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The Life

June 24, 2002
Beyond Words
ESPN The Magazine

  • This story is available in Spanish on

    The most anonymous superstar in sports drank from puddles as a child because he grew up with no running water or electricity. Then things got bad. A hurricane blew the roof off his family's shack, leaving only one tiny room intact amid the flooding, so that's where seven cramped family members lived, sharing two beds, whatever sugar and milk the rescue helicopters dropped and little else. Vladimir Guerrero remembers that awful smell and all those flies. Two decades later, he can still taste those damned puddles, and he takes that taste into the batting cage with him when he doesn't feel like doing the extra hitting.

    The most anonymous superstar in sports had to work in the Dominican fields to stay fed as a kid, harvesting tomatoes, melons and onions, taking breaks only to make breakfast out of those puddles and whatever else the stingy land gave him.

    Vladimir Guerrero
    Caught in the spotlight.
    He laughs at this now, amid the luxury of the major leagues, laughs at the mule that bit him on the leg and the cow that dragged him all over because he was much too small to be trying to milk it. The family needed Vladimir working, though, so he missed a lot of classes before the fifth grade and didn't go to school at all after then, his mother saying now, "I feel guilty about that, but we had to eat. The storm didn't kill anybody in our town, but the hunger after it did." Didn't help, either, that the only school in the area was turned into a hurricane-relief homeless shelter for three years and that the bicycle the Guerrero family shared for transportation was being pulled in too many other directions to go searching for education elsewhere.

    The most anonymous superstar in sports may be the world's most confident man in the batter's box, where he trusts his talent so much he doesn't bother to study tape or read scouting reports and usually doesn't even know the pitcher's name, but he's not nearly as self-assured about his intelligence outside those chalked confines. That may explain why he so disdains interviews. (He declines most.) It may explain why he's so quiet that his nickname since childhood has been El Mudo (The Mute). And it may explain why he's so painfully shy, even around children, that he gets mistaken for being aloof, moody and distant.

    "If I hadn't been a big leaguer, I don't know where I'd be right now," Guerrero says in Spanish. "I don't know how to do anything else."

    Guerrero is insecure, too, about never having learned English. But now he's too comfortable to change that, despite prodding from Expos management, because he likes his simple life the way it is -- tranquil, to use his word. Speaking only Spanish in a city of French and English provides a shield for his shyness, the language barrier becoming just that, a barrier between him and an excess of attention. Fame? "Not interested," he says through a smile. "Brings problems." Guerrero remains unknown, personally if not professionally, at least partially because that's the way he wants it and ...

    Hold on a second. You don't get to choose how you get your fame, as if it were a menu selection -- not in this culture, not when you have transcendent athletic talent. No, fame is forced upon you, intrusively if need be. Guererro, 26, has been in professional baseball for a decade, so how, beyond the grew-up-with-a-milk-carton-for-a-baseball-glove Dominican cliché, have the details of his life escaped the attention of the monstrous sports myth-making machine? In this day and age? When we learn of Allen Iverson's jailing and Stephon Marbury's promise while they're still high schoolers? When 11th graders are on national magazine covers and a world of Mel Kipers are dissecting athletes who are still dissecting frogs in biology class, all we get of Guerrero is limited to that batter's box?

    Vladimir Guerrero
    His team my be on the verge of extinction, but Vlad is all game.
    Guerrero put together three straight .300, 30-HR, 100-RBI seasons before turning 25. Ken Griffey Jr. never did that. Neither did A-Rod. Only Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx did that. You can make a convincing argument that Guerrero is today's most exciting baseball player and its best all-around talent, too, without feeling the need to apologize to Ichiro or A-Rod. But in the age of MTV Cribs, when we can see for ourselves that an Outkast rapper has a stripper's pole in his living room, how does something as large as a superstar's past and present get misplaced like a set of car keys?

    Of all the amazing parts of the Guerrero story -- the fifth-grade education, the fact he still lives with his mother, the raw gifts that make him unlike anyone else playing -- the most amazing part might be that so few people have heard it. An anonymous sports superstar in 2002? Yeah, right. Next thing you'll tell us is that the symbol for the lovable sitcom Dad in 2002 is Ozzy Osbourne.

    You can't blame this all on Guerrero playing in floundering Montreal, either. There have been famous Expos, from Rusty Staub to Gary Carter to Andre Dawson to Tim Raines to Larry Walker, but here are the only differences between them and Guerrero: He's more talented than any of them, and not by a little bit, either. And, of course, he speaks far less English.

    Guerrero's feats of strength are impossibly outsized, teetering toward tall tales, leaving even the likes of Sammy Sosa saying, "Amazing. I don't know how he does it. I just want to know how." There are the runners Guerrero throws out from the warning track with an aaah-inspiring arm. There's the combination of speed and power that turns sharp grounders between the shortstop and the second base bag into triples. And there are the scorched doubles on pitches in the dirt. Marlins manager Jeff Torborg predicts Guerrero will one day homer on a pitch that bounces. Guerrero can awe you with everything from his body of work to the way his body works.

    "He's one of the wonders of our world," says Expos catcher Michael Barrett. "He leaves us all in complete amazement. He's so natural, so pure. What he hits just isn't hittable to the rest of us. He's one of the most unique players ever." A locker over, first baseman Lee Stevens interjects, "You must be talking about The Freak again. It's like he's made of rubber. He hits balls that ain't even close to the strike zone harder than I've ever hit a strike."

    Guerrero never wears batting gloves and is aggressive beyond all reason, swinging at everything between the on-deck circles while rarely striking out. He explains his extraordinary ability to hit bad pitches like he explains just about everything -- simply. He takes two shoes out of his locker and places them on the floor a short distance apart. As a kid, he played a mutant game of two-on-two baseball between walls now represented by those shoes. Anyone who hit the wall with the ball got a point. Defense was using your bat to keep rolled balls, bouncing balls, hit balls, hard-thrown balls, from hitting those walls.

    "See?" he says. "It's easy."

    Well, yeah, Vladimir, but you weren't hitting 94 mph Robb Nen sliders back then or ... oh, never mind. You can't explain how this kind of genius evolved from Guerrero's childhood any more than you can explain Jackson Pollock's work by staring into a bucket of his paint. Better to just sit back and marvel at the finished product.

    Guerrero might be the most impressive collection of raw talent baseball has seen since Roberto Clemente's plane crashed -- or hasn't seen, to be more accurate. Even locally, only 53 Expos games made it to television last season. In 2000, while Guerrero was hitting .345 with 44 homers and 123 RBIs (despite being injured for eight games and being intentionally walked more than anyone in baseball), you could only find English language radio broadcasts of his games on the Internet.

    "If he played in a different market, they'd be talking about him already as a sure-fire Hall of Famer and comparing him to the best ever," says Montreal manager Frank Robinson, himself a Hall of Famer. "Every day I find myself saying, 'I can't believe he just did that.' He hits balls harder than anyone I've ever seen. Any pitch that has air under it has a chance to leave the park. No pitcher can ever feel safe or comfortable releasing the ball toward him. He doesn't take a back seat to anyone I've ever seen play this game. Ever."

    Robinson guesses he has talked to Guerrero maybe six times this season, always through a translator. That's been the extent of the interaction between Montreal's manager and Montreal's best player. By comparison, Robinson might talk to another Expo six times during one batting practice. He fears too many important things, like tone, get lost in translation to bother with it. Just recently, for example, Guerrero made an errant throw and Robinson wanted to discuss it with him between innings, just to see what Guerrero was thinking, but he feared Guerrero might think he was being reprimanded, so Robinson avoided him altogether.

    "I might do damage, so I leave it alone," Robinson says. "I can't teach him anything this way. I can't help him with the mental parts of the game -- slumps, approach, state of mind. It's awkward, frustrating. He would feel better, and I would feel better, if I could reach him, but I can't. He's on his own."

    You know anything personally about him, Frank?

    "No," Robinson says.

    You ever read anything or seen anything on TV that gave you any meaningful insight into him?

    "No," Robinson says.

    As someone who must know which buttons to push on a player to motivate him, how do you remedy that?

    "You don't," Robinson says.

    Guerrero's manager spends every day with him and doesn't know him.

    So how can we?


    Phillies closer José Mesa is yelling. He is a big, loud man, and he's telling the dozen reporters in his clubhouse through a mixture of curses and Spanish and accented English that he has no use for them, none, zero, ningún. His message is being conveyed clearly, his troubles with the nuances of English notwithstanding, the language barrier toppled by the sheer volume of his anger. These reporters aren't talking to or about Mesa, but Mesa nonetheless sprays his drive-by disgust at them on his way to get a new jockstrap. Something about them being vultures who talk to players only when something is wrong.

    This is when you walk into his world. You have never met Mesa, never spoken to him. Viewed from outside, this might not be the best time to introduce yourself as a reporter, right? But you speak his language. That can change everything with Hispanic ballplayers. There doesn't have to be a "viewed from outside" if you hold the keys to "viewed from inside," and merely speaking Spanish can make you a locksmith in their world.

    So you approach Mesa seconds after his rant. And you know what happens? His response is almost Pavlovian, the way he reacts to hearing Spanish. Those cold cages of media mistrust that have clanged down around him over all these years lift in a way that is obvious to the eye. This has happened to you with other Hispanic players who have a reputation for being surly and unapproachable, guys like Juan Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Benito Santiago and Orlando Hernandez. The language sounds like a familiar song to them, a soothing one, and they are so happy to hear it that it can drown out even something as large as their mistrust, or at least build a bridge over it.

    So Mesa doesn't merely smile and agree to be interviewed. He stops, puts his arm around you, walks you back to his locker and pulls out a nearby chair for your comfort.

    "So you're writing about Guerrero?" he asks in Spanish. "About time somebody did. Oye, José ... "

    Mesa motions for middle reliever José Santiago to come over. "How would you pitch Vladimir tonight?" Mesa asks.

    The very question makes them both dissolve into snorting laughter.

    "You throw it down the middle and then you just pray," Mesa finally says. "Just tell him what's coming, fall to your knees on the mound and pray. Because you can throw it in the dirt, and he'll hit it hard. You can roll it up there or throw it over his head, and he'll hit it hard. Every hitter has a hole but that guy. There's nobody like him in this game."

    Says Santiago, "You know what we do in our pitching meetings before Montreal? We'll go over the weaknesses of the other hitters, but then we'll come to Vladimir's name, and everyone says, 'Next.' Just walk him. If he'll let you. There's no way to pitch him. The pitches haven't been invented that get that guy out."

    You rarely hear paid professionals in the testosterone-soaked world of athletics articulate their awe quite so reverently. The locker room's unwritten, ego-driven code demands you respect your opponent without respecting him too much. Hispanic players, though, talk about their game the same way they play it -- colorfully, richly, passionately. But you can no more hear the music in their conversations without understanding their language than you can feel the magic in salsa or merengue by staring at the sheet music.

    Very often, too often, Latin players are too uncomfortable with either their own English or English-language reporters to offer up anything more than one-day-a-time clichés in English. If they're as outgoing as Sosa, maybe they'll give you a lot of smiling and a lot of baseball-has-been-berry-berry-good-to-me, but either way, we end up with only a skeletal sketch of their personalities.

    Would you believe that, as far as anyone can remember, in the 18-year history of ESPN's Up Close and its various permutations, in the place where those teary-eyed, get-to-know-the-real-you interviews with athletes are most often conducted, there's never once been one done with a Latin athlete in Spanish, using either a translator or subtitles? Latin athletes are always expected to stumble through their second language in interviews, which means that colorful conversations like this one between Mesa and Santiago are forever getting lost in this little corner of the clubhouse, in this little corner of their world.

    "Forget Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and all their home runs," Mesa says to Santiago. "Vladimir and A-Rod are the two most complete players in this game. You are obligated to put Vladimir in the top two. Obligated. But A-Rod at least has help. Vladimir is all by himself. You put Vladimir on the Yankees, and he's hitting 50, 60 homers and driving in 200 runs."

    Says Santiago: "That guy is not from this planet. He's an extraterrestrial."

    Mesa laughs.

    "I'm telling you," he says. "The devil himself would be afraid to pitch to that guy."


    The Expos are gathered around the clubhouse television, watching a Martin Lawrence comedy routine. They are laughing together, white, black, Hispanic, Australian and Japanese. But Guerrero is in the dugout, sitting on the bench in uniform by himself more than two hours before the game, silently watching the Phillies take batting practice. He literally can't understand what everyone inside is laughing about. So he remains on the outside.

    "He's not social," Lee Stevens says. "We all like him -- he's a great guy -- but he's reticent. The language makes it hard. When I played in Japan, I always felt lost and alone even though they always had two interpreters with me. When I came back, I had a totally greater appreciation for what Latin players go through. I had no idea."

    One reason this part of Guerrero's story hasn't been told is because the storytellers aren't really equipped to tell it. The Expos, even with nine Latin-born players on their 25-man roster, don't have any Spanish-speaking reporters covering them regularly. Most major league teams don't -- odd considering that about 25% of big leaguers are Hispanic.

    Even something as absolute as acclaim seems to get lost in the translation, an Hispanic player's greatness diluted by his inability to discuss it and feed the fame machine. Did you know that Oakland's Dominican-born shortstop Miguel Tejada is now, in his third straight season, putting up far better home run and RBI numbers than Derek Jeter? Or that Juan Gonzalez, Puerto Rican, has won twice as many MVP awards as Ken Griffey Jr.? Or that Orlando Hernandez, Cuban, has been far more dominant in the postseason than Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens or Greg Maddux? Or that Manny Ramirez, Dominican, has put up better across-the-board numbers than Jason Giambi over the past four years? If an Hispanic player wants the same PR as his American equivalent, he had better learn that English is another word for spin.

    You say that if an Hispanic player wants to earn a living in this country, he should learn this country's language? That's not quite as easy as it sounds. Like Guerrero, many Hispanic players come here young and uneducated, having never even finished high school. There are difficulties in adapting to a new culture at 16, as the Marlins' Luís Castillo proved when he set off the fire alarm in his minor league team's hotel because he thought it was a shampoo dispenser.

    So the priority for the young Hispanic player becomes getting comfortable, or trying to, and focusing all efforts on reaching the majors. That, not English, is what will help you feed your family back home. The Hispanic minor leaguer gravitates toward those who feel similarly lost -- namely, fellow Hispanics with whom he can communicate -- and that's not going to help any of them learn English. Even now, remembering how alone he once felt, Guerrero will invite Hispanics from an opposing team to his apartment in Montreal, where his mother, who lives with him during the season, cooks big meals of arroz con frijoles. Those too timid to come over to a stranger's house? He'll bring them Mom's food at the ballpark.

    "When I played in Albany [in the Class A Sally League], I cried," says Guerrero, who didn't know how to check out of a hotel by himself upon arriving in the majors. "But once I got up here, I wasn't afraid anymore. There were a lot of Hispanics with me. Four Puerto Ricans, four Dominicans, one Colombian. I didn't have to learn English. I think sometimes I should have."

    If he played in New York (and who knows, he may wind up there if the Expos disappear), or spoke with A-Rod's practiced polish, would Guerrero be the game's most famous face? That's hard to say. There's the problem of his personality, which Mesa describes as "timid in any language." Guerrero doesn't like to talk, and doesn't say much when he does. Even his mother says, "He's not open." Guerrero is afraid of sounding or looking stupid, so he might do things like ignore a bunch of kids hanging over a railing even though he'll later sign baseballs for an hour in front of his locker, where he can do it alone. Guerrero doesn't have any endorsements beyond his shoe contract, and doesn't want any, though his advisers keep telling him he's costing himself millions. He thinks the spotlight scalds more than it provides warmth.

    "I want to do this job right, and that's it," he says. "Just give me health, this game and my family, and I'm tranquil. I want to stay how I am. I'm with the same people I grew up with -- the same friends, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. That's all I need."

    Guerrero has a $28 million contract that expires after 2003, when he is going to cash in as very few athletes ever have, but he remains tied to humble roots. The house wrecked by that hurricane? He had it fixed, and built two stories atop it so his mother, María Altagracia, could keep living there in the off-season. She was gone 11 months of every year during his childhood, working as a maid in Venezuela, sending most of her money home along with pictures of herself so the kids wouldn't forget what she looked like. Vladimir, who has a child, so likes to have her nearby now that he built his own modest house in Nizao Bani, a town without street signs, close enough that she just shouts out the door in the off-season for him to come get dinner.

    Guerrero remembers what it was like as a youngster in this neighborhood, countless children having to share the nine gloves former Giants shortstop José Uribe brought them once. "My town had too many kids and not enough major leaguers," he jokes. So every off-season he and his mother return to Nizao Bani with suitcases of clothes and equipment to give away. He was one of those hungry kids once, arriving at the workout when the Expos signed him for $2,100 wearing unmatched sneakers (a sock stuffed into the one that was too large) because they were better than the matching sneakers he had with no soles. Guerrero is building a stadium for the kids there, where he'll do his own off-season work. He'll do other work outside it, too.

    "I still plant the onions when I'm home, just to remember what it was like," Guerrero says. "Would you believe that old mule that bit me is still around? I still do a lot of the things I did as a kid. At least I don't have to drink from the puddles anymore."

    The most anonymous superstar in sports walks through any U.S. city without being recognized.

    What was that Santiago was saying?

    About Guerrero being an extraterrestrial?

    From another world?

    You know, he really might as well be.

    This article appears in the July 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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