If you’ve been reading The Turf from the beginning there are two things you should know by now:
Just a quick recap for those of you who are new to The Turf.
I grew up in a suburb of Boston. In Massachusetts, there are two kinds of baptism: the church sacrament and the first time your father accidentally spills beer on you while celebrating a Sox win. I was a Red Sox fan by birth and have stayed true to my roots in the American League to this day. Following my move to New York City and landing in Queens, I fell in love with the New York Mets, who I call mine in the National League. However, before the Amazin’ Mets, there was another National League team who stole my heart.
Welcome to the final layer of this saga: The Montreal Expos.
I fell in love with the Expos when I was 10 years old, playing in the “Minors.” In my town, once you hit 10 years old, you were split off into two leagues, aptly named the Majors and Minors. The Majors were made up of the top talented kids aged 10-12, and the Minors were the scraps. Every year there was a tryout where coaches sat in chairs and watched you field grounders, take 10 cuts in a batting cage and then pitch or catch a bullpen session. It was a huge deal. My dad would take me and my brothers to the batting cage every other night before tryouts, each of us taking turns in the cage and then returning to our math homework.
In my first year, I didn’t make the cut. My older brother Matt did and was placed on the Cubs, a Major league team, which meant that next year I automatically had a spot waiting for me on his team. So I knew going in that this would be my only year in the minors.
The biggest difference besides ability and level of competition was the uniforms.
The Majors kids got those cool two-button majestic jerseys, and the minors just had your team name printed on the front.
It SUCKED. Seriously. The kids in the Majors looked the part, but the kids in the Minors looked like IDIOTS. Dress for the job you want, right? We looked like we were lost. Anyway, back to the point.
I was put on the Expos starting behind the plate. It would be my last full season catching thanks to the 45-year-old knees I had as a 10-year-old. Each game I would pretend that I was Chris Widger strolling up to home plate at the Olympic Stadium. After I learned who Gary Carter was, I trashed Widger for the Kid, because… I mean, who wouldn’t? #MetsFanForeshadowing
Imagine my surprise when I realized that Pedro, my Red Sox idol, was once an Expos. I immediately started to learn a circle change and forced our pitching staff to learn some offspeed pitches.
But there was one man who towered over every other Expo.. Vladimir Guerrero.
What initially caught my eye was his reluctance to use batting gloves. This was at the height of Nomar-Mania in Boston which meant batting gloves were a must for pre-batting stance rituals. Vlad didn’t need them and I loved that as a kid. It was as if he was stepping up to the plate in my backyard, just swinging out of his shoes and hitting anything he could. If Vlad didn’t need gloves, maybe he didn’t need a bat! What I saw in Vladimir Guerrero was the closest thing I’ve seen to a natural baseball player as I think I ever will.
To this chubby white catcher from a Massachusetts suburb, Vlad Guerrero was perfect.
A vivid memory of Vlad from my childhood is his 2000 Home Run Derby performance. I was so excited to see him get up there and put everyone to shame. This was in the years between the Sosa/McGwire Race and the Bonds season, so it was anyone’s game and Vlad was swinging a hot bat. The guy was hitting .369 in the first half. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!
Anyway, so Vlad gets to Atlanta only to find that the airline lost his bags, so he didn’t have his bat. I was LIVID. I screamed at the TV. “How can they make him play in Montreal and right when he gets to the biggest stage they lose his bat? This isn’t fair!” He hit two home runs and got knocked out of the first round. I threw my Expos hat on the floor and sulked the rest of the night.
It wasn’t. It just wasn’t fair. Vlad Guerrero was the only thing going well for the Expos and they were being forgotten, which meant he was being forgotten, the scope of his abilities diminished because of the team he played for. He was in exile. He was trapped.
Think of Evan Longoria.
Evan Longoria won the Rookie of the Year in 2008, and after that, he was pegged as the face of the franchise in Tampa Bay. As everyone left around him, year after year, Longoria stayed, anchored at the Trop by a long contract and a franchise clinging to him for dear life. You start to forget the talent a player has, his impact on the game, he begins to seem smaller than once thought. Finally, as though his chains were broken, he gets traded and is free from the shackles of a franchise drowning in its own malaise.
That’s what Vlad left in 2003, aside from the rumbling of the team’s imminent dissolution. The franchise was holding him back, keeping him sequestered in a corner, and finally, he was free to explode to be the player he always wanted to be: a superstar in the spotlight.
That’s why Vladimir is going into the Hall as the first Los Angeles Angel.
Vlad is going into the Hall as the player he saw himself as, not the player we all saw all those years in Montreal.
And it took me a bit to understand that.
When you look at Vlad’s stats during his time in Canada, it’s insane to think of the type of talent he displayed on a nightly basis. When you stack up Vlad against the other top-tier players in the league, he remains in the conversation, much more than you’d think.
From 1998 to 2003, Vlad’s Montreal years, he ranked 11th in OPS. This is also the time where Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds were slugging the lights out of the National League. Vlad was there the whole time. Batting Average? Vlad’s 8th, in front of guys like Derek Jeter, Pudge Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Mike Piazza, Chipper Jones and Barry Bonds.
To put it in perspective, Josè Altuve and Vlad have very similar numbers in their first 7 years in the league. Now I want you to imagine all of the fanfare Altuvé has rightfully gotten in the last two to three years, and think about Vlad getting none of that.
That silence echoes so loudly, doesn’t it?
So when Vlad Guerrero got out of Montreal a year before the team closed up shop, he wasn’t just escaping a dying star collapsing in on himself, he was running towards the spotlight he so deeply wanted and absolutely deserved.
In that first season, Vladimir Guerrero tied his career high for hits in a season with 206, scored 126 runs, knocked in 124 RBIs and hit 39 dingers. Guerrero also won the American League MVP.
He had arrived.
And now he’s arriving in Cooperstown, finally taking his spot amongst the greatest players to ever play. He’s doing it wearing an Angels hat, the only way he would have wanted it.
Was he better in LA than he was in Montreal? That’s the most interesting thing about all of this: there’s almost no difference.
Montreal v. Los Angeles
Not too far off. In his 16 year career, Vlad spent an even 8 years in each league. To get the full comparison, here are those stats.
National League v. American League
I mean, you can’t get more evenly split than that… unless you’re Stan Musial.
As an Expos fan am I sad? Yeah. I think I’m allowed to be. I always imagined Vlad would go in as the final Nos Amour to enter the hall. I’m still holding out hope for a return to Montreal, but Vlad was supposed to be the guy.
To me, he was what Expos baseball and Expos fandom was about.
It was achieving the impossible when the odds were stacked against you. It was creating success by cultivating talent and skill. But most importantly it was about never giving up, giving it your best and doing all that you could to help out your team.
Vladimir Guerrero did all of those things every time he took the field in an Expos jersey. That’s good enough for me.
He might not be wearing a tri-colored “M” on his plaque, but he will always have one in my heart.
Thank you, Vlad. May you finally get the credit and spotlight you so rightfully deserve.
P.S. WHEN IS YOUR SON GETTING TO THE MAJORS?!?!