This was supposed to be a lost season for Vladimir Guerrero. On May 27, after injuring his back in a game the night before, the Expos' rightfielder was in so much pain when he woke up in a Miami hotel room that he could barely get out of bed. A few days later, after doctors told Guerrero he had a herniated disk, forcing him to go on the disabled list for the first time in six years, Montreal officials were worried that the four-time All-Star would miss the rest of the season. "I thought his season was over, and I thought our season was over," says general manager Omar Minaya.
After a six-week period that included rest followed by intensive therapy and a short rehab stint in the minors, however, he rejoined the team on July 21. Since then Guerrero has fueled Montreal's improbable playoff run by hitting .357 with 14 homers in 38 games through Sunday. After going 17-22 without Guerrero, the Expos were only three games back in the NL League wild-card standings.
"I feel happy with what I've done after coming back from a bad injury," Guerrero said through an interpreter last week, after hitting three home runs during Montreal's four-game sweep of the Phillies. "I'm taking the same hacks I took before, I just feel good right now."
With Montreal entering the final month with a shot to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1981, none of the Expos are commenting on the life-altering decisions facing the team and its star after the season. For one, the 27-year-old Guerrero, the youngest player in history to hit .300 with 30 home runs, 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored in five straight seasons, will become the most coveted free agent since Alex Rodriguez in 2000.
Secondly, the Expos, owned and operated by Major League Baseball, not only don't have a permanent home yet but also are unsure of where they will be playing in 2004 and how big a budget they will be granted. (This season the team had a $52 million payroll, and Guerrero's salary was $11.5 million.) Until he gets that information, Minaya can't even make an offer to the franchise's alltime leading home run hitter.
Nevertheless, the idea of Montreal's re-signing Guerrero is not far-fetched. As baseball's most media-shy superstar—he rarely gives one-on-one interviews—he may have little interest in going to big-market cities like New York or Los Angeles. Guerrero, who speaks little English, is very comfortable on an Expos team that has an abundance of young Spanish-speaking players. If the Expos play all or part of next season in Puerto Rico, where the club hosted 22 home games this season, it would be another reason for him to stay put.
"The Expos have always been a perfect fit for him," says Montreal third base coach Manny Acta, who serves as Guerrero's interpreter and is a close friend. "In Montreal he can walk down a street or take a subway and no one will bother him, and he likes that. But who knows about next year? Everyone is too focused on what's going on with the rest of this season to think about what's going to happen after it."