During the season Guerrero's house, 15 minutes from Angel Stadium, is filled with relatives, whom he flies to California because he likes having them near. "My nieces and nephews are my children," he says. "I don't distinguish between my kids and those of my sisters or brothers. I love them all as if they were my own and treat them all as if I were their father."
He sits down on a roomy leather sofa in the den of his home, and within seconds there is a child on his lap, and then another is leaning on him as she watches a big-screen TV. "It makes me happy to have my family here," he says, smiling as he looks around the room to take it all in. He is clearly happy with what he has accomplished as a man, as a son, and as a father.
The family comes to every game Guerrero plays at home. It occupies a suite high above right field. Tonight the box holds Guerrero's mother and father; his fiveyear-old son, Vladimir Jr.; Eliezer's wife, Raquel; eight nieces and nephews visiting this week from New York City and the Dominican Republic; and a few friends.
A table is strewn with half-eaten pizzas, hot dogs, popcorn and empty soda cans. A television on one wall of the suite is tuned to telenovelas, the soaps that dominate Spanish television. But no matter what vicissitudes her favorite characters endure, Do�a Altagracia's eyes are trained on her son when he's at the plate or playing defense, as he is now. She anxiously follows the arc of a deep fly ball off the bat of a Seattle Mariner, heading toward Vladimir in right field. Her hands clutched to her chest, she mutters under her breath, "Catch it, son. Catch it...." He leaps at the wall and comes down with the ball, and over 43,000 fans are on their feet chanting "Vlady!"
Everyone in the suite, and everyone in the stadium, is on alert when Guerrero comes to the plate. They know that anything can happen when he has a bat in his hands. He's an aggressive hitter who frequently lunges at first pitches as if he's not going to get another chance. Opponents and teammates marvel at Guerrero's indifference to the strike zone. "He's so aggressive," says Angels DH Tim Salmon. "He'll hit a pitch six inches off the ground for a homer."
"If it's coming forward, he's pretty much going to swing at it," says Angels pitcher John Lackey. "Back in June he hit a slider about 800 feet. He came back to the dugout and said, 'I like slider.' I said, 'Yeah, I can tell.'"
He's one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball and certainly the most entertaining. "I believe Vladimir Guerrero and [ Colorado's] Todd Helton are more dangerous [than Barry Bonds]," says Toronto pitcher Miguel Batista, "because Barry will take a walk, but with those guys there's nothing too high or too low." Guerrero is also a terror on the bases--a threat to steal (he swiped 40 bases in 2002) or to stretch a base hit. His long gait eats up ground at a rate that sometimes startles fielders. And it sometimes gets him in trouble. He was caught stealing 20 times in 2002.
"My sons could not get the education they wanted," Do�a Altagracia says, "because we had to work so hard just to survive." Her husband nods. He's a tall, quiet man with a regal bearing. When his children were growing up, Don Dami�n, now 54, drove a shuttle. The competition was fierce, and he had to navigate over potholed roads from before dawn until there were no more people on the street looking for a ride.
To supplement Don Dami�n's income, Do�a Altagracia opened a small food stand, selling the Caribbean version of fast food: fried or roasted chunks of pork, fried plantain, fish, rice and beans. When business was slow, she sent her boys to the center of town with pots of freshly prepared food for sale. But even that did not produce enough income to raise five children, so when Vladimir was 12, Do�a Altagracia went to Venezuela to work as a maid for a wealthy family. What she earned was sent back to Nizao. She called home once a month; because there were no phones in the town, Don Dami�n drove the children to a public phone in Santo Domingo so that they could speak to their mother. She came home every other year, during Christmas, and spent a month with them.
Wilton and Vladimir were signed by major league scouts while their mother was in Venezuela--Wilton with the Los Angeles Dodgers, at 16; Vladimir with the Expos when he was 17. "It was hard. We were scattered all over the place," she remembers. When Vladimir was called up by the Expos, Do�a Altagracia left her job in Venezuela and moved to Canada during the baseball season. Vladimir rented three apartments in the same building so that his family could be together again.