I’m pleading parental prerogative in congratulating Vladimir Guerrero first among four new Hall of Famers. Nothing at all against Chipper Jones, Trevor Hoffman, and Jim Thome, all of whom I have argued before deserve the honour. But Vlad the Impaler was my son, Bryan’s, hero growing up.
Once, when we were sitting in the uppermost of the Angel Stadium nosebleeds down the left field line, with the Angels hosting the Mariners, he bellowed out through the racket, Hit a home run, Vladimir Guerrero!! Sure enough, two pitches later he drove one into the left field seats, opening the bottom of the fifth by getting the Angels on the board for the first time after going in the hole 5-0 through four full.
That was the same game, against Seattle, in which Hall of Famer-in-waiting Ichiro Suzuki opened the top the ninth off Troy Percival with a first-pitch, line drive homer into the right field bleachers, tying the game at seven. The game went to extras. Bryan urged me to take him down to the lower seats now that the park was emptying. A reasonable urging, that.
By the time we got to the left field bleachers, behind the bullpens, with Curtis Pride aboard and nobody out against Eddie Guardado, Jose Guillen drove a strike one pitch twelve rows behind the bullpens and in front of us to win the game. That was Bryan’s second favourite memory from that game. It still is. (For his father, it’s the third favourite. Sorry, son, but I had to love Ichiro going long, too.)
He picked an excellent hero while he was at it. Nicknamed Big Daddy Vladdy by then-Angels broadcaster Rex Hudler, Guerrero was both a good teammate and a good sport; stories abounded about Guerrero and his mother making sumptuous meals for both teams on his homestands. His teams probably loved that and his Christmas tree-bright smile almost as much as they loved the wrecking machine he was at the plate.
Vlad the Impaler was probably baseball’s deadliest bad ball hitter since Yogi Berra, swinging at anything he thought he could reach even if there was a full foot between the ball and the ends of the plate. Unless it was straight over his head or closer to the on-deck circle than the plate, Guerrero would take a swing. He’d hit home runs on pitches that didn’t sail up to within the Anaheim city limits, almost.
Just don’t remind Rheal Cormier, then a Phillies pitcher, who once threw him a pitch far enough outside to require calling a cab to reach it. The Impaler hit it for a game-winning homer. Guerrero also once smashed a pitch that bounced up to the plate; Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer in the announcer’s booth swore it was the first time he ever saw a hitter do a drop kick with his bat.
Guerrero is one of only eleven players—his fellow new Hall of Famer Jones is a member of the club—to hit .300+ lifetime with 400+ home runs. The club includes Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig, and Stan Musial. Perhaps the only reason Guerrero isn’t in the 500-bomb club is injuries, his back and legs in particular from those years pounding the Montreal pool table, but also knee and shoulder issues.
Defensively, Guerrero had a howitzer for a throwing arm but his inability to temper his shameless enthusiasm with a little extra concentration gave him a few more errors than he should have had, since he got to everything hit his way. Strangely enough, a lot of third base coaches kept busy trying to keep their men advancing too far on him, anyway. If there’s a record for most runners held in check despite airmailed throws, Guerrero may be in the top ten.
His home runs were shots out of a Sherman tank. Whatever he hit that didn’t clear the fences scared the opposition’s poor souls anyway. “I watched this guy destroy us,” wrote Doug Glanville once, remembering Philadelphia days against Guerrero. “Everything you threw up there, he hit hard. It was ridiculous. He hit balls that didn’t make sense. And he would hit balls with crazy English and crazy spin. It was like there were chainsaws coming at you.”
The Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor shows Guerrero scoring a whopping 209; the average Hall of Famer scores 100. He meets 58 of the Bill James Hall of Fame hitting standards; the average Hall of Famer meets 50. He doesn’t look as good as you remember him having been when it comes to wins above a replacement-level player; he was worth 59.3 WAR lifetime, and you can probably attribute that to the periods he lost on the disabled list.
You may have forgotten that Guerrero was deadly down the stretch of a pennant race, though he played in several more of those with the Angels than with the Expos, of course. From August through the end of a regular season, he hit .324 with a .385 on-base percentage and a .573 slugging percentage. And when his games were late and close, he was something of a terror: a .920 OPS and a .318/.404/.516 slash line.
Until the advent of Mike Trout, Vlad the Impaler was the most electrifying player ever to wear an Angels uniform. It isn’t even close. Angel Stadium came to life or ramped the party higher whenever he merely stepped out of the dugout to walk to the on-deck circle. And he still lights up the place when he reports to spring training for the Angels as a guest instructor.
For a kid who was so impoverished in his native Dominican Republic that he drank mud puddle water because his family couldn’t afford running water and who had to drop out of school in the fifth grade to help support them, that was almost as much fun as it was for him to check in at the plate and swing at whatever he could see. Guerrero had more fun even striking out—which he did infrequently enough (74 per 162 games)—than a lot of players had hitting the kind of home runs he often hit in his sleep.
And he never tried to hide the fun. I think that’s what impressed Bryan, too, at least as much as those cruise missile home runs. So while I’m going to be just as thrilled to see Jones, Hoffman, and Thome accepting their plaques come July, and just as convinced that they really do belong in Cooperstown, you’ll bear with me, I’m sure, if I’m a little bit happier for Guerrero.
Because one fine afternoon in Angel Stadium, when my son and myself were part of a pre-game Challenger Little League parade around the full run of the warning track, Bryan hollered out to Guerrero, who was warming up on the field. And Guerrero flashed him that brighter-than-the-New-Year’s-Eve ball smile in return.
Long before he finished securing his real credentials, that made Vlad the Impaler a Hall of Famer in my book.