old left-handed batter. Don Mattingly, one of Hall's major boosters, tried to reassure him. "You'll get your hacks," he told him. "You're too good not to. Just stay cool."

After Wednesday's night's game against Seattle, in which Hall went 4 for 4, and hit his 14th home run of the season, Merrill noted the difference, "He's done two things: He kept his mouth shut and he went out and played his tail off."

Hall came into this season with a .276 lifetime batting average. He has often bridled at not playing enough, but has also had a reputation for playing hard. Last season, for example, he injured himself twice in the field, once diving for a ball and once crashing into a fence.

The notion is that his history says, as he acknowledges, that he must be some kind of jive character. And it's true that he continues in that mode, keeping, say, a pair of mountain lion cubs as pets until the conservation department removed them from his home in Fairfield, Conn., or owning 15 expensive cars (well, one does need transportation).

But he can also be thoughtful, and amid all the craziness is a kind of canniness.

He is, for one thing, very well spoken. "I worked on my speech," Hall said.

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