His bat was like a magic wand, able to swat 98-mph, chest-high fastballs over the fence and breaking balls in the dirt into the gap. He had a cannon for an arm and could gallop from first to third in what seemed like eight or nine long strides.
His back was sturdy, strong enough to carry the Angels to the American League West title in 2004 with a September surge — .360 average, 11 homers, 25 runs batted in — that earned him AL most valuable player honors.
But of all the tools and talents right fielder Vladimir Guerrero flashed during a distinguished six-year career (2004-2009) with the Angels, one stands out above the rest for Angels Manager Mike Scioscia.
“It was his smile,” Scioscia said. “I’ve never met a player who smiles as much as Vlad, who has as much fun with whatever he’s doing. He was a great teammate, and he loved to play the game.”
It was a grin that took Angels first baseman Albert Pujols back 15 years to 2001, to his first big league camp with the St. Louis Cardinals, who shared a training complex in Jupiter, Fla., with Guerrero’s Montreal Expos.
The two — established superstar and soon-to-be breakout star — were among a group of Latin players who played dominoes at the team hotel and feasted on the home cooking of Guerrero’s mother, Altagracia Alvino, whose seasoned chicken and rice and beans kept scores of players fed during Guerrero’s career.
“Vladdy was one of the first guys I looked up to,” Pujols said. “People kind of misread Vladdy because he doesn’t like to talk too much, but he’s one of the best guys that I’ve ever been around. The way he treats people is really special. He’s always smiling. He played the game hard and had fun.”
Guerrero is 41 but appears to be in good enough shape to run down a few balls in the gap. Had he not played seven years on the concrete-like artificial surface in Montreal, “He could probably still be playing today,” Pujols said. “The knee injuries he had … that turf took three or four good years out of him.”
He was probably the best bad-ball hitter of his generation, but Guerrero, whose son, Vladimir Jr., is a highly touted 16-year-old in the Toronto Blue Jays’ system, is not trying to pass on that approach to current Angels hitters.
“All I’ve told them is to see the ball and swing hard,” Guerrero said. “I can’t tell them to swing at bad pitches, because they’re not going to hit it.”
Guerrero will be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in December. Though he is not a lock for Cooperstown, his career .318 average, 449 homers and 1,496 RBIs in 16 years make him a strong candidate. If elected, he probably will be the first player to wear an Angels cap into the Hall of Fame.
“Well, there’s no longer a team in Montreal,” Guerrero said, when asked what cap he would choose, “so I think there’s a possibility it can be with the Angels.”
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