"I'm just a quiet guy," Vladimir Guerrero,… (Getty Images )
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.