TORONTO – This is, in all likelihood, the last of the grand celebrations for the Montreal Expos. Vladimir Guerrero, the final of the franchise’s all-time greats, elected to the Hall of Fame, his looming induction a reminder of the organization’s brilliance at finding and developing talent, and of its inability to sufficiently build around stars, and retain them over the long haul.
Perhaps, if the voting trend that spiked his total from 21.9 per cent to 34.1 per cent continues, Larry Walker may yet join him during the two years of ballot eligibility that remain for the Canadian right-fielder. Or barring that, maybe the Hall’s Veterans’ Committee will eventually correct that potential voting failure and give the Expos another moment in the sun.
But without doubt, Guerrero was the last of Montreal’s iconic players, and regardless of which logo ends up on his plaque in Cooperstown (a “very difficult” decision he said he plans to reveal Thursday), he was representative of the vivacity, the flare, the ambition of the Expos when they were at their finest.
“I am quite thankful to Montreal, to the Expos because that was the team, after some teams overlooked me in the Dominican Republic, that gave me the opportunity to break into professional baseball,” said Guerrero, in comments interpreted by Jose Mota, on a conference call Wednesday night. “I’m always thankful for the way I was treated in Canada.
“And I feel truly blessed to have had someone like (former manager) Felipe Alou, a Dominican manager, in my first few years in the major leagues because all Felipe provided for me, advice, instruction. I vividly recall that the advice from Felipe was, ‘Get to the ballpark early, and do your work.’”
Guerrero received 392 votes, or 92.9 per cent of the vote, in his second year on the ballot, to be elected for induction Wednesday.
Joining him in the Class of 2018 are Chipper Jones, the brilliant third baseman who starred for nearly two decades with the Atlanta Braves and received 97.2 per cent of the vote; Jim Thome, the longtime Cleveland first baseman who hit 612 home runs in 22-year career (89.8 per cent); and longtime San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, second all-time with 601 saves (79.9 per cent).
Edgar Martinez, a late bloomer who dominated as a designated hitter with the Seattle Mariners fell 20 votes short of the 75 per cent cutoff at 70.4 per cent, and will appear on the ballot for the 10th and final time next year.
Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines are the other primary Expos players in Cooperstown. Unless Walker makes it, and unlike Guerrero the bulk of his career was with the Colorado Rockies rather than in Montreal, or the Expos are one day reborn (“I would love to see baseball again in Montreal,” said Guerrero) the line ends now.
In some ways Guerrero, the 42-year-old from Nizao, Dominican Republic signed out of poverty for a pittance on March 1, 1993, was a cross between the intimidating presence of Dawson and the flair and grace of Raines, after the electorate at long last did the right thing.
Few players managed to get bat to ball quite like Guerrero, whose bare hands whipped the barrel at pitches both in the meaty part of the strike zone and in places where no one contemplated swinging. Strike or not, his brute strength sent the ball a long way, a point illustrated in this story from Mickey Hatcher, his former hitting coach with the Los Angeles Angels.
“When I was with the Dodgers organization, he beat us on a couple of pitches, and one of them bounced off the dirt that he hit off the right-field wall,” Hatcher told me in 2004. “Pitchers in the game know he’s swinging, he’s going to get three swings in no matter what, and he still finds a way to beat you. That’s just amazing to me.”
Or, as former Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca succinctly put it: “Vladdy hits inside and outside the strike zone.”
The eyeballs-to-shoelaces hitting zone may have been his calling card, but there was so much more to Guerrero’s game. While not a particularly efficient base-stealer, he did swipe 181 bags in 275 attempts (66 per cent), topping at out at 40 in 2002, falling one homer short of a 40/40 season.
During his eight years in Montreal, he was a bundle of fast-twitch-muscled energy charging around right field, although his range deteriorated later in his career. Still, a dominant throwing arm helped serve as an equalizer, as base-runners tested him at their peril. Guerrero collected 126 assists from right field in 1,608 games in the outfield, with a career-high 15 in 1999.
Not to be overlooked is that long before Bryce Harper wore the hat, Guerrero helped make baseball fun again, his big toothy grin not only a trademark, but a reflection of the endearing exuberance with which he played.
“A very special moment for me, after winning double-A MVP, getting called up to Montreal meant a lot,” Guerrero said on the conference call. “I will never forgot how the fans in Montreal reacted to my call-up. I will never forget that even though I wasn’t starting, there were so many people looking out for me in Montreal. I will never forget my home run, off Mark Wholers, my first homer off any major-leaguer, an established closer, what an accomplishment for me at that time. One of those special moments in my career that I’ll never forget, considering how open people were with me in Montreal and the reception they gave to me.
“Forever, I’m very thankful.”
That joy is a pivotal part of his legacy in Montreal, although so too is his departure to the Angels as a free agent after the 2003 season, with the Expos under the ownership of Major League Baseball and a track to Washington slowly being laid.
Up until the team actually left to become the Nationals following the 2004 season, he was also the last major player heartbreak for Expo fans, a resilient group who watched so many great players, Dawson, Carter, Raines, Walker and Pedro Martinez among them, depart beforehand.
In different ways, the impact of leaving lingered for the players, too.
“There were a lot of good players there, a lot of fun memories,” Guerrero told me in 2004. “I wish the fans would go see the team whether I’m there or not. It’s a very special place to play. Since 1997 I’ve been hearing that they’re going to be moving, so I’ll just wait until the last minute to see where they’re going to go.”
Guerrero’s final action with a big-league organization came with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012, when he signed a minor-league deal in early May in the hopes of resurrecting his career and chasing down the 500-homer mark.
“I feel like this where I started, it’s not the same city but it’s Canada, and I think going back there is like (being) renewed,” Guerrero said through an interpreter in May 2012. “I feel like I’m going to be very, very comfortable.”
He appeared 12 games at single-A and triple-A before the sides parted ways, and after eight games with Licey in the Dominican winter league, his playing days were through.
Any renewal now for Guerrero will come through his Montreal-born, Dominican-raised son Vladimir Jr., the Blue Jays third base prospect ranked among the very best in the game. The Blue Jays and their fans can hope any legacy he leaves them approaches anything close to what his father did for the Expos.