ANAHEIM – He waits, his fingers calloused and taped and held near his right ear, the bat head tracing tiny halos over a tarred red helmet he's mashed down over braided and twisted locks.
His toes are pressed inward, his bulky rear end outward. He's pulled fistfuls of jersey forward over his shoulders, so the white top sags in the front, giving the impending violence a place to go.
And when Vladimir Alvino Guerrero swings – the lunge to lift and drop his left foot, the torque in his thighs and hips and torso, the whip of his hands, the hopeful rise of his chin – there is nothing much like it.
Others hit more home runs. Hit for a higher average. Reach base more often. Among them, there are classic swings and power swings and functional swings.
And then there are Vladdy swings, exceptional for their brutality, abandon and passion.
"People ask me about how I do it," he said, "and I tell them, 'I swing at anything that I like.'"
He grooved those swings during the games of his childhood in Bani, Dominican Republic, in a game called "La Placa," where a license plate folded and set upright in the dirt must be toppled by the pitcher, defended by the batter. Twenty-five years later, Guerrero remains a low-ball hitter. He toughened them in the pastures of his hometown, heaving trapped and obstinate cattle from the muddy fields with thick, rutty rope. He has never worn batting gloves.
He primed them at day breaks, riding the back end of the family donkey with his beloved grandfather, returning with buckets of milk. He is, every day, among the earliest to the ballpark, often carrying trays of rice, beans and chicken prepared by his mother, Maria Altagracias, who lives with him not far from Angel Stadium.
Those imprints – his upbringing in the Dominican, the lessons in work and humility, the gifts of family and baseball – he bears still. The wisdom and friendship provided to him as a young man with the Montreal Expos by the likes of Pedro Martinez, Mel Rojas and Moises Alou, he imparts now to Erick Aybar, Ervin Santana and Kendry Morales.
"I always give them advice, no matter what team or organization they're with. I do that because somebody at one time did it with me," he said through a translator, Angels broadcaster Jose Mota. "The guys didn't necessarily take me under their wing, but showed me the ropes of the big leagues. They told me – and I pass on the same thing – to stay in the big leagues, you don't have to do anything different than what you do in the minor leagues, just be more consistent in doing it."
Guerrero, at 31, is again one of the game's great hitters, one of the game's great shows, a regular All-Star and, three seasons ago, the American League's MVP.
In a lineup remade with Reggie Willits at leadoff and Gary Matthews Jr. behind Guerrero and scoring six runs a game for the past six weeks, Guerrero is 11th in the league in batting, tied for seventh in home runs, second in RBI and fifth in on-base percentage.
He also is fifth in the AL in walks, in large part because in all of baseball only Barry Bonds (26) is walked intentionally more often than Guerrero (20). Still, Guerrero, who walked 50 times in 156 games last season, has walked 45 times in 73 games this season. He annually sees some of the fewest pitches per plate appearance in the major leagues, twice in the past four seasons finishing next-to-last (2004, ahead of only A.J. Pierzynski, and 2006, ahead of only Jay Payton), and in 2007 ranks 174th out of 178 qualifiers.
"More patience, but now I notice when teams really want to miss, they miss by a lot," he said with a smile. "In that case, I'm aware of it. Mickey (Hatcher, the Angels' hitting coach) reminds me of situations. And I understand I'm not alone on this team and it's shown by the way the team has been playing. So, a little more patience this year for sure."
He saw 3.16 pitches per plate appearance last season. He is seeing 3.18 this season. Over 600 plate appearances, a full season, that means he'd get a whopping 12 more pitches. A little more patient, indeed.
At bat, he is who he is; forceful, aggressive, borderline reckless, maddeningly difficult to pitch to, convinced he can drive anything he can reach. Sometimes, when he swings, he can resemble a man trying to start a cranky lawn mower. More often, the concert of long arms and huge hands and towering legs and fearlessness is a line drive, or a towering home run, or a neck-of-the-bat single.
"He's a lot bigger than you think when you are playing against him," said Matthews Jr., who came to the Angels this winter. "He's so strong and he has really long arms. It's amazing the balls he gets to. He keeps his hands back and gets his foot down early, so he's got so much leverage."
The idea of changing Guerrero – smoothing the lines, reducing his concept of a strike zone – arose only a couple times, and only very early in his career. In 1994, 18 months after being signed by the Expos as a 17-year-old, Guerrero was approached by coaches in Instructional League. Arturo DeFreites, who, along with scout Fred Ferreira, is credited with discovering Guerrero, waved them off.
"No, no. Stop," Guerrero recalled him saying. "Look at the numbers. Look at the talent. Just let that kid do whatever he's doing. Obviously he's doing it right. Let's not over-coach him."
Said Guerrero: "I give Arturo DeFreites all the credit."
Two years later, Guerrero arrived in the big leagues with the Expos. Jim Tracy, then a coach for the Expos, recalled manager Felipe Alou meeting with his staff before Guerrero's first game.
"In the case of Vladimir Guerrero," Alou told them, "leave him alone and let him play. Let him play."
So they did.
"Early on," Tracy recalled with a laugh, "if a pitcher threw one near the on-deck circle, Vlad might have taken a whack at it. But, he was terrific. Just a great kid that knew very little English. He always had a smile on his face, always played the game hard, always ran hard."
Asked how he might describe his at-bats to someone who'd not witnessed them, Guerrero grinned.
"I would recommend that that person watch me play first, at least two games, and they can decide," he said. "And they can ask me a question I can answer better. I wouldn't even answer that says I'm a good hitter. I want them to see it on the field and then let the bat talk."
He played seven seasons in Montreal before signing a five-year, $70-million contract with the Angels before the 2004 season that, with an option year, will take him through 2009 and ultimately be worth $85 million. Along the way, he's learned just enough English for short, simple conversations, usually accompanied by smiles and light-hearted shrugs. Ask how many children he has, he holds up six fingers, names each child, and explains they range in age from seven months to eight years. He shakes his head, no, he's never been married. He says he regrets he never saw Roberto Clemente, whose outfield arm his is most often compared to. And that he watches maybe five minutes of video of the opposing pitcher before a game, but knows he is different, knows pitchers don't pitch him the way they do other hitters.
"The only way I'm going to see that is when I step up to the plate," he said.
That's when it all starts, of course. Through the same age, his career numbers – .325 lifetime average, 352 home runs, 1,120 RBI – stand with Willie Mays', Frank Robinson's, Duke Snider's. His batting average ranks fourth among active players and 43rd alltime, tied with Joe DiMaggio.
"He's one of the greatest players of our generation," Dodgers coach Rich Donnelly said. "A first-ballot Hall of Famer. Anybody who doesn't vote for him ought to have a urine test; they're not a human being."
There are wonderful stories of Guerrero's talent. The breaking ball seven years ago that Pete Harnisch bounced five feet short of the plate, that Guerrero hit anyway, so hard that it stuck in the padding of the left-center field wall at Olympic Stadium. The scouting report that suggested pitchers roll the ball toward the catcher and hope Guerrero didn't hit that too. The catchers who, during spring training, would wear full gear during warm-ups because of the force of Guerrero's one-hop throws from right field.
Better, perhaps, is his nature, the way he did it, and does it. He swings hard, plays hard, enjoys it.
"I want to be remembered as a good teammate," he said. "That's the most important thing for me. Numbers, I can't point to anything I want to do. Continue to produce. The fans, I want them to remember how I played. Not necessarily what I did, but when I took the field, when I played right field, and when I ran around the bases. No numbers. Just a picture of how I played."