By Robert Grayson
Vladimir Guerrero just couldn’t lay off a bad pitch during his memorable Major League Baseball career. No worries. The notorious bad-ball hitter used his unconventional approach at the plate to get all the way to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
So, what was the best way for major league pitchers to get Guerrero out? If you ask him, the feared hitter will jokingly say that maybe they should have tried throwing him a pitch right down the middle of the plate. That’s because, if a hurler threw a pitch way over Guerrero’s head or half a foot off the plate or down in the dirt—his personal favorite—look out. The lifetime .318 hitter would take a swipe at it and, more often than not, smack the ugly-looking pitch for a hit, leaving everybody in the ballpark wondering how he even got to the ball.
In this age of specialization, if there ever was a player who mastered the art of hitting the bad pitch, it was Guerrero. And, oh, yes, don’t be fooled: He hit quite a few good pitches as well. But he really loved those bad ones.
So how does a player become a bad-ball hitting machine? The nine-time All-Star’s roots as a free swinger can be traced back to his childhood in Nizao, a city in the province of Peravia on the south coast of the Dominican Republic.
As a child, Guerrero constantly played a game called “La Placa” (meaning “The Plate” in Spanish), which was very popular in his native land. The game was a combination of cricket and baseball. Growing up in a poor area, Vlad and his friends played La Placa in the streets of his hometown, using a lot of makeshift equipment. Later in life, he would realize how much that experience helped him hone his skills for hitting the bad pitch.
At times, Guerrero and his friends were lucky enough to find an old tennis ball lying around in the street or an alley to use in playing La Placa, but most of the time the “ball” was a lemon wrapped in a sock. When thrown by a crafty pitcher, the sock-covered lemon could be tricky to hit, Guerrero remembers when talking about the game through an interpreter.
For bats, the youngsters playing La Placa used old sticks that were not very wide, or tree limbs. A license plate served as home plate, and if the pitcher hit the license plate with the “sock ball” before the batsman hit the ball, the batter lost his turn at bat, Guerrero said.
“They (the pitchers) threw low to hit the license plate and that’s how I learned to dig the balls out and hit the low ones. I came out swinging,” he said.
Guerrero never lost his desire, even in professional baseball, to hit any ball he could see clearly and thought he could get to. Throughout his career, the man who was at one time considered the game’s most feared hitter would boast that, “If I can see it, I can hit it.”
From his early days in the pro game, Guerrero’s eye-hand coordination was jaw-dropping. He almost dared hurlers who saw him hit one bad pitch after another to throw the ball way off the plate or, better yet, as far down in the dirt as possible. They could even bounce one to home plate and he might offer at it, as he famously once did against the Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Tillman, looping a hit to shallow left-center field.
Though his unorthodox hitting philosophy challenged the game’s norms, especially on the pro level, the hard-charging, right-handed batter found a way to silence his critics by hitting pitches out of the strike zone with authority and sending them far out of the reach of any fielders. He was unpredictable at the plate; that made him dangerous whenever he had a bat in his hands, and tough to defense against in the field.
While Guerrero’s batting style may never make it into a book on instructional hitting, it captivated those watching and playing the national pastime. He left enough of a mark on Major League Baseball that his bad-ball hitting, along with his host of other talents for the game, brought him from the streets of Nizao as a youngster to the hallowed halls of Cooperstown this year.
While his knack for hitting bad pitches might have come from playing La Placa as a boy, he got his strength, particularly in his upper body, from hard work. The 16-year major league veteran (1996–2011) explained that he toiled on his grandfather’s farm as a child. His job was to bring in uncooperative cattle from the field. Oftentimes, that meant dragging them in.
“The bulls were very stubborn,” he said.
But he credits those daily battles with the cattle for helping him develop strong hands and arms, as well as sturdy chest muscles. In addition, his work with the bulls made his hands rough, gave him an incredible grip, and allowed him to hold the bat better. As a result, he never had to wear batting gloves when he played pro ball, and was one of the few players to rebuff that trend in a day and age when that kind of accessory was commonplace.
Batting gloves are worn so a hitter gets a better grip on the bat. The gloves became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. But for Guerrero, who learned the game on the streets of his Dominican Republic hometown, batting gloves never held any appeal. After all, what can be more natural than the ungloved hand on wood? Besides the outfielder said, “I just don’t like the way they (batting gloves) feel.”
And who can argue with success? Without batting gloves, Guerrero hit 449 home runs, slammed 447 doubles, and collected 2,590 hits in his major league career.
OK, so forget the batting gloves. Something else made Guerrero stand out as he swaggered up to home plate for each at-bat—his batting helmet. Covered with black, gunky pine tar, his protective headgear looked like it had been worn by a miner working underground for the past year and was finally coming out in the light of day.
The notorious bad-ball hitter would rub dirt on his hands before each at-bat and then rub his hands on his helmet. That was one nasty-looking head protector, but Guerrero wasn’t using it to make a fashion statement; he just liked having the pine tar within reach. And that gritty head armor certainly made the crowd-pleasing run-producer easy to spot from the upper deck.
Guerrero, who was born in 1975, was determined to break into Major League Baseball from a young age. The boys in his large family of nine children had a flair for the game. Three of his brothers attracted some interest from major league scouts. One of his siblings, his older brother Wilton, actually signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1991.
In the early 1990s, the Dodgers and the Texas Rangers were two of the more prominent teams scouting around for untapped baseball talent in the Dominican Republic. However, both teams passed on Vlad with his peculiar batting style. But he drew the attention of super-scout Fred Ferreira, who was known for spotting hidden prospects other scouts missed.
Ferreira was working for the Montreal Expos in 1993 when he took a look at Vladimir Guerrero. He liked what he saw of the youngster’s raw talent, but took special note of the kid’s throwing arm. Guerrero had a cannon for an arm, which Ferreira thought would prove to be a valuable defensive weapon for any team that had this gifted, yet-to-be-discovered ballplayer patrolling their outfield. As it turned out, the scout was right.
Give Guerrero, a right fielder, credit for throwing out 126 runners in his career. He was just as daring in making throws from right field to cut down runners cruising around the bases as he was in other aspects of his game. After a while, his reputation for making accurate throws to erase runners on the base paths became legendary. Base runners simply stopped testing his arm and wouldn’t run on Vlad, but if they did, he came up throwing. It was part of his overall aggressive playing style.
The Expos signed the Dominican prospect and by the 1994 season Guerrero was playing for the Expos’ Gulf Coast League Rookie team in Florida. The day the Montreal Expos signed the young outfielder was “a very proud moment in my hometown. It is certainly a day I’ll never forget and the whole town will never forget. It meant I was going into professional baseball. Thank you to the Montreal Expos for that,” Guerrero said.
He was considered a five-tool player for his ability to hit for average and hit with power, in addition to having a strong and accurate arm, fielding well, and having excellent speed.
Using his offbeat approach to hitting, Guerrero batted .314 and moved up to the Single-A Albany (Georgia) Polecats in the South Atlantic League in 1995. There the up-and-coming star turned heads once again with a .333 average in 421 at-bats, good enough to win the South Atlantic League batting crown in 1995. He also hit 16 home runs that season.
Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that playing in the minor leagues in the United States was no easy task for Guerrero. The transition from his hometown in the Dominican Republic to the United States was a challenge, especially since Guerrero didn’t speak English.
“What I recall vividly is that I made sure I didn’t miss the team bus. If I missed the bus there was nobody to drive me and, obviously, not knowing the language, it was very tough. I remember making sure I got up on time, got the first bus to the ballpark, and things went right for the rest of the day,” he recalled.
“More importantly was learning how to cook, because I had to get used to a different diet. Keeping up my nutrition was very important. Food choices here were not the same as they were in my country growing up. Mama did a good job, but now I was learning to cook for myself,” he added.
Guerrero just flashes his infectious smile when asked if he ever mastered the art of cooking, but the problem does get solved—you’ll have to read on to find out how.
In 1996, Vlad hit an .360 for the Double-A Eastern League Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Senators in 417 at-bats. In addition, he had 19 homers, 78 RBI, 32 doubles, and 17 stolen bases. He was the Eastern League’s Most Valuable Player and batting champ in 1996, while leading the Senators to the league championship. In addition, he was selected as the Double-A Player of the Year in 1996. Vlad is so beloved in Harrisburg that a life-sized bobblehead of him (it’s 6-foot-3, as he is) stands at the team’s home field on Championship Way in the capital city. The distinctive bobblehead was put up in 2016.
At the end of the 1996 Eastern League season, Harrisburg’s favorite player was all set to return home to the Dominican Republic when he got called up to the Montreal Expos.
“That was a very special moment for me after winning the MVP. Getting called up to Montreal meant a lot,” he said.
He remembers that the people in Montreal embraced him immediately and looked out for him, even though he wasn’t a big star from the get-go.
The man who would eventually end up winning eight Silver Slugger awards made his major league debut on Sept. 19, 1996 against the Atlanta Braves, ripping a base hit off left-hander Steve Avery. Two days later, Guerrero notched his first major league home run in the top of the ninth inning in a game against those same Atlanta Braves. He clobbered a fastball from Braves closer Mark Wohlers to get the round-tripper. As you might expect, the pitch was low and a bit outside.
“My first home run against any major leaguer was quite an accomplishment, but against an established closer makes it one of the special moments in my career that I’ll never forget,” he said.
Vlad was not a lock to be up with the Expos in 1997. Cliff Floyd was the Expos’ everyday right fielder and Guerrero would have to wrestle the job away from him to break into Montreal’s starting lineup or even stay with the club. No problem. The Expos’ rising star had such a great spring that the team traded Floyd to the Florida Marlins and inserted Vlad in right.
Felipe Alou, himself a premier major league hitter and a fellow countryman of Vlad, was manager of the Expos when Guerrero joined the club.
“He (Alou) gave me the opportunity to be an everyday player and even though as a rookie I did go through some injuries, Felipe was very patient in explaining things to me and continued to put my name in the lineup every day I was healthy,” Guerrero said. “I’m thankful for finding him early in my big league career.”
The All-Star outfielder noted that Alou gave him a lot of insight, instruction, and advice when it came to the major league game.
“He told me get to the ballpark early and do your work,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero also received some help when he first walked into the Expos’ clubhouse from another player who would be inducted into to the Baseball Hall of Fame one day as well, Pedro Martinez. When Vlad first arrived in the bigs, Martinez let the rookie live with him. But once Vlad found a place of his own in Montreal, the budding star invited his mom, Altagracia Alvino, to visit him, and with her came some home cooking. She decided to stay. That was an answer to a hungry young hitter’s prayers.
And she didn’t cook for Vlad alone. Used to cooking for more than two people, Guerrero’s mother would make big pots of food, mostly Dominican delicacies. She’d pack up the leftovers and send them to the ballpark with her son. Soon the Expos had home-cooked meals for every game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Mom didn’t go on the road. Even some rivals would sneak into the Expos’ clubhouse in Olympic Stadium for a few munchies, the outfielder vividly recalled.
On Aug. 1, 1998, Vlad’s brother Wilton, who had been the Dodgers’ second baseman since 1997, got traded to the Expos. Wilton moved in with Vlad and Mom. That was fine, Vlad said, as his mom was already cooking, well, enough food for a team.
The Guerrero brothers played together in Montreal through the end of the 2000 season. Then Wilton became a free agent and moved on to Cincinnati in 2001.
Vladimir Guerrero played for the Expos for eight seasons (1996-2003), and never hit under .300 since he had become an Expos starter in 1997. He had a lifetime .323 batting average with Montreal, hitting 234 home runs and compiling a .588 slugging percentage.
Guerrero’s career in Montreal was like a highlight reel. In 2000, Vlad batted .345. He also hit 44 homers in 2000, his second 40-plus home run season. He also did it in 1999 when he had 42 round-trippers. On July 7, 2001, he made a 300-foot throw from right field straight into catcher Michael Barrett’s mitt to throw out Toronto’s Alberto Castillo. Castillo was trying to score from second on a single by Shannon Stewart. In 2002, the Montreal All-Star hit .336 and then came back and hit .330 in 2003. He had five 100-plus RBI seasons 1998-2002 for the Expos and eclipsed 200 hits in a season twice (1998 and 2002). He was the Montreal Expos’ Player of the Year four times (1998, 1999, 2000, and 2002).
Even though Guerrero was a fan favorite in Montreal and was the team’s biggest star during the eight years he played there, the team never made it to the postseason during his days with the club. Playing October baseball was one of Vlad’s goals when he entered pro baseball, so, when he became a free agent after the 2003 season, Guerrero entertained offers from other teams.
Nevertheless, he said he is grateful to Montreal for giving him his start and the chance to play in the majors.
“The Expos were the team, after some teams overlooked me in the Dominican Republic, that gave me the opportunity to break into professional baseball,” he said.
Vlad added that he was always appreciative of how he was treated by the fans and the people of Canada.
But when the Anaheim Angels came calling, Guerrero had to give that team serious consideration. The Angels were world champions in 2002 and had a good chance to win it all again in 2004. After much soul searching, the talented outfielder decided to leave Montreal and sign with the Angels. His mom came along, and now Vlad and his West Coast teammates were enjoying home-cooked meals at the Big A.
Vlad really delivered the goods during his first year in Anaheim, winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 2004 with a .337 batting average, 126 RBI, and 39 home runs, in addition to 39 doubles. In September he hit a scorching .371 and helped the Angels win the American League Western Division. But the Halos lost the American League best-of-five Division Series in three straight games to the Boston Red Sox.
That began a streak of highs and lows for Vlad in postseason baseball. In the six years Guerrero was with the Angels (2004-2009), the team won the Western Division five times, but never made it to the World Series. In 2005, the team, which went back to using Los Angeles, instead of Anaheim, in its name, once again won the American League Western Division. Los Angeles defeated the New York Yankees 3 games to 2 in the 2005 American League Division Series, aided by Guerrero’s .333 batting average in the series. But the Angels went cold in the 2005 American League Championship Series and were defeated by the Chicago White Sox 4 games to 1.
After failing to make the playoffs in 2006, the Halos won the AL West in both 2007 and 2008, but lost the ALDS both years to the Boston Red Sox. In 2008, the loss came despite Guerrero hitting a lofty .467 in that ALDS.
The effects of Vlad’s hard-hitting brand of play began to wear him down in 2007, 2008, and 2009. He played a bit less in the outfield in 2007 and 2008 while starting some games as the designated hitter. Then in 2009 he was used mostly as a DH. That season, after winning the AL West again, the Angels returned to the ALDS and faced the Bosox yet again. This time Los Angeles finally defeated Boston and moved on to the ALCS.
Vlad once again was denied his shot at a World Series ring when the New York Yankees beat the Halos 4 games to 2 in the ALCS. The Angels outfielder contributed mightily in the 2009 postseason, batting .400 in the ALDS and .370 in the ALCS, but it wasn’t enough.
During his six-year run with the Angels, Guerrero batted .319 and hit 173 home runs. He had four 100-plus RBI seasons (2004-2007) and had 200 or more hits in 2004 and 2006. Vlad was the Angels’ Player of the Year four years in a row (2004-2007).
While Vlad never made it to the Fall Classic with the Angels, he says all the postseason play and the winning seasons meant a great deal to him and that’s why he chose to go into the Hall of Fame as an Angel. But he noted that the choice was not an easy one.
“I toiled over this a long time. The Canadian people mean a whole lot to me. Picking the Angels means a lot because of what it represents with all the winning,” he said.
Guerrero will be the first player enshrined in Cooperstown shown wearing an Angels cap on his plaque. The team came into existence in 1961. Vlad said he was thrilled and honored to be the first to wear the Halos’ logo in the Hall of Fame.
Guerrero did not give up his quest to win a world championship after his tenure with the Angels. In 2010 he signed with the Texas Rangers and came out swinging, hitting an even .300 for the season. That was the 13th time in his career that the outfielder hit .300 or better in a season. The Rangers won the American League West and defeated Tampa Bay 3 games to 2 in the ALDS. Then came an old nemesis for the Rangers in the American League Championship Series—the New York Yankees.
The Rangers had a history of losing playoff games to the Yankees, going down in the ALDS in 1996, 1998, and 1999. But Vlad wasn’t on those teams and this time the Rangers defeated the Yankees in six games. Now a veteran of the postseason, Guerrero went 4-for-5 in Game 4 of the ALCS and got three RBI in the sixth and final game. It was the first time the Texas Rangers ever won the American League pennant.
The frustration didn’t end for Guerrero, however, as the Rangers lost the 2010 World Series to the San Francisco Giants in five games. Yet he calls the 2010 campaign a special season because he was “presented with the opportunity to go to the World Series, even though we came up short of our goal.”
Vlad held a party in his hometown in the Dominican Republic after the Rangers lost the 2010 Fall Classic because just getting to the World Series meant so much to him. But the Rangers did not pick up Guerrero’s option in 2011, so he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. There he hit .290 in 2011, an enviable batting average for most players, but his lowest in the majors since 1996. He was unable to get another major league gig after the 2011 season, though he tried for several years.
Guerrero played some minor league ball in 2012 and 2013 to spark interest in his comeback attempt, but then retired. He said he was disappointed that he could not reach the 500-home-run plateau for his career. But he was well aware that he had amassed some breathtaking stats and his exploits as a bad-ball hitter were the stuff of legend.
At 43 years old Vlad said what matters most to him about his career is that he didn’t take a bad day at plate—“where you went 0 for 4 with a couple of strikeouts”—to the outfield with him.
“The game was not one-dimensional for me. I knew I still had a job to do in the outfield,” he said
Last year, Guerrero missed being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by 15 votes. He then won election in 2018 with over 92 percent of the vote. Though pitchers Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez, both from the Dominican Republic, are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Vladimir Guerrero is the first position player from that country to get into Cooperstown.
“I’m very proud of what I accomplished and thankful,” he said.
By being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Guerrero made something happen that at one time seemed unreachable to him. It’s like swinging at a pitch way out of the strike zone and getting a hit.
Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com.