Best You've Never Seen
Get a load of Vladimir Guerrero—if you can
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 myself."
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.
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