Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Who's afraid of a little change?
By Jorge Arangure Jr.
ESPN The Magazine
Editor's Note: This story appears in the Sept. 24 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Angled on a red leather sofa in the bustling Angels clubhouse, Vladimir Guerrero quietly watches television. Almost an hour earlier, he and his teammates had soundly defeated the Tigers on a bright Southern California summer afternoon, and the fact that no one around him is hurrying to leave speaks well of the Angels' chemistry.
Guerrero wants to go home, but he can't quite muster the energy. He'd singled and scored a run, then changed into red shorts and a gray T-shirt before resting his tired body on the couch. Next to him, a group of young pitchers is discussing plans. Guerrero doesn't say a word; he simply stares at the TV as it blares in English, a language he does not speak well and does not care to learn. Finally, Jered Weaver turns to the famously private slugger and jokingly says, "Hey, Vlad, you're going to Hooters with us tonight!"
Guerrero lifts himself from the sofa and flashes a devilish grin. "No chance," he says, limping away.
Although he ranks among the league leaders in batting average and RBIs, Guerrero is clearly pacing himself. With the playoffs on the horizon, both he and the first-place Angels are trying to ensure that he's as dangerous in the fall as he was in the spring.
This has required some adjustments.
At AGE 31, the man everyone simply calls Vlad is no longer the player who hit 39 homers and stole 40 bases for the 2002 Montreal Expos. That five-tool talent could go deep, make a diving catch in rightfield, throw out a runner at home and dash around the bases at will. But while he's still got the smile and singular bad-ball swing, Vlad's body has been conspiring against him for the past several years, forcing him to stop playing the game with such wild abandon. His back, his left shoulder, his aching knees and now his right elbow -- all have limited his effectiveness, and it's hard to remember when he moved without a hobbled gait.
That means he's no longer expected to steal, or bowl over catchers, or dive for balls or even play rightfield every day (he's been the DH roughly 20 percent of the time -- a number that's certain to rise, thanks to tendinitis in his throwing arm). Vlad and the Angels learned the hard way how important it is to rein in his freewheeling style. Two years ago, they beat the Yankees in the Division Series and seemed like an even match with the White Sox for the American League pennant. But Guerrero had just one hit, an infield single, in 20 at-bats, and the Angels fell in five games.
At the time, he denied he was injured. But now he reluctantly admits it was true. "I tried to do my job, but I had a problem with my shoulder," he says in Spanish. "Sometimes the pitches were right there and I missed them."
The problem started in May 2005. While trying to score from first against the Dodgers, Guerrero slid headfirst into home and came up with a partially dislocated left shoulder, which cost him almost a month. He returned to hit .443 in June and .340 in August, but he reinjured the shoulder down the stretch, ruining his postseason.
The Angels can't afford a repeat this October, but curbing Guerrero's aggressiveness can be tricky. He despises change. As a kid, he missed out on a chance to sign with the Dodgers because they demanded he be more selective at the plate. He still yearns for the green light every time he gets on base -- which is often, considering he's hitting .327 and his .405 OBP is sixth in the American League. But he has just two steals in five tries. "They don't let me run anymore," Guerrero says. "I think they just want me to stay healthy."
It's a dilemma for manager Mike Scioscia, who loves to put pressure on the opposition. "If he's not creating the runs we need, we're not going to be as good," Scioscia says. So while Vlad won't be stealing, he will get waved home on close plays; it's the Angel Way. But Scioscia admits he panicked when Guerrero stumbled and fell while trying to score against the Mariners on Aug. 28. After a moment, Vlad got up, unhurt, sporting a wide grin.
All athletes face adjustments in their 30s. But like another great Expo, Andre Dawson, Guerrero is facing them earlier than most. After playing 10 years at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, where the turf was like cement, Dawson offered the Cubs a blank contract in 1987 to roam the outfield grass at Wrigley Field. Guerrero spent seven seasons in Canada. "As hard as Vladdy played, diving on that turf and running the bases, it took its toll on him," says Rangers outfielder Brad Wilkerson, a former Expos teammate. That's a big reason Guerrero's DH appearances will keep climbing. "It's a preventative measure," Scioscia says, "to keep his legs fresh."
Guerrero has discussed all this with his mentor, Victor Franco, who discovered and coached him in the Dominican Republic. "I don't think he has many years left in the outfield," Franco says. "Maybe two or three. I know he doesn't like being a DH, but you have to accept reality."
When he's healthy, his arm is still a weapon, but Vlad's nine errors ties him for the most among major league outfielders. "His routes to the ball aren't as good," says an AL scout. "He's not as confident, because he can't move that well anymore. He can be quite an adventure out there sometimes."
But he's still one of baseball's most feared hitters, an RBI machine from the No. 3 spot in the order. While he has just 24 homers -- his previous full-season low was 33, last year -- he's second in the majors with 45 doubles, and he's reached 100-plus RBIs for the ninth time in 10 seasons. Guerrero's anarchistic swing, which requires maximum effort, often leaves him sapped. After his victory in the Home Run Derby in San Francisco on July 9, he was exhausted. He went 30 games without a homer, from June 24 to Aug. 1, the longest stretch of his career. But if his bat speed has slowed, it hasn't been by much. "He can hit it if it's in his eyes," says Padres righthander Chris Young, who's given up 10 hits to Guerrero in 17 ABs. "I threw a pitch that was 10 inches off the plate, outside, and it snapped his bat, and he still hit it to right for a double that scored a run. And that was pitching around him."
Los Angeles Angels
2007 Season Stats
VLAD'S MOM, Altagracia Alvino, lives with him in Anaheim Hills, making sure he gets plenty of Dominican cooking. Although Vlad supports six kids, he has no wife. As he's jokingly told Franco, "I'm already married to my mother." Angels infielder Maicer Izturis says Guerrero talks about only three topics: family, baseball and music (merengue and its downbeat cousin, bachata).
Franco, who lives nearby, chuckles at Guerrero's inflexibility. Recently, the two discussed making a change in his off-season routine. Each winter, Vlad relaxes in Nizao, on his country's southern coast. He likes to fish and roast goats in his backyard. By early December, he picks up a bat and heads to the dusty field where he played as a boy. Franco wants him to build a batting cage in his house, so he can focus on his craft rather than signing autographs. But Vlad is reluctant to close himself off.
Guerrero doesn't really change. He adapts, if he must. Three years into a five-year, $70 million contract, with a World Series ring in the balance, he knows he must. One afternoon in June, just before batting practice, Franco called Guerrero over to his seat in the stands at Angel Stadium. "Didn't you used to steal bases?" Franco needled.
"I used to," Guerrero replied, smiling. "But they don't let me anymore."
"You better not force something and get hurt," Franco said. "You're the protagonist for this movie. Without you, there is no show."
Which is exactly what the Angels are afraid of.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
He can hit it if it's in his eyes. I threw a pitch that was 10 inches off the plate, outside, and it snapped his bat, and he still hit it to right for a double that scored a run. And that was pitching around him.
--Padres pitcher Chris Young on Vladimir Guerrero