Last Friday, Brewers manager Davey Lopes had righthander Jimmy Haynes pitch to Guerrero with two outs and first base open in the sixth inning of a tie game, rather than intentionally walk him. Guerrero whistled a 1-and-0 curveball into the leftfield seats for a two-run home run. "Who do you want me to compare him to?" Lopes snapped when asked after the game if Guerrero reminded him of another hitter. "I've never seen anyone do what he does."
Guerrero's manager, Felipe Alou, generally concurs, though he does compare Guerrero's balance at the plate to Hank Aaron's. Like Aaron, Guerrero rarely takes an awkward swing. "This guy went 80-something at bats without a strikeout," Alou says. "But this guy swings from his ass. He's not just trying to make contact. The guy is the strangest hitter I've ever seen.
"I don't believe he truly knows what he wants to do yet. If he wants to hit 50 or 60 home runs, he can do it and hit .310. If he decides to bat .350, he can do that because he has outstanding bat control. He can hit 15 straight ground balls to first base in batting practice if he wants to. Then he can hit 15 straight to third base. He's just swinging the bat right now. One of these days he's going to decide what he wants to do. Then it's really going to be interesting. I hope I live long enough to see which way he goes."
Through last Friday, Guerrero had played in 434 games, exactly as many as DiMaggio did over his first three seasons. Guerrero's numbers (.319, 99, 304) are fairly close to Joltin' Joe's (.331, 107, 432). Also, having reduced his strikeouts from 95 in 1998 to 62 last season, Guerrero is bidding to follow DiMaggio and become only the second righthanded hitter to launch 40 home runs in a season while striking out fewer than 40 times.
Like DiMaggio, Guerrero makes consistent, hard contact more than any of his peers. Also like DiMaggio, he is rarely seen except by those who venture to the ballpark, which few do in Montreal. The Expos have no local television contract. (They have no English-language radio broadcasts, either. Games can be heard in French over the radio or in English over the Internet.) Of the 150 games scheduled for possible national television coverage by ESPN and Fox on Sundays, Thursdays and Saturdays, none involve the Expos.
Combined with his inability to speak English and a natural shyness, Guerrero's underexposure makes him the least-known superior talent in the game. Last season, for instance, he finished 13th among National League outfielders in the All-Star Game voting. The Expos have talked to Guerrero about taking English lessons after the season, but neither side seems to see an urgent need. "I just enjoy where I am right now," Guerrero says, downplaying the need for marketing and endorsement opportunities. "I can't tell you about those things yet. It's too early in my career. Too early to talk about that."
Says Montreal owner Jeffrey Loria, "The best way to market him is to let him play. He defines himself and his own stardom. In the meantime he's very private, and we give him that space he needs."
Vladimir is one of four boys and a girl born to Altagrasia and Damian Guerrero, she a housewife and he a farmer, in Nizao Bani, about 45 minutes west of Santo Domingo. He also has four half-siblings. Vladimir dropped out of school before he was a teenager and went to work selling fish. When he was 16, he was invited to attend the Los Angeles Dodgers' Dominican academy for an extended try-out. Wilton, an infielder, was in his second year in the Dodgers' system at the time. Another older brother, Albino, had played two years in the Los Angeles system before he was released. The Dodgers looked at Vladimir over two four-week sessions—even trying him as a catcher—before deciding he wasn't a prospect. They marked him down as too much like Albino: a slow, fat player with a long swing. "I knew I would be signed," Vladimir says. "There are so many teams. The Dodgers thought I had a long swing and I was slow, which I was because I was fat. I started to lose weight in the Dodgers' camp because I was practicing two times a day."
Later that year the Texas Rangers gave Guerrero a look but also passed. Then Fred Ferreira, a Latin America scout for the Expos, invited Guerrero to a tryout with 25 other players. Guerrero hitched a ride on the back of a motorcycle and showed up with a mismatched pair of spikes. Ferreira signed him for $2,000 after watching him take one at bat, after which he pulled a groin muscle running to first base. Guerrero had impressed Ferreira with his arm, respectable speed and athletic build. He was a trim 158 pounds when he signed on Feb. 24, 1993, two weeks after turning 17.
The Expos asked Guerrero to fill out a routine questionnaire for signees. On the line that asked for winter occupation, he wrote, "practicar baseball" (to practice baseball). Asked to list his hobbies, he provided one: "pelotero" (ballplayer). He quickly slashed his way through the Montreal system, getting to the big leagues within three years, on Sept. 12, 1996. Just two years later, the Expos signed him to a five-year contract that will pay him $28 million.