Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero had played in 115 games
this season, through Aug. 9, and none of them had been broadcast
nationally in the U.S. He plays his home games in front of an
average of just over 11,000 lonely Canadians. He's a Dominican
who speaks only Spanish playing an American game in a
French-Canadian city. All of which conspires to make Guerrero
the best player you've probably never seen. What does Guerrero
think about this? "I don't think about how many people are
watching me," says Vladimir, through his brother Wilton, his
teammate and translator. "I'm just happy to play baseball for
Guerrero has so much talent, Montreal may not be
able to afford to keep him.
When 22-year-old Vladimir talks about his job, he often grins
like a teenager, and he looks the part thanks to a set of braces
across his lower front teeth. Wilton insists that Vladimir's joy
for the game hasn't changed since they were kids playing baseball
in the dirt streets of Nizao Bani in the Dominican Republic with
a ball made from rolled-up socks, a guava tree limb for a bat and
milk cartons for mitts. Fifteen years later Vladimir still
doesn't wear wristbands or batting gloves and is swinging hard
from his heels every time at the plate. He has retained a
childlike disregard for the strike zone, hacking at almost any
pitch between the dugouts, but he's among the National League's
top 10 in nine key offensive categories. Says Montreal hitting
coach Tommy Harper, "It's almost as if you have to bounce the
ball to make him swing and miss." Adds Expos general manager Jim
Beattie, "Teams are starting to pitch around him, but he's tough
to unintentionally intentionally walk."
Guerrero is still raw on defense as well. He leads all National
League outfielders with 13 errors, but he also has six assists
with an arm so powerful that, by his account, three times in his
pro career he has scooped up an apparent single to right and
thrown out the batter at first. When SI conducted a poll last
week asking third base coaches whom they would least like to see
in rightfield with a runner going from first base to third on a
single to right, Guerrero and the Pirates' Jose Guillen were the
winners. "He's got a cannon," said Phillies third base coach John
Vukovich. "He can throw a ball to third base on a line from the
corner. It's unbelievable."
Cubs coach Tom Gamboa cited one throw in particular. "[Chicago
second baseman] Mickey Morandini hit a ball to the wall, Vladimir
bobbled it, and Mick came to third," Gamboa says. "Mick barely
beat the throw and got up, saying, 'How did the relay get here so
fast?' I said, 'Mick, that was no relay.'"
Noting Guerrero's exuberance, free swinging and robust arm,
Montreal manager Felipe Alou fearlessly compares him to the
young Roberto Clemente and predicts that Guerrero can only be
sidetracked by the type of reckless injuries that helped limit
him to 90 games in his rookie season a year ago. "Vladimir has
so many tools, but he has to know when to use them," Alou says.
"He could probably steal 100 bases, but he'd get tired and hurt,
and his power numbers would suffer. Tools don't do us any good
if they're on the shelf."
As of Aug. 9 Guerrero had played in all but three of the Expos'
118 games this season. He was fourth in the league with a .334
batting average, fourth with 267 total bases, eighth with a .591
slugging percentage and tied for ninth with 26 homers. He was
named the National League Player of the Month for July, when he
hit .385 with 11 homers, 27 RBIs and a .771 slugging percentage.
"I feel like a better hitter each day," he says. "It's just my
second year in the majors, and I'm only 22, so I still make
mistakes, but not as many as before."
Naturally Alou is already fretting over how long the
parsimonious Expos can afford to keep Guerrero, because he will
become eligible for arbitration after the 1999 season. Montreal
is negotiating a long-term deal with Guerrero, and Beattie says
that he hopes the July 31 acquisition of Wilton from the Dodgers
might induce Vladimir to stay. The Guerrero brothers have proved
to be inseparable so far. Their lockers are side by side in the
Expos clubhouse, they live in the same apartment building in
Montreal, and they are together almost every waking moment. "We
like to talk about how our baseball dream has come true," Wilton
says. "It's fun to watch my brother get better, and I believe
someday everybody will know about him."
Turns out Vladimir might finally get some exposure through a
quirk of scheduling. The Expos play their final four games of
the season in St. Louis, where legions of fans may be watching
Mark McGwire chase the home run record and might also notice a
certain Expos outfielder.
Issue date: August 17, 1998