Off field, Orioles' Guerrero remains an enigma

Everyone in baseball, it seems, has at least one Vladimir Guerrero story.

There was the time a ball bounced in front of home plate before Guerrero smashed it into the outfield for a base hit. There was the time, just goofing around at Yankee Stadium, he threw a baseball 370 feet, from one corner of the outfield to the other, and smiled as he watched it clear the fence. There was the 503-foot blast he hit when he won the Home Run Derby at the 2007 All-Star Game.

"It's amazing to watch him for a whole year," said Orioles reliever Kevin Gregg, Guerrero's teammate with the Angels. "There is no rhyme or reason behind anything. But he's actually a very intelligent player. Everything you see looks out of control, but there is some order to the chaos."

Ask someone, though, to tell a personal story about Guerrero, one that is less about baseball and more about the man, and it becomes a more difficult task. Even his teammates view him as a bit of an enigma.

"He doesn't like to talk, but he listens to everyone," said Orioles shortstop Cesar Izturis, one of Guerrero's close friends and the man who serves as his occasional interpreter with the media.

Some athletes make sure you know them — or at least one version of them. They want you to follow them on Twitter and read their blogs. They show up on reality shows and date famous people. But not Guerrero, who is expected to make his home debut with the Orioles on Monday as they play the Detroit Tigers.

Even though he has been in the public eye for nearly 15 years — and has been considered one of the best hitters for more than a decade — Guerrero is still, for the most part, a blank canvas. He doesn't like attention, either from the media or his teammates. He doesn't do interviews in English, and he rarely even does them in Spanish, which he learned growing up in Nizao Bani, the small town on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic.

He is a throwback to another era, but not just for the reasons people frequently cite — that he doesn't wear batting gloves or study pitchers on tape, that he plays the game on instinct. He's a throwback because the connection to him barely goes deeper than his athletic gifts. Fans see the big smile and the big arms and the glee with which he plays. The fusion of poetry and violence that is his corkscrew swing has been so mesmerizing, over time, they barely care that they know virtually nothing about him.

"I've just always been like that since I've gotten to the United States," Guerrero said, granting a rare interview to The Sun on the eve of the 2011 season. "I'm just a quiet guy. I show up and play. I don't want any troubles. When I hear something, I just listen. I don't say anything. This is the way it is. That's my personality. My personality is not going to change. So far, it's been good to me. That's me."

Guerrero is not Superman, even though he did wear a shirt bearing Superman's logo on Opening Day. He is a 36-year-old designated hitter with a creaky back and bad knees. His most heroic feats are likely in the past. Having signed a one-year contract that will pay him $8 million in 2011, he is not a part of the Orioles' long-term plans.

But there were signs this spring that it might have been a bit premature to sound the last call on Guerrero's remarkable baseball career, one that may earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame. In 66 spring at-bats, he hit .364 with five home runs, and he led the team with 20 RBIs. He slid to break up double plays, he tried to leg out every ground ball and he asked Buck Showalter whether he could play every day, even when the manager tried to give him time off.

Not a retread

This does not appear to be a rerun of Sammy Sosa's brief and miserable stint with the Orioles. Even if Guerrero is a shadow of his younger self — Albert Pujols is the only active right-handed hitter with a higher career batting average — he still gives the team three things they've had very little of in recent years: presence, credibility and joy.

"I hope everybody in Baltimore appreciates what they are seeing," Showalter said. "This guy is almost like a cult figure. I don't think you'll ever have anybody else like him. This ain't some Hollywood starlet. This guy is a lunch-pail-type guy. I still remember him in Montreal, and he hasn't changed. He walks in the door every day like he is playing his first game in Little League. It's like he's playing to get a snow cone after the game if he wins."

Few athletes have been as perfectly matched with a city as Guerrero was with Montreal early in his career. And how influential that relationship was is evident even today.

Because Guerrero's family needed him to wrangle cattle in the fields as a boy, his formal education ceased around the fifth grade. Over the years, he learned to understand spoken English, but according to friends and teammates, he has never felt comfortable conversing in anything but Spanish. In Montreal, this was hardly a problem. The Expos played in front of tiny crowds, and media coverage of the team was sparse. None of the regular reporters spoke Spanish, so he was left alone. Away from the diamond, the demands on his time were few. As a rookie in 1997, he hit .302 with 11 home runs and 40 RBI.

Yet even over the next couple years, as he blossomed into one of the game's best players, he still preferred to ride the subway to Olympic Stadium every day. Rarely was he recognized, even though in 2000 his stat line read like it was posted by a character in a video game: .345 average, 44 home runs, 123 RBIs. He just went about his business, an extrovert on the field and an introvert off it.

"He could seem intimidating, but in reality, he is just a big teddy bear," said Manny Acta, a coach with the Expos who is now the manager of the Cleveland Indians. "The language barrier was hard at times, but it also helped him. I think he used it as a shell sometimes. Over the years, not speaking to the media and not paying attention to what anyone was saying about him certainly helped. He's a very proud man."

In Montreal, he started a tradition that continues to this day. Before each home series, Guerrero will write down the names of all the Spanish-speaking players and coaches coming to town. Then he will take the list to his mother, Altagracia Alvino, who has moved with him (along with the rest of his family) to every city he has played in during his career. She spends hours in the kitchen, cooking food for all the Latin players — typically beans and rice mixed with chicken, beef, pork or fish — trying to give them a little taste of home. Guerrero, who has made close to $118 million in salary during his career, will then take the food to the park in plastic bags and distribute it to the players and coaches.

"Since I got to the big leagues in Montreal, I've been with my mom and my brothers, friends and nephews," Guerrero said. "That way, they can watch the game and I don't have to worry about calling them or worrying about stuff over there [in the Dominican]. I get home, and I have all my family around. I'm just comfortable with the support that they give me, especially my mom."

A star among them

A number of Orioles couldn't help but view Guerrero with a certain amount of awe when he signed with the team this summer. Before he arrived, several young Orioles, including pitchers Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, stood in the middle of the clubhouse staring at the nameplate above Guerrero's locker, seemingly unable to believe he was set to don orange and black this year.

"We hadn't really met yet," said Tillman, who threw the infamous curveball to Guerrero in 2009 that bounced before Guerrero hit it for a single. "I was walking through the weight room, and [Izturis] called me over. He tapped Vlad on the leg and said, 'You remember when you hit that ball?' Vladi just smiled ear-to-ear and said, 'Got him,' in a joking way. It was so unbelievable to me. You look at him and he just smiles and laughs, whether he strikes out or hits the ball hard."

The best Vladimir Guerrero stories, it seems, actually aren't even stories. They're snapshots of a man who will politely smile and shake your hand but still keep you at arm's length.

"He's always wanted to be one of the guys," Acta said. "He's one of the most humble people I've ever been around. But I think, at times, he doesn't understand why so many people want a piece of him."

He gives them what he can. Every day during spring training this year, Guerrero sat in front of his locker and opened every piece of his fan mail. Even if it took him an hour, he sat and signed autographs for anyone who wrote to him or sent him something. One spring day, outfielder Nick Markakis called out to him from a few lockers away: "What are you doing, Vladi?"

Guerrero held up two tiny batting helmets, the kind you buy at the ballpark concession stand and fill with ice cream. One was a Montreal Expos helmet, the other a Baltimore Orioles hat. One a reminder of Guerrero's past, the other a glimpse at his present. Markakis chuckled. Guerrero broke into a warm grin, but said nothing as he signed each one. His thoughts, as usual, remained his own.

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