Vladimir Guerrero Had Hubris, And He Had Balls

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The following is excerpted from Jonah Keri's Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos, a wonderful and definitive account of Montreal's much-lamented baseball team. The book will be released in its paperback edition today.

Vladimir Guerrero's first major league home run was, like so many of his other feats over the years, a revelation. The date was September 21, 1996, and the Expos, for a change, were contending down to the wire: they'd end up with a chance to make the playoffs all the way 'til the second-to-last day of the season. With one out in the ninth, Montreal trailed Atlanta 5–3. On the mound for the Braves was Mark Wohlers, a nearly unhittable closer who dialled up his fastball into the high-90s. The Expos needed to mount a rally, and this was just the third game of Vlad's career. To Don Sutton, the Braves' colour commentator, leaving Guerrero in this spot was the wrong move. Though it wasn't his team making the decision, Sutton seemed almost angry about it.

"Here's a kid coming in against the best closer in the league, and you're only down by two," Sutton lectured. "This is a white flag."

Half a second later, the first pitch Guerrero saw was a fastball. It was low, a couple of inches below the knees, and was outside, off the plate by a couple more inches. This was the kind of pitch that a hitter might swing at to protect the plate with an 0–2 count: maybe a weak swing, choked up on the bat, to foul the ball away and keep the at-bat alive. Wearing no batting gloves (as was his habit for the rest of his career), Vlad hacked at the pitch. Down two in the ninth and needing at least a baserunner to bring the tying run to the plate, this was an impetuous swing—something you wouldn't see from almost any other hitter in the league in that spot. We'll let Braves play-by-play man Skip Caray, and Sutton, take it from here.

Caray: "Fly ball, pretty well hit to right field. Back goes Dye into the corner, looks up ... that ball is gone."

Sutton: "Like I said, it's a brilliant move. No it's not, it's a lucky move. That's something ... that just absolutely ... happened ... and it turned out well ... for the Expos."

Caray: "Trying to think with Alou, I guess he figured the kid's a good fastball hitter, and there's a good fastball pitcher out there. It certainly worked."

Sutton: "This looked like a good pitch, out away from him. It may not have been a strike! But boy, he leaned out there and drilled it."

Trying to rationalize Guerrero and where he could be used was a futile, even counterproductive exercise. Your eyes would process what would happen, but your brain just couldn't accept it. It had to be lucky. Vlad defied everything you thought you knew about baseball. How could it be anything other than luck?

There was nothing typical about him. Vlad grew up unfathomably poor in the southeastern Dominican Republic town of Nizao. As Dan Le Batard wrote in his excellent 2002 Guerrero profile for ESPN The Magazine, little Vlad drank from puddles because the shack he lived in had no running water (or electricity). When a hurricane blew the tin roof off their hovel, Vlad's family of seven squeezed into one tiny room, sharing two beds, then waited and waited for the hurricane-caused flooding to subside, while subsisting on milk and sugar dropped from rescue helicopters. Rather than go to school, he toiled the fields, harvesting tomatoes, melons, and onions. School was a luxury, and he frequently missed classes as a young child; his education ended for good after the fifth grade.

"I feel guilty about that," Vlad's mother told Le Batard, "but we had to eat. The storm didn't kill anybody in our town, but the hunger after it did."

When he wasn't working, young Vlad was playing baseball. And when his older brother Wilton got invited to a Dodgers training camp, 16-year-old Vlad (he'd lied and said he was a year older) tagged along. The raw skills were obvious: 6-foot-3 with a rocket arm, brimming with athleticism. The governing expression for Dominican players was (and still is), "you don't walk off the island"—meaning to impress scouts, you need to swing away. Even by those standards, Vlad was a freak of nature, a player so long-armed, and so strong, that he could reach out and hit balls four, six, even eight inches off the plate. And hit them hard. Vlad roped the ball all over the field that day under the Dodgers' watchful eyes, and earned a 30-day contract. It might have been longer, but the Dodgers didn't know what to make of the kid: he'd shown up with no shoes, then injured his hamstring trying to leg out a double. According to legend, Vlad realized he wouldn't be able to run after the injury. His next time up, he hit a home run instead—so he could trot slowly around the bases.

Vladimir Guerrero at Dodger Stadium in 1997. Photo by Harry How/Getty

At any rate, the Dodgers never followed up. So Vlad returned to doing manual labour, while playing any form of baseball he could on the side. It was Fred Ferreira—dubbed "The Shark of the Caribbean" because of his knack for finding and signing diamond-in-the-rough players—who discovered Vlad next. The Expos' international scouting director signed him in March 1993. Then came a breathtakingly fast ascent.

Vlad hit .314 in rookie ball in 1994. The next year, in the Single-A South Atlantic League, he hit .333, cracking 21 doubles, 10 triples, and 16 home runs in 110 games. The prospect hounds started salivating, and Baseball America named Guerrero the ninth-best prospect in the game before the 1996 season. That '96 campaign was the stuff of legends: as excited as we were to follow the Expos through their surprise 88-win season, all we kept hearing about was Vlad. This being 1996, you couldn't get reams of information on faraway prospects online like you can now. Instead, the news would leak out in dribs and drabs, a tiny two-line mention in agate type, or a cryptic quote buried at the end of a Sunday notes column. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was just an eight-hour drive from Montreal. But it was more fun to let your imagination run wild, picturing Vlad destroying the Double-A Eastern League with his cannon for an arm, his gazelle-like strides, and that lethal weapon of a bat. His final numbers that year were obscene: .360/.438/.612, with 32 doubles, eight triples, and 19 homers in 417 at-bats ... at age 21.

When word spread that the Expos were going to call him up for the end of that season, we went nuts, and started plotting to get to every one of his games. Meanwhile, Montreal's coaching staff held a meeting to discuss how to handle this guy, this once-in-a-generation talent—who was also the least disciplined player many of them would ever see.

"I'll never forget that meeting as long as I live," said Jim Tracy, who'd been promoted to become Felipe Alou's bench coach. "Felipe called the staff into his office. And with that deep-ass voice of his, I heard this message: 'Leave him alone.' That's what he said. 'There's going to be mistakes. The ball's not going to be thrown to the cut-off man early on. His plate discipline is going to be very raw at best. Leave. Him. Alone.'"

That's what everyone did, from the first day of his career 'til the last. What followed was a highly abnormal existence for a major league ballplayer. Vlad lived with his mom, bulking up on her cooking, then brought her to the ballpark with giant dishes full of food for the rest of the team. When the Expos later acquired Wilton from the Dodgers (he'd made it to the big leagues too, albeit in much less spectacular fashion), Mom and the two brothers lived together in Vlad's downtown apartment. Vlad was painfully shy, speaking only Spanish and turning away interview requests, feeling embarrassed at his lack of education (his nickname, since childhood, was "El Mudo"—"The Mute"). He never watched video of opposing pitchers, never studied their tendencies, and often didn't even know their names. His one study habit—if you could call it that—was to step into the batter's box on his PlayStation. One of the oldest axioms in sports is to practise the way you play. No problem for Vlad: he swung at everything on PlayStation, too. But damn it, Felipe was right. The world left Vlad alone, and he rewarded all of us with an unforgettable career.

The numbers were magnificent, certainly, including a 2002 season in which he missed a 40-40 campaign by a single home run (it looked like he got his 40th too, but for a missed call by an umpire). But the best way to describe his incredible career is through other people's stories. Those who watched Vlad play walk around with indelible memories.

Vladimir Guerrero at Wrigley Field in 2001. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty

Bill Geivett (former Expos farm director): "In 1994, [Vlad] was in the Gulf Coast League, in rookie ball. We were gonna go over to watch the Mets, and then I was going to watch the West Palm Beach team play at night in Kissimmee. So, we drive over to watch the Mets, and I want to see all the guys, but I want to see this Guerrero kid that I've been hearing about. So I go out there, and the first pitch he sees, he hits it over the fence. Then I watch him make a play in the outfield, and he throws it in. I said, 'Let's go. I've seen enough.'"

Jeff Blair: "Rondell was down in Harrisburg on injury rehab, and he claims he saw a pitch where the ball bounced in front of home plate. Whoever threw it stumbled. The ball bounced in front of home plate . . . and Vlad knocked it over the centre-field fence. Over the wall, at least 400 feet. The greatest description of Vladimir Guerrero I ever heard was that he swings like he's hitting a tennis racket. All he has to do is get some part of the bat on the ball, and he's going to crush it."

Jim Tracy: "We were sitting there in the dugout and I saw Pete Harnisch throw a two-strike split-finger. It hit the dirt. [Vlad] swung, and hit it. It looked like a three-wood going out toward left-centre field, and it got stuck between two pads on the outfield wall. I remember Barry Larkin standing at shortstop, as he's in his position, and when the ball got hit I saw Larkin just start to move. By the time he turned around, the ball was literally stuck in the pads for a ground-rule double. Felipe looked over at me and said, 'Hey, Trace, did that ball bounce?' I said, 'Yes, Skip, once before he hit it, and once after he hit it.' When he was a kid and came to the big leagues, you could throw a ball somewhere in the vicinity of the first-base dugout, and there was no guarantee that he wouldn't take a swing at it."

Doug Glanville (former MLB outfielder): "I was with the Phillies, and Amaury Telemaco was pitching. He's going over the scouting report. What should you throw him? Outside? No. Inside? No. After a couple of minutes, they just told him, 'Throw the pitch, and pray.'

"Another time, Vlad hit a line drive off a knuckleball. At the Vet. Desi Relaford was playing shortstop. He put his glove up after it whooshed by his head. I didn't even react and it was by me, hit the wall. Hardest-hit ball I've ever seen."

Manny Acta (former Expos third-base coach): "He drank like a fish. Ate a ton. Fifty thousand cans of beer, and a bag of rice. Never bothered him. He'd show up to the park hung over, and hit bombs, like it was nothing."

Glanville: "2001, it's the ninth inning, tie game, and Rheal Cormier is trying to unintentionally intentionally walk him. First pitch, in the dirt. The second, at his eyeballs. Third pitch is at least eight inches outside. He reaches out ... oppositefield walk-off."

Rheal Cormier: "There`s no pitch he can't reach. I've seen him hit balls a foot outside off Greg Maddux for a home run the other way. The guy is not human. He should be in another league."

Acta: "Vlad comes to the park one day, rubbing his palms together. 'Kevin Brown is pitching today, I'm going to crush him.' Keep in mind Kevin Brown might've had the nastiest sinker of his generation. He has a decent Hall of Fame argument. First pitch: monster home run. [Vlad] comes back to the dugout, cackling. Cackling!"

What I remembered most vividly about Vlad was his arm. There's a YouTube video of him long-tossing a ball at Yankee Stadium, from the left-field foul line, over the wall in right-centre . . . at least 370 feet. The problem was, he was so confident, so cocksure he could throw out anyone, anytime—that it occasionally cost him.

May 30, 1998, Expos vs. Pirates at old Three Rivers Stadium. I'm on one of my classic baseball road trips with the Maple Ridge Boys, high on Primanti and a chance to see Vlad break some other team's heart. Unfortunately for the Expos, their closer Ugueth Urbina doesn't have it that day. Four batters in, he's loaded the bases with one out, putting the Expos' two-run lead in jeopardy. Jason Kendall raps an outside fastball to right, and the ball bounces in front of Vlad, scoring the runner from third easily. We rise to our feet anticipating what's going to happen next: Vlad's going to charge in, field the ball, and fire a chesthigh strike home, cutting down the potential tying run and saving the game for the Expos. Sure enough, Vlad charges ... fields the ball cleanly... winds up ... and airmails the catcher by 10 feet. The bases clear, Pirates win.

He had hubris, and he had balls. That's what made him so much damn fun to watch, win or lose. He never got a championship in Montreal—or anywhere else. That doesn't change what he was: a player who was truly beyond belief. When I'm old and grey, and most of my other memories have escaped me, I'll still tell my great grandkids about Vladimir Guerrero. Some people you just never forget.

Jonah Keri (@jonahkeri) is a writer for Grantland and 538, and an analyst for ESPN Baseball Tonight. His previous book, The Extra 2%, was a New York Times bestseller.

Excerpted from Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos by Jonah Keri. Copyright © 2014 Jonah Keri. Published by Vintage Canada/Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.