By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Praise Vladimir Guerrero. Cheer for him when he's inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame July 29. With a Los Angeles Angels halo on his plaque, no less.
Remember what he did with the Expos. Try not to criticize him too much because he and the Hall of Fame chose the Angels even though he was signed, developed, nurtured and employed by the Expos for close to nine years, including some seven and a half seasons in a Montreal uniform in the majors.
Remember his arm, his speed, his electrifying offence, his unorthodox, out-of-the-box swing at balls that were not in the strike zone. Admire the videos, the YouTube flicks. Try to ignore that he was somewhat mysterious and shy because he could not speak passable English like his brother Wilton.
A very slim Guerrero hit his first homer for the Expos in September, 1996 when he arched a pitch in opposite-field fashion in a direct line from home plate into the stands, just inside the right-field foul pole at old Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta.
The home run was an art form, leaving Braves pitcher Mark Wohlers in a disbelieving daze. When you look at the video, Wohlers is wandering around the mound and wondering to himself, "How did he hit that outside pitch that far to the opposite field?''
From that time on, Guerrero hit many of those opposite-field home runs. When I talked with former Expos five-tool player Ellis Valentine in March of 1997 about Guerrero, he told me, "I hear he's pretty good. He's got a little bit of everything, huh?''
Valentine was right. The lad with the Russian sounding moniker of a first name with a Spanish surname turned out "pretty good'' for both the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont. and Cooperstown.
Guerrero finished his Expos career with 226 doubles, 234 homers, 702 RBI and a .323 batting average. Was there a better season for him in a Montreal uniform than in 1999 when he hit 42 homers and drove in 131 runs? He also hit 44 dingers and drove in 123 runs a season later.
When the Expos could no longer afford Guerrero, he signed with the Angels and played with them for six seasons, going to the post-season almost every October. In Montreal, there was no post-season in the works. During a recent conference call, Guerrero told reporters, "We were packing our bags for the Dominican at the end of the season in Montreal.''
Guerrero was the American League's MVP in 2004 with the Angels. So face it: he enjoyed some wonderful seasons on the Left Coast. It's not surprising that he is pictured in an Angels cap on his Cooperstown plaque. He stands to earn more money in endorsements with a team still in business than with a team that no longer exists.
Guerrero goes into Cooperstown as the first Angel in the hall. The Angels have been in business since 1962 and they have taken a player from another organization to be their first inductee.
We should point out that about a year ago Guerrero and his handlers polled his Twitter followers to find out which logo he should have in Cooperstown. The response was deafening in favour of Montreal. Close to 25,000 replied to that poll and 81% said the Expos and only 19% said the Angels.
"I wonder how much the Angels paid him,'' said Expos fan Robert Patry of Kingston, Ont. "I will never forgive him. I don't care what he has to say anymore. He is bought and paid for.''
Down in Chazy, N.Y., Expos fan Todd Hosler was telling me much the same thing Patry was talking about.
"I feel that Vladimir turned his back on an organization that recognized his talents in 1993,'' Hosler said. "He was recognized from poverty and made his Montreal debut in 1996. His Expos career was longer and more productive than with any other hat on. The Angels adopted an Expo. It's really perplexing.''
Guerrero will be speaking mostly Spanish during his induction speech and his translator is Jose Mota, son of 1969 Expo Manny Mota. Jose will say a few words in English.
For several years, Jesse Guerrero, who was one of Vlad's representatives but not related, handled his translations at various events but the retired player decided to go in another direction last winter, opting for Mota, an Angels' announcer.
Whatever the case, I bet that the number of fans in Expos gear will exceed those in Angels' garb on Sunday. It's a long trek for any Angels' fans coming all the way across from the West Coast to the East Coast.
Guerrero's induction is very timely to coincide with the stellar TSN documentary to air July 29. It's called Swing Away: The Vladimir Guerrero Story. The multi-talented wordsmith Michael Farber plays a big part in the doc and the producer is Matt Dunn. Somewhere in the doc it says Guerrero's "strike zone was as outrageous as his talent.''
Pretty much sums up Guerrero.
Danny Gallagher is in Cooperstown this weekend. Catch up with him on Main St. or at the induction site. He will be promoting his upcoming book Blue Monday and he will make available copies of the 1994 Expos book Ecstasy to Agony. He can be reached at @dannogallagher7 or firstname.lastname@example.org.