Legend of Vladimir Guerrero goes way beyond his numbers

The look of a velociraptor. Arms the size of four octopuses. Mere stats can't describe a HOF hopeful who turned bad pitches into dangerous projectiles. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Take first-year Hall of Fame candidate Vladimir Guerrero's most basic numbers -- a .318 batting average and 449 home runs in 16 major league seasons with the Expos, Angels, Rangers and Orioles -- and hold them up to the statistical spotlight.

He is one of six retired players (plus one active player, Miguel Cabrera) to pair a batting average that high with at least 400 home runs. The others are five of the greatest players of all time: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial.

Guerrero also had 250 intentional walks, a total that ranks fifth since the stat was first tracked in 1955. The four players ahead of him are Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey, another group that includes some of the best players ever.

But as good as the numbers are, to gain a full appreciation of Vladimir Guerrero, you had to see all 6-foot-3, 235 pounds of him.

“He looked like a velociraptor,” said former major league pitcher Nelson Figueroa, against whom Guerrero hit .500 in 10 at-bats. “What a specimen.”

“He had arms that were the size of four octopuses,” ex-rival and current ESPN Baseball Tonight analyst Doug Glanville said.

And you had to see him play.

Vladimir, the youngster

Doug Sisson, a longtime minor league manager and a current assistant coach at Auburn, worked with the raw, 20-year-old Guerrero as skipper of the 1995 Albany (Ga.) Polecats in the South Atlantic League. In Guerrero’s first full pro season, he won the batting title (.333), with 16 home runs in a ballpark that had 20-foot fences all the way around the outfield.

“He worked hard, and he had an innocence to him,” Sisson said. “He went out and played with a smile on his face. He never thought about messing up. When we’re 6 years old, we’re trying to just go out and do something great. He played like that. He just thought about how much fun he could have and how many great plays he could make.”

Guerrero’s skill set was made to impress. He could hit anything thrown anywhere. The stories of him hitting pitches that bounced date back to that 1995 season. “He hit the ball like a golfer hits a 2-iron,” Sisson said.

He could throw the ball. The legend of Guerrero's lasers from right field to third base or home plate dates as far back as the Sally League All-Star Game. “He was worth the price of admission, just to watch him take outfield practice,” Sisson said.

And he could run. “Him going first to third was tremendous,” Sisson said. “He could cover a lot of ground in a few strides.”

It was a foreshadowing for his major league career.

“Inevitably, you get the question: Who’s the best player you were ever around?” Sisson said. “It’s Vladimir. And the conversation just stops. That’s how good he was.”

Vladimir, the teammate

Expos outfielder F.P Santangelo had heard the stories about Guerrero dating back to when Guerrero was in the Gulf Coast League as a 19-year-old. Pretty soon, the two were teammates, and though there was a language barrier, there was mutual respect.

In his fourth game, Guerrero hit his first major league home run against Braves righty Mark Wohlers, who was then the best closer in the National League. “A majestic opposite-field home run to right field,” longtime Expos play-by-play broadcaster Dave Van Horne said. “That was a 'wow' moment."

On the other side, the Braves announcers referred to the homer, which Guerrero snuck just fair down the right-field line, as “lucky.” But that’s how Guerrero hit. His 400th home run was a carbon copy of his first. And had the broadcasters known Guerrero’s routine before his at-bats early in his career, they would have probably been even more befuddled.

“Before an at-bat, he would just start going through the bat rack, and he would pick them up, feel them, look at the name on the bat, raise his eyebrows and nod,” Santangelo said. “One at-bat, he’d use Darrin Fletcher bat. The next one he’d use David Segui's. The next one, he’d use Mike Lansing. He would grab whatever bat, ask if he could use it, and just go up there and swing at anything.

“We would say daily, 'How the f--- did he do that?' The guy went up, saw [the ball], swung and did damage.”

Guerrero swung so hard that he scared his coaches. In the 2001 All-Star Game, third-base coach Tommy Lasorda was fortunate he wasn’t hurt when Guerrero lost the bat on his swing. And then there was the worry of what to do when he made contact.

“You never knew where he would hit the ball,” said Phillies manager Pete Mackanin, who was the Expos' third-base coach for four years while Guerrero was there. “When the pitch was thrown to him, I turned my head and ducked.”

That wasn’t the only way Guerrero could cause discomfort.

“He had so much pine tar on the bat, because he swung barehanded that his hands were all calloused up,” said former Expos teammate Brian Schneider, now a catching coach with the Marlins. “He’d come in all excited. We knew he was going to give us a hard high-five. No one wanted to do it, because his hands were just rocks.”

Guerrero was a gentle giant who always walked with a smile, and whose mom lived with him wherever he called home. In Anaheim, she cooked rice, chicken and beans as the pregame meal for both teams. Guerrero might have just been a big kid out there, but he wasn’t lacking for confidence.

“I saw him rubbing his hands and [smiling, knowing] that we were facing [ace pitcher] Kevin Brown,” former Expos and now Mariners coach Manny Acta said, remembering a game from May 2002. “Brown was so nasty that I was a coach and I feared him. Vlad said, ‘I’ll hit a homer today.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ In his first at-bat, he hit a bomb to dead center.”

Said Santangelo: “I can remember Brown would ask me, ‘How do I get this guy out?’ I’d say, ‘Just throw it down the middle and hope he hits it at someone.'”

That didn’t work either. Guerrero hit .450 against Brown for his career.

Vladimir, the rival

Glanville saw Guerrero when both were fresh major league faces, Glanville with the Cubs and Guerrero with the Expos. Skipper Jim Riggleman was conducting a meeting, and when Guerrero’s name came up, Glanville’s teammate and pitcher Amaury Telemaco spoke up.

“Bust him inside?” Riggleman asked. “No,” Telemaco said.

“Fastballs away?” Riggleman tried. “No,” Telemaco said. “He can reach those.”

“Slow stuff, get him to chase?” Riggleman asked with a little desperation. “No,” Telemaco said.

“There must be some way to get him out,” Riggleman said.

“There isn’t,” Telemaco said.

Glanville learned that firsthand once he was traded to the Phillies and got stuck in the same division as Guerrero. Over a four-season span from 1998 to 2001, Guerrero had a .401/.487/832 slash line with 22 home runs and 55 RBIs in 55 games against Glanville's Phillies. This was Guerrero living up to his “Vlad the Impaler” nickname.

“I watched this guy destroy us,” Glanville said. “Everything you threw up there, he hit hard. It was ridiculous. He hit balls that didn’t make sense. And he would hit balls with crazy English and crazy spin. It was like there were chainsaws coming at you.”

Glanville remembers two at-bats in particular. One was a Guerrero missile that sailed past shortstop Desi Relaford's face on a line. “And it was off the wall before I had time to square up to field it in center field," Glanville said.

The other was a 2-0 pitch thrown by teammate Rheal Cormier on July 18, 2001. Glanville estimated its location as “the other batter’s box.” Guerrero stepped in front of the plate and hit an opposite-field walk-off home run.

“I had a good strategy,” Cormier told his teammates, lamenting his fate.

Cormier’s fate mirrored that of Reds pitcher Scott Williamson in 1999. Guerrero had just had his 31-game hitting streak end two days before, and he took out his anger with a walk-off home run.

“It disappeared into the darkness way over the wall,” said Aaron Boone, who was Williamson's teammate and is now an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball analyst. “I remember thinking that ball sounded different, like it had been shot out of a cannon.”

Guerrero could hit anything, anywhere. Angels coach Dino Ebel says the only time Guerrero willingly took pitches was at the 2007 Home Run Derby, on the advice of teammate Garret Anderson.

“He took more pitches from me than he did in his whole career,” Ebel said.

That’s not to say pitchers didn’t want their shot at Guerrero. In August 2007, Athletics manager Bob Geren wouldn’t let pitcher Joe Blanton get a shot at a red-hot Guerrero. He had him walk Guerrero with nobody on base in the third inning. Blanton was so mad he threw the four intentional balls at 92 mph.

“Big Joe was not very pleased,” said Dallas Braden, who was Blanton's teammate and is now a Baseball Tonight analyst.

There are many tales of how Guerrero would get hits against pitches that bounced before reaching him -- and video exists to prove it. After Guerrero got such a hit against the Orioles in 2009, broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said it was the first time in his 47 years in the game that he saw a player essentially do a “drop-kick with a bat.”

Van Horne said that kind of base hit was routine for Guerrero.

“The first time I saw it, I thought it was an accident,” Van Horne said. “But after seeing it many times, I realized it wasn’t an accident. It was great hand-eye coordination.”

Guerrero was as good a bad-ball hitter as there was, and that was true throughout his career. In his last three major league seasons, when he was not at his best -- he batted “only” .290 in his final season -- he hit .249 in at-bats ending with pitches out of the strike zone, 71 points better than the major league average. And he swung at pitches out of the zone more often than any other player.

As for his baserunning, Guerrero maintained the fearless reputation that preceded him. Yes, he got caught stealing a lot -- 36 times in 2001-02 -- but in those same seasons he totaled 77 steals. He became a smarter baserunner by the time he got to Anaheim. (His knees also had been damaged from years of playing on artificial turf.) In one three-year span, from 2004 to 2006, he stole 43 bases at an 83 percent clip.

Guerrero also became known for outfield play that bordered on reckless in his early days. “He was the outfielder, and he was going after everything,” Van Horne said. “He felt every ball to the outfield was his. [Manager] Felipe Alou was afraid he was going to get hurt. Once Felipe got that under control, everything fell into place."

Guerrero also had a tendency to overthrow. He led his league in errors nine times, but his arm was so strong that it was intimidating to baserunners and coaches.

"I watched this guy destroy us. Everything you threw up there, he hit hard. It was ridiculous. He hit balls that didn't make sense. And he would hit balls with crazy English and crazy spin. It was like there were chainsaws coming at you." Doug Glanville

“When the ball was hit in his direction, the opposing third-base coach would immediately put his arms up,” Mackanin said.

“He kept hundreds of guys from taking an extra base,” Figueroa said.

Mets catcher Todd Hundley found that out the hard way in June 1997, when he tried to score on Carlos Baerga's double to the wall. Guerrero threw him out with a one-bounce strike from the warning track.

Mets manager Bobby Valentine told reporters after the game: “That was an awesome throw. That guy doesn't need a cutoff or relay. He needs a bigger ballpark."

When Guerrero was in his prime, he could impact a game in as many ways as anyone, even someone like Bonds.

“I can’t remember any player that you had to have perpetual vigilance about like this guy,” Glanville said. “It was like there were five of him on the field.”

Vladimir, the legend

It is entirely possible that Guerrero will not get into the Hall of Fame this time around (writers’ votes must be sent by Dec. 31). Though many stats support his candidacy, there are a few that don’t; for example, he falls below the average WAR for a Hall of Fame right fielder. An early look at results shows he’s on the bubble.

But Guerrero’s legacy is strong and should hold steady for as long as he remains on the ballot.

“With a lot of guys, the older they get, the better they were,” Sisson said. “But the neat thing with Vlad is that all the stories are true. He was a joy to be around. When his name comes up, I think of the greatness, the great plays, the ability and the fearless, passionate way he played the game.”