I can’t remember when I first heard the legend of Vladimir Guerrero, but it was a few years before his 1996 debut with the Montreal Expos. Reports began surfacing about this amazing raw talent some bird dog had sniffed out in the boondocks of the Dominican Republic. A five-tool prodigy, he was supposed to be the best prospect the team had ever signed.
Follow baseball long enough and you’ll hear dozens of such tales. But the distance between immeasurable potential and even a moderately successful big league career is as far as ever a man travelled. Often, projections prove optimistic, and the abilities exhibited by a young athlete end up being the best he can attain. Other times, injuries take a toll. And, in some cases, the player lacks the aptitude or temperament to adapt to the better competition he faces at higher levels of play and so falls by the wayside. None of these obstacles blocked Guerrero’s progress, though, and he dazzled in the majors.
Guerrero dominates the Expos record book. He is sixth all-time in games played (1,004), first in home runs (234), fourth in RBIs (702), fifth in runs (641), fifth in hits (1,215), fifth in total bases (2,211) and third in triples (34). His single-season performances have been similarly spectacular. He had the highest single-season batting average in team history (.345 in 2000) and has had five of the six best single-season home run totals (including the only two 40 HR seasons in franchise history), four of the six best RBI totals (including a team best 131 in 1999). In 2002, he finished one home run shy of joining the exclusive 40-40 club (40 home runs, 40 stolen bases).
Were he not so magnificently successful, he’d be labelled an undisciplined hitter. He has so much wrist and forearm strength and speed that he has juiced balls out of the park that he had no business even swinging at. Consequently, as is the case with Barry Bonds, it is virtually impossible to develop a book on how to pitch to him. The Sporting News Ultimate Baseball Scouting Guide concludes, “Might be the best bad-ball hitter in the game.”
Unfortunately, Guerrero’s contract with the Expos expired in 2003, and Montreal just couldn’t afford to keep him. He signed with the Anaheim Angels in January—for $70 million over the next five years. It’s a great deal for Guerrero, but a real loss for Montreal. Consider that on June 2, he had one of the greatest individual games in baseball history, driving in nine runs (just three short of the all-time record) on two homers, a double, a single and a sacrifice fly in Anaheim’s 10-7 win over Boston. His performance made national headlines and announced the arrival of a superstar who had theretofore toiled in obscurity.
In Montreal, he usually declined post-game interviews, hiding behind his lack of English. Strangely, a usually aggressive media pack was so awestruck by his talent that they gave Guerrero a free pass, when they would normally turn their bile on anyone unexcited at the prospect of dissecting his own play. In California, where Spanish is commonly spoken, he won’t have the luxury of ducking the spotlight. Time will tell whether intrusive celebrity will affect him on the field.
So far, his numbers indicate that he is perfectly comfortable in his new home. He is presenting himself as a formidable triple crown threat, at or near the top of the league in batting average, homers and RBIs. And fans are taking notice. As of this writing, he is one of the American League’s leading vote-getters on the All-Star ballot.
Vlad is one of those rarities who can carry an entire team on their shoulders for weeks. It’s an intangible quality, to be able to elevate your game through a sheer act of will because others are mired in slumps or nursing injuries or somehow spinning their wheels.
It’s a quality Bonds personifies, but one notably lacking in Alex Rodriguez, the other player most often cited as the game’s best. In three years with Texas, Rodriguez could never coax the Rangers out of last place, or even to a winning record. Was he to blame? Not entirely. But some players amass impressive personal numbers without having a corresponding impact on their team or teammates. Therefore, you see A-Rod contributing to the already talent-laden Yankees roster in ways he didn’t with the subpar Rangers. In contrast, you see Bonds lifting the Giants onto his shoulders and making the collective better. Guerrero will be this kind of player.
It’s exciting to watch Vlad blossom, exciting to have watched the first phase of a budding Hall of Fame career. Barring injury, all the numbers necessary for induction are well within reach. And along with them, a World Series ring or two with the resurgent Angels. The surprise champions of 2002 won’t be surprising anyone this time around.
Tod Hoffman is watching the 2004 Major League Baseball season from the stands of the “Big O” in Montreal.The Baseball Notebook appears every second Tuesday.