The Best I Ever Saw: Vladimir Guerrero

Vladimir Guerrero belts one (Keith Allison (flickr) CC License)

I’ve always considered my life to be inextricably linked to Vladimir Guerrero. We both arrived in Montreal in 1996 and we both left the city for greener pastures nine years later in 2003. Between those dates, we packed in a whole lot of living. Guerrero established himself as one of the best young talents in baseball and made his first of nine All-Star Games. And I … well, that’s where the comparisons break down a bit. I lost my virginity, pulled off some epic pranks, and got my college degree. Granted, no one’s about to put that on the back of a trading card, but it still feels like time well spent to me.

I originally moved to the city to attend McGill University. I could have gotten in just about anywhere, but I wanted to live in a Big League town, and Montreal was the most appealing place in Canada at the time for a wide-eyed 18-year-old lean on experience and hungry for adventure. Not only was the drinking age lower than the rest of the country, but you also couldn’t throw a rock in the city without hitting a strip club. It was paradise, and it was made all the more special by the presence of the Expos.

The club was two years removed from having the best record in baseball when I first landed in town, and they still had some solid players and prospects on their roster. Chief among them was Guerrero, a lanky 6’3” kid from the Dominican who ran like an antelope and had an arm like a howitzer.

Guerrero only played nine games during his rookie campaign, but I saw all of ‘em. You could tell, even back then, that he possessed something special. The ball seemed to explode off his bat and he could throw strikes from deep right field. He was a true five-tooler and all he needed was a little time to fill out his frame and come into his own.

Vladimir Guerrero with the Orioles (Keith Allison (flickr) CC License)

Over the years, I saw Guerrero play in over 100 games. The Expos made it easy to take in the action. Discount tickets cost just $5 at the time, and a poutine and steamie only set you back another fiver. Now that I’m 40, I’m beginning to pay for those indulgences, but back then it felt like a deal and a half.

I enjoyed every game I saw, but I gained special satisfaction from the 2002 season. That was the year Guerrero truly came into his own. Vladdy was 27 and had become the best bad-ball hitter in the league. Nothing was out of his strike zone. Throw it high and outside and he was likely to go oppo and power it out of the park. Throw it down and in and he was likely to send a PTSD-inducing screamer past the third baseman’s ear. Guerrero could do it all, and he did it without batting gloves. That old school touch made him even cooler in a league where half the players wore so much body armor they looked like extras from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Every game was a spectacle and every at bat felt like an event. Apart from Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, Guerrero was the only player I fully expected to hammer the ball every single time he stepped into the box. It didn’t happen every at bat, of course, but it happened more often than not. Guerrero finished fourth in the NL MVP race that season and was one dinger short of becoming the fourth member of baseball’s vaunted 40-40 Club.

The Expos drew only 10,000 fans per game in 2002, but every single one of them came alive during Guerrero’s at bats, especially late in the season. They would rise to their feet, clap their hands and scream words of encouragement in both official languages. It was frenzied, and it made the stadium positively vibrate (a scary thought since chunks of the Big O were known to fall from the ceiling like candy from an overstuffed piñata).

Guerrero eventually left Montreal after the 2003 season. By then Nos Armours were on the verge of relocation and the team was about to begin playing a quarter of its “home” games in San Juan. The magic was clearly gone. I also packed up my bags and, like Guerrero, headed for another Big League city.

I’ve seen a lot of other players come and go in the years since, but none has made as big an impression on me as #27. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to relate to modern athletes now that I’m getting older, but I feel like I’ll always be able to relate to Guerrero. We both came of age at the same time in the same town. When I think of Montreal, I think of Vladimir Guerrero; and when I think of Vladimir Guerrero, I think of that magical 2002 season.