The first player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame wearing an Angels cap could have just as easily been enshrined in Dodgers blue.
The Dodgers had two chances to sign Vladimir Guerrero, as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in 1993 and as a free agent before the 2004 season.
They were caught looking 25 years ago, declining to sign Guerrero after the outfielder spent eight months at their Dominican academy, and their free-agent pursuit of the slugger two decades later produced a swing-and-a-miss.
The Dodgers had already signed Guerrero’s older brother, Wilton, in 1991, and they had another brother, Albino, at their academy.
Vladimir was a gangly 6 feet 3 with a clumsy gate and an unorthodox swing, but his raw skills and athleticism were obvious. He had a rocket for an arm, a gazelle-like stride and arms that were long enough to hit outside pitches with authority.
There were conflicting reports as to why the Dodgers didn’t sign him, one claiming they thought he looked like his older brother Albino, who was released because he was too slow, and another that they had little bonus money available and didn’t want to embarrass Guerrero with a low-ball offer.
“I was at the Dodgers academy for eight months, and they decided not to sign me,” Guerrero, speaking through interpreter Jose Mota, said during Saturday’s Hall of Fame news conference, the day before Sunday’s induction ceremony.
“They continued to sign outfielders, but I was never given a chance to sign. And my brother said, on a Wednesday, that if they don’t sign you tomorrow, I want you to go home, which I did.”
“In this business, you consider yourself a success if 5% of the guys you sign make it to the majors,” Dodgers scout Ralph Avila told the Montreal Gazette after Guerrero reached the big leagues as a 19-year-old in September 1996. “Vladimir will be part of the Expos’ 5%, not ours. And that’s how it works sometimes.”
Guerrero hit .330 with a 1.012 OPS, 25 homers and 79 RBIs in 2003, his final season in Montreal, but was limited to 112 games by a herniated disk in his lower back that clouded his free agency in the offseason.
Several teams declined to pursue Guerrero. The New York Mets were interested but refused to extend their contract guarantee beyond three years, citing an inability to obtain insurance against another back injury.
The Dodgers weren’t deterred. They believed they were so close to signing Guerrero that top club executives were exchanging high-fives in their offices. The celebration was premature. Concerns that a lucrative agreement might complicate the sale of the team from Fox to Frank McCourt scuttled the deal.
“It was very close,” Guerrero said of a potential deal with the Dodgers. “We had discussions with the Dodgers, and we were told during negotiations that the Dodgers were up for sale, so that kind of held things up.
“During that time, [then-general manager] Bill Stoneman of the Angels called my agents asking if they had any free-agent pitchers. During that conversation, my agents said Vladdy is available, and then, the conversations started. They couldn’t believe I was available, and that’s how it went.”
The Angels weren’t involved in the early bidding for Guerrero, but as they delved into his 2003 season and medical history, they couldn’t help but notice Guerrero’s .355 average, 1.102 OPS, eight homers, 23 RBIs, 24 runs, 19 walks and 12 strikeouts in his final 32 games that season.
Arte Moreno, wanting to make a big splash in his first winter as the Angels’ owner, signed Guerrero to a five-year, $70-million contract with a sixth-year option on Jan. 14, 2004.
“His back was hurting for most of the previous year, but he came back the last six weeks and was doing everything well,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “Everyone in our organization was comfortable with the fact he would be healthy.”
Guerrero had a career-best season in 2004, batting .337 with a .989 OPS, 39 homers, 39 doubles, 126 RBIs, a league-high 124 runs and 15 stolen bases to win the American League most-valuable-player award.
He hit .500 (15 for 30) with a 1.783 OPS, six homers, three doubles, 11 RBIs, 10 runs, six walks and zero strikeouts in 36 plate appearances over his last eight games, the Angels going 7-1 to erase a three-game deficit and overtake Oakland for the division title on the second-to-last day of the season.
So began a six-year run in which the Angels made the playoffs five times and the AL championship series twice, a stretch of dominance that probably has the Dodgers and their fans seeing red … and feeling blue.
“Montreal, Angels, Texas, Baltimore — wearing each one of those uniforms meant that I was living a dream,” Guerrero said. “There were people who told me I wasn’t going to last in professional baseball. Thanks to God I didn’t pay attention to those that doubted, especially because not very many players had been signed out of my area.”