Angels fans cheer new nemesis
Vlad Guerrero's return to Angels Stadium is met with a deserved ovation
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- After spending six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, Vladimir Guerrero should be familiar with every nook and cranny of Angel Stadium by now, but he was lost. He had to ask -- not once, but twice -- how to get to the visiting clubhouse before his first game back in Anaheim on Tuesday night as a member of the Texas Rangers.
"I was so used to going the other way," Guerrero said. "I had to ask a couple of times how to get here."
Guerrero eventually found his way to the clubhouse, and this season he has found his way back onto the radar of baseball executives everywhere who thought his best days were behind him. The Angels were certainly one of those teams, refusing to sign Guerrero, 35, to a multiyear deal and allowed him to sign a one-year, $6.5 million contract with the Rangers.
After an injury-riddled 2009 season in which he only played in 100 games and hit 15 home runs with a .295 batting average and 50 RBIs (all career lows since 1997), he has eclipsed those marks already before the All-Star break. This season Guerrero is among the league leaders in home runs (16), batting average (.330) and RBIs (63) and is a lock to return to Anaheim for the Midsummer Classic, as he currently leads his Angels replacement -- Hideki Matsui -- for the league's designated hitter spot.
Guerrero received a standing ovation when he first came up to bat, causing him to take off his helmet as he turned around to acknowledge the 38,514 in attendance. He then swung at a pitch only Guerrero would as he practically dug Joel Pineiro's slider off the dirt for a line drive to center fielder Torii Hunter. Though he was playing for the enemy now, Angels fans couldn't help cheering Guerrero for swinging at a pitch in his own personal strike zone, which former Angels broadcaster Rex Hudler would often say was "from his nose to his toes."
The hundreds of Angels fans who came to the game in their old red and white No. 27 jerseys were so happy to see Guerrero back in Anaheim they even gave him a standing ovation after he cracked a two-run home run over the center-field wall off Kevin Jepsen in the seventh, cutting the Angels' lead to 6-5. It wasn't until the top of the ninth, with the game hanging in the balance, that Angels fans finally put their current team before their former favorite player and booed Guerrero as he stepped to the plate, and cheered when Brian Fuentes struck him out swinging to preserve the win.
As much as Guerrero tried to downplay his return to Anaheim, the truth is he was quietly excited and a little nervous about the reaction he'd get from the home fans after leaving following the best years of his career. In his six seasons with the Angels, Guerrero hit .319 (a club record) with 173 home runs and 616 RBIs, while winning the 2004 AL MVP award and leading the Halos to five AL West titles. He left an everlasting imprint in the Angels' record book, and his name and pictures are still scattered around the walls of Angel Stadium. Nevertheless, he was as anxious as anybody about the reaction he'd receive when he walked up to the plate for the first time.
After the game, Guerrero sat with his back to the rest of the clubhouse, facing his locker, and refused to answer any questions even after an interpreter asked him to take a couple. Before the game, however, he met with reporters in the visiting dugout with his friend and Angels color analyst Jose Mota serving as his interpreter.
"I don't want to build it up too much, but I'm excited to see what's going to happen when I take the field," Guerrero said. "I don't think I did anything bad here."
Angels fans certainly agreed he was not in the wrong for leaving the team after general manager Tony Reagins basically forced him to when he signed Matsui to a one-year, $6.5 million contract in December. It's a decision Mike Scioscia said he's still happy with, pointing to Matsui's 10 homers, .262 batting average and 46 RBIs this season. It might not be as good Guerrero's stat line, but its good enough in the Angels manager's eyes.
"It was our intent to talk to Vlad in the offseason and hopefully get him to come back," Scioscia said. "At the time that Tony was talking to Vlad and Vlad's representatives, Vlad was looking for a structure to a deal that was going to be a lot longer-term and more guaranteed [money] than us as an organization were willing to give.
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"We weren't willing to commit to the length of contract that Vlad was looking for, and that's where I think the nuts and bolts of it were. We needed to make a decision and we signed Hideki, and about a month after, Vlad signed with Texas. It was a tough decision, but it was a move that we're happy with. We're happy with what Hideki is doing for us, and obviously they're happy with what Vlad is doing for them."
The Rangers are more than happy with what Guerrero has done for them this season. Guerrero, whose 31 RBIs in May were a career high for a month, is off to an MVP-caliber season after being thought of by many as washed up just a year ago. While his performance might be a surprise to most, it hasn't been for many players in the Angels' clubhouse, who figured he would break out once recovered from a torn chest muscle and an ailing knee that plagued him for much of last season.
"I knew he'd come back strong," Hunter said. "He had to make a business decision, and I was pretty sure he was going to Texas if [the Angels] let him walk. I knew he was going to Texas, because that's a place where he bangs."
In addition to his improved health, playing at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has certainly helped Guerrero resurrect his statistics. His .374 average this season is actually worse than the .394 average he had in 50 previous career games in his new home.
While the Angels might miss Guerrero's numbers, every player in the Angels' clubhouse says they simply miss having him around. They miss the constant smile on his face, the Superman T-shirt he'd wear to work and, most of all, the home cooking he'd bring for his teammates.
"I miss the food," said Angels shortstop Erick Aybar, who used to sit next to Guerrero in the clubhouse and took over his locker once Guerrero left. "Vlad's mom used to make Dominican food for every player every night. He would walk in with bags of food, with a smile on his face for everybody. I really miss that a lot."
As much as the Angels are happy for Guerrero, they wish he was having the type of season he's having for another team, in another division and not standing in their way of another pennant this season.
"If you can't be happy for Vlad, then something's wrong with you," Scioscia said. "This guy is the most unassuming superstar I've ever been around. I'm just not real happy he's doing it in our division with a division rival."