HE stands out there defiantly, a risk-taking 14 feet off the bag, daring the pitcher to try to pick him off. The throw comes, and he dives back just in time. The little tableau is repeated again and again. Everyone in the ballpark knows that Vince Coleman, the spectacular rookie base stealer of the St. Louis Cardinals, is getting ready to go. Finally a pitch comes in toward the plate, and before you can say ``Lou Brock,'' Coleman is dusting himself off at second base and putting another number in the record book.
The stolen base is one of baseball's most exciting plays, and Coleman is already being talked about as one of the most accomplished specialists ever to come along. He broke the rookie record of 72 steals weeks ago, and his current figure of 88 not only leads the majors by a wide margin, but actually exceeds the combined totals of five National League teams.
``Although every pitcher is different in the way he holds runners on base, they all have little telltale signs you can pick up on,'' explains Coleman, whose interviews usually don't last much longer than the time it takes him to steal. ``Once you learn to read a pitcher, you can make that information work for you. If you can also upset him mentally, then you've really created a positive situation for yourself.''
Barring an invasion from outer space, the 23-year-old outfielder from Jacksonville, Fla., has a lock on this season's National League Rookie of the Year award. And no less an authority than Lou Brock, a Hall-of-Famer and the game's all-time base-stealing leader, feels that Coleman will someday beat New York Yankee outfielder Rickey Henderson's one-season major league record of 130, set in 1982, when he played for Oakland.
``Vince is about as good as he can be,'' Brock told me recently when I caught up with him during a trip he made here with the Cardinals' television crew. ``In fact, I don't think he can get any better.
``It's amazing to me how quickly he's learned the pitchers' moves,'' adds the former St. Louis great, who still holds the National League one-season record of 118 steals and the major-league career high of 938. ``I'm not saying he'll do it this year, but barring injuries he should someday break Henderson's record.''
If the Washington Redskins hadn't been so quick to pigeonhole him as a wide receiver, Coleman might today be playing in the National Football League. Coleman was an outstanding kicker at Florida A&M, but when he worked out at Washington's mini-camp a few years ago, the coaches were so blinded by his speed that they never paid much attention to the kicking possibility. Consequently, when an injury limited the amount of running he could do in camp, he wound up being released without ever getting a chance to kick. It was at this point that he began to think about baseball, eventually becoming the Cardinals' 10th-round draft pick in 1982.
A switch-hitter, Coleman spent only 21/2 years in the minors. He didn't waste any time there, either, winning a batting title (.350) with the Class A Macon, Ga., team in 1983, while swiping 145 bases in 113 games, the all-time record for organized baseball.
He started this season in the minors, too, but was called up in mid-April, when the Cardinals had injury problems. The move was supposed to have been temporary, but once Coleman showed his stuff as a leadoff man, it quickly became permanent. And although there are plenty of other key contributors to the team's surprising bid for National League East honors, many observers see Coleman as the final spoke in a Cardinal wheel that won't stop until it has rolled all the way to a division title.
``I've watched a lot of infielders make errors this year because of Coleman's speed,'' notes Cardinal Coach Red Schoendienst. ``They rush to throw the ball before they actually have control of it.
``Any time Vince reaches first base, he's going to distract the pitcher because of the length of his lead and his natural aggressiveness,'' Schoendienst adds. ``Sure the kid has been caught off base occasionally, but that comes with the territory.''
Finely tuned at 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, Coleman plays an incessant cat-and-mouse game with the pitcher. His extra-long lead (10 feet is standard) invites plenty of pick-off throws, but Coleman usually gets back safely.
When he finally breaks for second, his acceleration is not unlike that of a jet fighter that is on the ground one second and airborne the next. He ends up with a slide that doesn't leave whoever is covering the bag much more of a target than his shoe. By mid-game his uniform is usually a candidate for a laundry truck.
``We don't have a lot of rules for Coleman, because his success rate is so great we don't have to pick spots for him,'' Schoendienst says.
``Mostly we just let him go on his own. The way infielders cheat on their coverage to try to protect second base against him often leaves holes that our hitters can punch the ball through. And of course anybody who is hitting when Vince is on first base is going to see a lot of fastballs they can drive.''
Included in Coleman's totals so far are two steals of home and an amazing 23 steals of third base. He has stolen second and third in the same inning nine times, and overall has 24 multiple-steal games.
Despite his speed, however, he seldom bunts or chops the ball intentionally.
``I've always had success as a line-drive hitter, and I'm not going to change now,'' Coleman says. ``If the Cardinals ask me to sacrifice, I'll do it, because that's my job. But mostly I'm going to handle pitchers my own way.''
Perhaps one of Coleman's keenest observers has been Brock, who naturally identifies with the young speedster.
``For Coleman -- like me when I was playing -- it's 11 running steps from the time he leaves first base until he starts his slide into second,'' Lou added. ``I know because I've counted them. ``But unlike me, he's better at stealing third base. When I played, I didn't try it that often because I didn't think it would help the ball club that much.''
Stealing third base is riskier, of course, and a runner in scoring position isn't supposed to take undue chances.
``There has always been a lot of controversy about how often one should try it,'' Brock said, ``because, although the pitcher has his back to the runner, the catcher has a lot shorter throw. On the other hand, it may disrupt a pitcher's concentration even more.''
Brock says the only way a pitcher can hold a runner like Coleman close to second is to throw there constantly, and most pitchers don't like to do that.
``Pitchers have to throw so quickly and so hard to get results at second base that most of them are afraid they will throw the ball into center field,'' Brock explains. What does he see ahead for Coleman?
``If he's like every other outstanding kid base stealer I've ever seen, including myself, he'll shorten his lead off first base from 14 feet to 9 or 10 within three years,'' Lou said. ``Right now, Vince is young and thinks he has to have that much lead to be successful. I was the same way at his age. But that way you've put yourself in a position where you are constantly diving back to the bag head first. Most people don't realize this, but that's where the wear and tear comes in stealing.
``Believe me, in two years Coleman will have shortened his lead so he can get back to the bag in a standing position and protect his body. But he'll be just as successful, because he'll continue to steal on the pitcher and not the catcher.''