A story of Mom & Vlad

Times Staff Writer

Two hours before taking the field for the game that would give his team the division title, the Angels' best hitter is sitting on the floor in a tiny room behind home plate at Angel Stadium, a Bible in his lap.

Vladimir Guerrero may fear no pitcher, but he's a little nervous about God.

"I comfort myself with the Bible," Guerrero says. "It's like having my family there."

In that case, Guerrero is truly blessed on this morning because he has both: the good book and members of his extended family, namely the handful of Spanish-speaking teammates he gathers every Sunday for a short chapel service led by broadcaster Jose Mota.

Today's reading comes from Galatians 2:20, in which Paul talks about commitment and example. So Mota asks the players to name the person whose example they've followed in life.

Guerrero breaks into a wide smile. It's as if Mota has thrown a batting practice fastball right in his wheelhouse.

"My mother," he says.

So there you have it: The man many American League pitchers dread most is, at heart, a God-fearing, Bible-toting mama's boy.

Starting today, he might have to be a little bit more than that if the Angels are to go deep into the postseason. When last seen in the playoffs, Guerrero was going one for 20 with one run batted in in a one-sided 2005 AL Championship Series loss to the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. A similar series against the Boston Red Sox could have equally disappointing consequences for the Angels.

Guerrero, however, has faith that won't happen.

"That's passed," he says of 2005. "This is another year. You have to try to deal with whatever God puts in front of you and see what we can do with this playoff."

The scouting report on Guerrero says don't throw him a strike. And don't throw him a ball either. He hits those even harder.

"There's no way to pitch him," says Seattle's Jarrod Washburn, a former teammate. "He can hit any pitch out of the park. Off-speed, fastball in off the plate, away off the plate, down, up.

"He's a freak."

But while that's the book on Guerrero, the book for him is the one he says he's never without.

"I take my Bible everywhere I go," he says.

That's a habit he picked up from his mother Altagracia Alvino, a solid, dark-haired woman who has known mostly struggle in her nearly 60 years on Earth. She is warm and gracious at most times, but her eyes, accented by wire-rim glasses, are serious, suggesting she is not a person to be trifled with.

And if there has been a hand guiding Guerrero's career, it has been the iron one of Altagracia Alvino.

She was three months pregnant when Guerrero's father disappeared. And when the boy was 6, his mother left too. But unlike his father, she did not abandon Vladimir and his eight brothers and sisters. Instead she went first to Colombia, then Venezuela, sneaking into both countries illegally to work as a cook and maid, sending her paychecks back to the Dominican Republic to support the family.

She didn't return home permanently until Guerrero was 17, about the time he left home to play with the Montreal Expos.

The two are making up for lost time now. For the last 10 years she has spent the summers with Vladimir, first in Montreal and now in Anaheim, cooking and cleaning and reading her Bible for at least an hour every afternoon.

"She keeps him in line," Mota says. "Vladdy is a guy that is pulled in so many directions. But she keeps that mind on one thing: get your rest, eat well. He doesn't have a posse going around with him.

"He's not a guy that needs to be pumped up by other people. It's so insignificant to him, so trivial, stuff like that."

As a result, Mike Scioscia, his manager the last four seasons, calls him "the most unassuming superstar I've ever seen."

Teammate Erick Aybar says Guerrero is humble, likening him to a second father.

"He's a good guy," adds the Dodgers' Wilson Valdez, who works out with Guerrero in the Dominican each winter. "Everybody likes him."

Guerrero, who habitually speaks of himself in the third person, believing the pronouns "I" or "me" to be boastful, laughs off such praise.

For Mota, among Guerrero's closest friends, such modesty is a product of the two most important things in his life: faith and family.

"He's seen the examples of guys that have not been humbled," he says. "They move away, they come back and they don't even relate to the people they grew up with. That's what Vladdy doesn't want to do.

"If this ended for Vladdy right now, he'd be out in the fields doing the crops. Happily. If this ended today, Vladdy would be Vladdy. Just somewhere else."

That somewhere else probably would be Bani, a dusty provincial capital of 62,000 near the Dominican's southwestern coast. Guerrero and his brother Wilton, a former major leaguer, own more than half a dozen small businesses there, ranging from a construction company and concrete-block factory to a small grocery and a hardware store across the street from the house where they grew up. None of the businesses make much money, Guerrero confirms with another hearty laugh and flash of his megawatt smile. But that's not the point.

The point is they provide hundreds of jobs and necessary services. Many of the employees are family -- and those who aren't are made to feel as if they are.

"We hope God continues blessing us so we can keep supporting our family. And also the people that work for us," Guerrero says.

And while that may not strictly classify as charity, Guerrero gives in other ways too, having donated to a fund to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina -- a thank you, he and other Dominican players said, for U.S. aid to victims of past hurricanes in their country. Guerrero also gives more than 10,000 Angels tickets to local youth groups each season and sponsors so many softball and baseball teams everyone has lost count.

But if Guerrero keeps his Bible close, he keeps his family closer. The 31-year-old, who is unmarried, brings as many as two dozen relatives, including his mother and his six children, to live with him in his gated Anaheim Hills home each summer.

"You're always happy when you're playing well and your family is with you," says Guerrero who, despite being slowed by injury, played quite well this season, leading the AL West champions in home runs (27), RBIs (125), slugging percentage (.547) and on-base percentage (.403) and batted .324, seventh-best in the American League. "When you're finishing playing, even if you went 0 for 4, when you get to the house you're not thinking about going 0 for 4. You go home and relax with your family."

Not that that happens very often -- the 0 for 4 part, that is.

"He's probably the best hitter in baseball right now," Washburn says. "It's amazing the kind of things he can do at the plate. You try to remind yourself he is that one-in-a-million type of player. You shake your head, laugh about it and move on, try to get the next guy out. There's no way to pitch him."

Mariners pitcher Miguel Batista agrees.

"When he guesses the right pitch, you can bounce it and he's going to hit it," he says. "If you throw it too high, he's going to hit it."

Like his humility, that too is a product of Guerrero's upbringing. As a child his work consisted of tending stubborn cattle on his grandfather's farm, something that gave him strong hands. And his play revolved around a game called la placa (license plate), in which the hitter had to keep his bat on the placa until after the pitcher released the ball. That taught Guerrero how to hit low pitches.

"His hand-eye coordination, it's unbelievable," says Mickey Hatcher, the Angels' hitting coach since Guerrero's arrival in Anaheim. "I remember the first year, about the first month of the season he was kind of going through a [rough] time and shoot, I got letters and letters. But I always got the report, 'Let Vlad be Vlad because he's going to do it.'

"So I'm sitting there reading these letters and these people were riding him. And all of sudden the next month he hit about .400. He's hitting home runs [off pitches] that are bouncing in the dirt and all that kind of stuff and the same people write back saying, 'Just leave him alone, just let him play.' "

And as for that postseason slump two years ago, well don't even bother writing Hatcher about that because he doesn't recall it that way.

"I don't remember him struggling in the playoffs," Hatcher says. "He got us to Chicago. That Chicago series, we were all bad. We were burned out.

"That wasn't Vladimir Guerrero. It doesn't take one guy to [make] a team. The reason we're winning it right now is because we've got a bunch of superstars. And that's what a team needs to win. It doesn't take one guy."

Maybe not, but sometimes one guy can be the difference. And if Guerrero proves to be that difference this week, don't expect him to take credit for it.

"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit," Paul wrote in Philippians 2:3, "but in humility regard others as better than yourself."

Or, as latter-day disciple Erick Aybar said a bit more succinctly, sometimes the best way to lead is to follow.

"It's important when you have someone to help you, someone so famous like Vladdy," he says. "He doesn't walk in front with the rest of us behind. With Vladdy, everybody is the same."

Just not, perhaps, when they step to the plate with a bat in their hands.


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