Vladimir. It is a name that conjures up images of caviar, shots of vodka, bitterly cold winters and perhaps even a feisty Cossack horse. So when you see Vladimir attached to a Guerrero, one born and raised in the Dominican Republic, you begin to wonder about the creative impulse that pushed those two names together. "My children's names are all from the Bible, or of saints," Do�a Altagracia Guerrero says. Vladimir, Eliezer, Mar�a Isabel, Julio C�sar and Wilton. Wilton? Well, almost all of her children...
Vladimir the Great, prince of Kiev (956-1015), was a savage warrior with a sword, a barbarian who converted to Christianity, then gave away his fortune, spread the gospel to his countrymen and was later made a saint. Do�a Altagracia's Vladimir, born and raised in Nizao Ban�, a small town less than an hour southwest of Santo Domingo, is both a Guerrero and a guerrero, a warrior with a bat. "They were raised Christian," Do�a Altagracia says of her children, "and while they sometimes stray, they still believe, and do the best they can."
The best that Vladimir Guerrero--now, officially, an Angel--could do against major league pitching through Sunday was a .323 batting average with 27 home runs, 94 RBIs (including nine in a game on June 2) and a slugging percentage of .564. Not that any of that should come as a surprise. "He's the best player in the league," says onetime Montreal Expos teammate Rondell White. "He's Superman, and there's not too much kryptonite in the league."
"I'm the same person I always was," Vladimir Guerrero insists when asked how his life has changed since he signed with the Anaheim Angels last winter after eight seasons with the Expos. A quiet, thoughtful man, he's not comfortable talking about who he is or what he does. That discomfort is partly due to his unsteady English, but even when speaking Spanish, he is modest and shy, and he subtly deflects questions he deems too personal by using the distancing Spanish pronoun for "one" instead of "I." When asked about his impressive statistics this year, he brushes away the compliment. "One wants to do a good job and do one's best for the team," he says. His agent, who has been monitoring the conversation, jumps in, eager to sell his client just a little harder. "Vladimir's come a long way," he says. "As a boy he played barefoot, with a stick for a bat."
Guerrero's smile fades, and his eyes grow wary. He knows the media loves a rags-to-riches story, and that the trajectory of his life could easily be trivialized into the clich� of poverty-racked Dominican boys being discovered by major league scouts and made into stars. "One is grateful for the opportunity to play baseball at the professional level," Guerrero says. There are many more who don't make it this far."
He takes nothing for granted, but he clearly doesn't want to focus on his story. Nor does he want to examine the mechanics of what he does. In fact, he would rather not talk about any of this, especially to reporters. He would like nothing more than to be allowed to play baseball and, afterward, spend as much time as possible with his family and friends. But it's precisely because he has done so spectacularly well and so rarely talks about it that he's asked again and again to do just that. His ability has awed people in both leagues. "He's just one of those special hitters," says Braves manager Bobby Cox. "I don't know that anyone ever worked with him. I'll bet he's had that same swing since he was six years old."
Guerrero views every day he plays as a gift. Last year he felt something snap in his back. He played in pain for a month before aggravating his back further on a slide. Doctors then found a herniated disk, and he was ordered to rest and undergo physical therapy. He missed 39 games.
Before the injury many teams were eagerly anticipating his impending free agency. Some of that interest was tempered by his bad back. Mets doctors examined his medical records in January, and he was offered a three-year contract with caveats that told Guerrero the Mets had no faith in him. "After I came back from the disabled list, I hit 14 more home runs," he says. "They didn't respect that."
Guerrero is a proud man and knows his value. When the Angels offered him a five-year contract, he signed. He has rewarded them for their confidence by helping to keep the Angels in the thick of the tightest divisional race in baseball.
As a boy Vladimir wanted to be a singer-dancer. His mother remembers her four boys putting on shows for the family in which they imitated the popular merengueros Los Kenton. Their sister, Mar�a Isabel, was the backup dancer. They concocted costumes that vaguely approximated the spiffy outfits the band wore, and they perfected the acrobatic moves Los Kenton performed in concerts and on television.