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Angels

Vladimir Guerrero has a firm grip on the Hall of Fame

In the quiet moments in the hour before a game, Vladimir Guerrero would sit facing his locker, in full uniform, headphones usually on, with five or six bats, each 35 inches in length but varying from 32 to 35 ounces in weight, between his legs.

Guerrero would close his eyes, grip one bat with his hands, shake it up and down, twirl it around, waggle it from side to side and put it down. He’d repeat the routine with each bat until he found just the right piece of lumber for that night.

“I always thought it was some kind of Dominican ritual, but it was him figuring out what bat feels good,” said former Angels outfielder Tim Salmon, a teammate of Guerrero from 2004 to 2006. “He was such a feel hitter.”

A bat in the meaty, leathery hands of Guerrero, which were strengthened by childhood work taming stubborn cattle on his grandfather’s farm and coarsened by thousands of vicious bare-handed swings, was as natural as a cello in the hands of Yo-Yo Ma, a knife in the hands of Wolfgang Puck.

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For 16 big-league seasons, Guerrero wielded his bat magic, walloping chest-high pitches off the plate for opposite-field homers and golfing breaking balls near his toes into the gaps, freakish skills that made him baseball’s premier bad-ball hitter.

Six prime years of a career in which he hit .318 with 2,590 hits, 449 homers and 1,496 RBIs were spent in Anaheim, where Guerrero led the Angels to five division titles and two American League championship series from 2004 to 2009 and won the AL most valuable player award in 2004.

The payoff for Guerrero and a 58-year-old franchise that took a chance on a slugger with a balky back comes on Sunday amid the lush rolling hills of this bucolic Central New York village, where Guerrero will become the first player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame wearing an Angels cap.

“It’s a moment of pride for everyone who’s ever worn an Angels uniform or worked in the organization,” said Tim Mead, the vice president of communications who is the third-longest-tenured full-time employee of the club, having started in 1981. “You want to be a part of that history, and now we are.”

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The Angels will have a contingent of about two dozen in Cooperstown, including Mead, team owner Arte Moreno, Salmon and Mark Langston.

There are 10 former Angels — Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Frank Robinson, Rickey Henderson, Don Sutton, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Hoyt Wilhelm and Bert Blyleven — in Cooperstown. None is enshrined in an Angels cap.

Guerrero actually spent more time with the team that signed him as an 18-year-old out of the Dominican Republic for $2,500 in 1993, playing his first seven full seasons (1997 to 2003) in Montreal, where he hit .323 with a .978 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 234 homers and 702 RBIs. And he still feels a deep connection with Expos fans, who are expected to be well represented at Sunday’s ceremony.

Speaking through an interpreter on a recent conference call, Guerrero fondly recalled an Olympic Stadium moment in late 2003, his final season in Montreal, which he shared with his then-4-year-old son, Vladimir Jr., now one of baseball’s top prospects in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.

“I was saluting the fans, I get an ovation, and before you know it, the ovation gets bigger,” Guerrero said. “I didn’t realize that it was because my little son, Vladdy, was next to me, and he was drawing the attention of so many people. I thought they were clapping for me, and they were actually clapping for him.

“I will never forget that. I was so happy with the way the people of Montreal, in a way, said goodbye to me.”

Guerrero, the first Dominican-born position player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, also had high praise for former Expos manager Felipe Alou, whom he thanked for easing his transition to the U.S. and to the big leagues and for “all of the advice and instruction he provided.”

But Guerrero chose an Angels cap for his Hall of Fame plaque because it’s what he wore when he experienced the most team success and perhaps the most joy of his career, starting with his MVP season in 2004.

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While some teams shied away from pursuing the free agent Guerrero because of a herniated disk in his lower back that sidelined him for 39 games in 2003, new Angels owner Moreno signed him to a five-year, $70-million deal, part of a $146-million free-agent haul that included pitchers Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar and outfielder Jose Guillen.

Guerrero hit .337 with a .989 OPS, 39 homers, 39 doubles, 126 RBIs and a league-high 124 runs that season. He was transcendent in his final 30 games, batting .363 with a 1.150 OPS, 11 homers, six doubles, 25 RBIs and 25 runs to carry the Angels to a division title they clinched on the second-to-last day of the season.

“The biggest motivation, really, was that I was very happy to be in a situation where the team was playing for something, fighting for something,” Guerrero said. “In Montreal, there were so many times when August rolled around and we were talking about packing our suitcases and sending stuff back to the Dominican.

“That wasn’t the case with the Angels, and that inspired me. My six years there, we won the division five times, and that meant a lot to me.”

The Angels won the World Series in 2002 with a hard-nosed team led by outfielder Darin Erstad, shortstop David Eckstein and closer Troy Percival, but they slipped to 77-85 in 2003, finishing 19 games back in the AL West. Guerrero was a perfect fit, in the middle of the lineup and the clubhouse.

“There was a blue-collar attitude to the Angels in the early 2000s, and here comes this superstar in an era when your stars kind of had their posse and everything,” Salmon said.

“Vlad had a lot of family, but when he came to the ballpark, it was all business. He was very much blue collar. Everyone said he was a great influence on Latin players, [but] he was a great influence on everybody.”

Former Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher got a feel for Guerrero’s grit — literally — the moment he met the slugger in 2004.

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“The first time I shook his hand, he took the first layer of skin off my hand,” Hatcher said. “You could sandpaper a wall with his hands, that’s how rough they were.”

Those hands were sturdy and sticky, coated with the gobs of pine tar Guerrero stored on his helmet, which teammates joked would stick to the dugout wall if Guerrero flung it in frustration.

“Whether it was 19 degrees or 100 degrees, Vladdy never used batting gloves,” said former Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, who played with Guerrero in 2008 and 2009. “He’d tape around the corns … 20 years of swinging a bat with no gloves, just think about the kind of grip he had.”

Though he was a free swinger whose strike zone stretched from his chin to his shoelaces, Guerrero never struck out more than 100 times in a season. He finished with 985 strikeouts and 737 walks and had four seasons in which he walked more than he struck out.

“His hand-eye coordination was amazing, and pitchers knew that,” Hatcher said. “To extend a pitch on him that he couldn’t hit, you’d have to throw a pitch the catcher couldn’t catch.”

Scouting reports on Guerrero were usually useless. Don’t throw him a strike, most of them said. And don’t throw him a ball. He hits those even harder.

“Anything low, up, in or out, it didn’t matter,” fellow Dominican Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez said in January. “Vladdy had no strike zone. He was one of the most difficult guys to face.”

Guerrero often didn’t know pitchers’ names, usually referring to them by jersey numbers. He claimed he rarely watched video or studied pitchers’ tendencies, which seemed evident when he’d swing wildly — and often miss — at the first pitch. Guerrero knew more than he let on.

“Good hitters have a game plan,” Salmon said, “and Vladdy was that guy.”

Case in point: Guerrero shortened his stroke on Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon’s knee-high, first-pitch fastball, guiding it into center field for a two-run ninth-inning single that gave the Angels a division series-clinching 7-6 win over the Red Sox in 2009. Boston had beaten the Angels in the division series in 2004, 2007 and 2008.

“He didn’t try to hit a homer or anything, he just wanted to make contact and get a hit,” Hunter said. “That shows you Vladdy is a team player. Boston had their knee on our chest for so many years. Vladimir was one of the guys to step up and get the Red Sox curse off the Angels’ back.”

The years on Montreal’s artificial turf took a toll on Guerrero’s lower back and knees, and he spent most of his final three seasons at designated hitter.

But in his prime, Guerrero was one of baseball’s best right fielders, with the instincts and range to run down balls in the gap and the arm to gun down runners on the bases. He had 126 outfield assists.

“Nobody dared to run on Vladimir,” said Hunter, who played in Minnesota from 1999 to 2007. “In every meeting, it was like, ‘Vladdy is out there, no running.’”

Guerrero’s rare two-way skills were matched by his humility, his ever-present smile and a fun-loving personality that translated in any language. Angels manager Mike Scioscia called him “the most unassuming superstar I’ve ever seen,” a label now applied to current Angels star Mike Trout.

“Vladdy and Trout both play for the true fun of the game,” Salmon said. “They play the game like they’re 12 years old. They find the passion you had as a kid, in Little League. They never made it into this ‘I’m on stage and it’s all about me’ kind of thing. They almost shy away from that spotlight.”

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

@MikeDiGiovanna


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