Friday, August 6, 2010

Big Bad Vlad!

For several years, I sang the anthems for the Montreal Expos. When you think of what the Canadian and American anthems mean to people, singing them at a professional sporting event is an honor. Aside from having our faces flashed up on the Olympic Stadium scoreboard by my pal, Chuck Halliday, one of the benefits of performing the anthems was getting to watch Vladimir Guerrero play in the game that followed.

Last night and the night before, I watched the Rangers-Mariners games on television. The former Expo outfielder, true to his trademark, was at the plate, effortlessly swinging and connecting with balls thrown outside the strike zone. He played eight remarkable seasons with the Expos and, in his last year, 2003, his season suffered as a result of a herniated disk in his back. In January 2004, as he was about to turn 28, the Angels signed him to a five-year $70 million deal. At the time, his typical season included a .325 average, 37 home runs, 110 RBI's and 20 steals. Monster stats!

In 2008, he had surgery on his right knee. His career hasn't always been as effortless as it appeared. Guerrero once hit in 44 consecutive games against the Rangers, the longest streak by any player against one team since the start of divisional play in 1969. Evidently, the Rangers made a mental note. Texas signed Big Bad Vlad  for $6.5 million, with a mutual 2011 option for $9 million. He's still getting it done in a big way. He was the starting American League designated hitter for the All-Star Game and, at 35, he was the first player in the majors this season to drive in 70 runs.

In April 2002, after Guerrero homered twice and threw out a runner at home plate to beat the Cardinals 5-2, St-Louis manager Tony La Russa called Guerrero "the most talented player in the major leagues". In June 2004, Yankees manager Joe Torre was watching the Angels take on Boston. Torre called Guerrero's club-record nine RBI's for Anaheim "the most awesome display" he'd ever seen. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen says Guerrero is one of the best players he's ever seen in his life.

The last time I sang the anthems at an Expos game was August 13, 2004, when Roger Clemens pitched the game for the Astros. Guerrero, the player, was long gone by then, but his feats lurk, still; all those homers, all those crazy swings and laser-like throws. All the cap waves. He became the first Expo to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs in consecutive seasons. He was the first Expo ever to score over 100 runs and drive in over 100 in consecutive seasons. In September 2003, Vlad hit for the cycle against the Mets. He became the sixth Expo player to accomplish the feat, with a double in the second, a single in the third, a triple in the fifth and a two-run homer in the seventh. Special moments; they abound. At 22, he became the youngest Expos player to reach the 30 home run, 200 hits and 100 RBI plateau. On September 29, 2002, Vlad tried to pull off  his 40/40 bid. The umpire ruled Guerrero failed to check his swing in his fifth trip to the plate, ending the bid. Vlad took the time to thank the more than 25 thousand fans who came out to scream their support.

Now, Vlad is hoping to stay healthy long enough to hit 500 career homers. Though still in the grips of  acute "empty concrete nest syndrome", Montreal baseball fans are still cheering...and just as "The Hawk" has found a suitable perch in the Hall of Fame, Vlad will, too. Born in the Dominican Republic, he was signed as an amateur free agent by Expo scouts on March 1, 1993. Finders, keepers.

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