Guerrero's future home remains as uncertain as ever

In the crazy world that is the Expos, Vladimir Guerrero's status beyond this season remains one big question mark.

Originally Published: March 13, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- He's the star without a face, playing for the team without a home. And that tells you all you need to know about why Vladimir Guerrero isn't the biggest story of spring training.

Where will he be next March? For that matter, where will his team be? In Montreal? In San Juan? In a stadium on wheels, rolling around North America, looking for a corner to park a ballpark on?

Vladimir Guerrero doesn't know. Frank Robinson doesn't know. Omar Minaya doesn't know. Bud Selig doesn't know. Miss Cleo doesn't know.

Vladimir Guerrero
Vladimir Guerrero batted .330 or better in three of the last four seasons.

What we know is this: It's Vladimir Guerrero's free-agent season. And if he is allowed to walk away next winter, or if he has to be traded in July, then the already-ridiculous Montreal Expos situation can no longer be considered just a farce or a sideshow.

If they lose Vladimir Guerrero, the Expos officially become a full-fledged baseball tragedy. Cause of death: procrastination.

"If we lose him," said his teammate, Brad Wilkerson, "it would be unfair for our organization, whether we're still in Montreal or wherever we go. It's imperative that we keep him. He's the heart and soul of this organization."

Yep. He's the heart. He's the soul. He's the whole darned cardiovascular system.

At age 27, Guerrero is already the Expos' all-time career leader in batting average (.322). By the time this season is over, he'll have passed both Andre Dawson and Gary Carter to become their all-time leader in home runs.

Over the last five seasons, the only player in baseball with more hits than Guerrero (982) is Derek Jeter. Only Sammy Sosa, Todd Helton and Barry Bonds have more extra-base hits (410). The only National Leaguers with more homers than Guerrero's 197 over those five years are Sosa and Bonds.

The only National Leaguers in that span with more RBIs than Guerrero (582) are Sosa, Helton and Jeff Bagwell. Just one National Leaguer at any position -- Andruw Jones -- has stayed healthy enough to play more DH-less games than Guerrero (793). And the only outfielder in either league with more assists than Guerrero's 66 these last five seasons is Mark Kotsay.

But we don't need to prove to you, to the Expos, or to anyone who has been conscious at any point over the last five years, that Vladimir Guerrero is a great player. What makes him so fascinating is that he has been that great for that long -- and just about nobody knows him.

"I don't know what the personality of this guy is," said one NL executive. "I don't know what his personality is because he's such a quiet kid. And I don't know what his personality is because he plays in Montreal. To be honest, there's really not much that any of us know about him, except for his ability."

That ability alone will be enough to earn Guerrero a very, very, very large paycheck, wherever he might have to go to collect it. But it's everything else about him that makes him one of the most intriguing superstars of modern times.

And it's the air of mystery that thoroughly engulfs him and his franchise that make his lurking free agency one of the most indecipherable -- and most significant -- baseball stories in years.

Best free agents, 2003-04
Note: Randy Johnson and Luis Gonzalez will probably sign contract extensions with Arizona before the end of spring training. No players with a club option are included:

Starting pitchers
Roger Clemens
Bartolo Colon
Randy Johnson
Greg Maddux
Kevin Millwood
Andy Pettitte

Relief pitchers
Armando Benitez
Kelvim Escobar
Keith Foulke
Eddie Guardado
Arthur Rhodes
Ugueth Urbina

Catcher
Ivan Rodriguez

First basemen
Fred McGriff
Rafael Palmeiro

Second baseman
Roberto Alomar

Shortstops
Rich Aurilia
Miguel Tejada

Third basemen
Robin Ventura
Matt Williams

Outfielders
Mike Cameron
Juan Gonzalez
Luis Gonzalez
Vladimir Guerrero
*Sammy Sosa

DH
Edgar Martinez

* -- has a player option

So far, his free-agent spring has been astonishingly quieter than A-Rod's, or Jason Giambi's, or Miguel Tejada's. And the only reason that makes sense is that Guerrero's whole career has been quieter than the career of any modern megastar we can ever recall.

"We tried talking to his agent (Fernando Cuza) this winter," said his GM, Omar Minaya. "The response was: 'We'd be interested if we knew where the guy was going to be. If an owner was in place and a location was in place, it would be a more fruitful conversation.' "

But when will that owner and location actually be in place? If it isn't by July -- and don't bet on it -- then imagine those Guerrero trade rumors exploding out of Rumor Central. If it isn't by next fall -- and don't bet your autographed Youppi photos on that, either -- then Guerrero would have just about no choice but to head out onto the market.

And what makes this saga especially bizarre is that there has never been a prominent Expo more happy to play in Montreal -- or less interested in leaving -- than Vladimir Guerrero. But it's hard to remember anybody signing a contract in which the team left town, but he stayed. So this could be one star free agent who can't choose where he wants to play, even if he were willing to take less money than Sun-Woo Kim.

"Montreal is the perfect place for him," said Expos third-base coach Manny Acta. "He doesn't care if people ever talk about him. He wants no attention. In Montreal, he can walk down St. Catherine Street, and some people don't even know who he is. He enjoys that. He enjoys being just another guy in the community."

In one of his rare interviews this spring, Guerrero told ESPN.com that he likes Montreal because he feels "safe." He said he is "sad" that baseball's time in Montreal is running out. But when asked if he finds it troubling not to know what's in his future or his team's future, Guerrero made it clear that "future" isn't a word in his dictionary.

"The season hasn't even started yet," he said through his translator, Acta. "I'm not even thinking about next year. I'm just concentrating on this one."

Asked if it upsets him that the uncertain future of his team has made it almost impossible to assess his own future, Guerrero never changed expression.

"I've been here, in this organization, for 10 years," he said. "This team gave me the opportunity to play every day in the big leagues. The rest is my agent's job. I really want to stay here. But this is part of the business."

Of course, interviews are part of the business, too. But Guerrero does almost none, particularly with the media outside Montreal. When he does, his answers are soft, emotionless and as brief as possible.

But that isn't because this man is another Albert Belle. This isn't a guy dodging the questions because he views the media as his personal al Qaeda. This is a guy dodging the questions because they represent a spotlight he has no desire to stand in.

"I've been fortunate enough to be around some pretty good players," Minaya said. "Sammy Sosa. Juan Gonzalez. I know all those guys. And this is one of the simplest guys I've been around."

"I'll tell you what," Acta said. "Publicity, marketing, fame -- none of that is important to him. I said to him once, 'Don't you know how much money you can make on the side?' He said sure, he knows. He has no interest."

Guerrero grew up in almost incomprehensible poverty, in Nizao, Bani, in the Dominican Republic. For most of the great Dominican players, baseball has been the chauffeur that whisked them off to a better, ritzier, more comfortable life. Yet Guerrero continues to live on the same street where he grew up.

"This winter, I went to visit him," Acta said, "with Alfonso Soriano and another friend. I thought we'd have to search to find him. Instead, we found him sitting in the middle of the park there, with all the shoe shiners and the mojo concho (scooter riders) and all the people in the park.

Will Vlad cash in?
Will Vladimir Guerrero be the next A-Rod? We asked several club officials and agents if they could envision the 27-year-old Guerrero getting an A-Rod type free-agent contract next winter.

"I don't think that will ever happen again," said one AL GM, "no matter how good a player you are. You need greater financial flexibility in the game today than ever before, unless you're the Yankees and you've got $140 million to spend. Any contract of that magnitude too drastically limits your flexibility."

"I guess that depends on how many outfielders the Yankees have," joked an NL club official, who otherwise was in no mood to joke. "Right now, I don't think anybody can predict where the market is going. In this country right now, you can't predict anything. You can't predict what will happen with this war. You can't predict whether the economy will come back. Nobody knows. I don't think there has been anything in our lifetime we can go back to that can give us a road map and guidepost to the future."

And a prominent agent said he can't see Guerrero getting a quasi-historic deal because "he needs a small-market atmosphere -- which begs the question: Which small-market team can afford to pay him $15 million per, for eight to 10 years?"
-- Jayson Stark

"We spent the afternoon with him, and during the afternoon, there must have been 10 people who came looking for him, with problems, looking for money, people coming up with prescriptions and asking if he could help fill them.

"Imagine how hard that is, to stay that simple. But he's so humble, so down to earth. He doesn't want to separate himself from his roots. A lot of big stars move away. They get big places so nobody bothers them. He's not like that. He wants to stay with the people he grew up with."

So it's logical to imagine Guerrero wanting to stay with the people he grew up with in baseball, too -- with Jose Vidro, with Orlando Cabrera, with Javier Vazquez, with an Expos team that surrounds him with so many other young Spanish-speaking players he can relate to.

"He needs comfort and familiarity," said an agent who represents several Expos. "He would best be served by staying with the club and its new owners. Clearly, new owners will want to keep their marquee player. If the new owners have the capital to invest in the purchase of a club, then they will likely factor in the cost of keeping one of the game's best players and, undoubtedly, their greatest asset.

"Washington is not much different in size than Montreal," the agent said. "Whatever the differences, being with the same guys and friends will make the transition easier for him."

But will that even be an option for him? Unless it steps up its current pace, baseball is going to surgically remove the "free" (for freedom) in Guerrero's free agency.

MLB has told prospective buyers in the Washington area, San Antonio and Portland, Ore., that it doesn't want to sell or move the Expos until their new destination has funding for a new stadium solidly in place. With a war looming and the economy teetering, that's a lot to ask of any community right now -- especially Washington.

So it wouldn't surprise anyone if MLB postpones selling the club for at least another year, keeping it in Montreal or turning it into a traveling vagabond show. And how would that make it possible for Guerrero to stay, even if he wanted to?

Whether their future is resolved or not, the Expos plan to make another attempt to sign Guerrero. But whatever direction the economy might head, whatever the state of the salary market, whatever hometown discount Guerrero might want to offer them, it's impossible to envision him signing any deal that doesn't make him one of the five or 10 highest-paid players in baseball.

Would MLB ever approve an offer like that before a sale? Can anyone envision the other 29 owners helping to pay a contract that huge for a player who spends his time beating up on most of them?

Well, that depends how short-sighted they want to be.

When you sell a business -- any business -- isn't the idea to get the highest price? And to get that highest price, do you first dump your most important asset?

Would you sell an electronics store with no TVs? Would you sell a furniture store without the sofas? Would you sell a men's store with no suits -- just shirts and ties?

The great Vlad
Vladimir Guerrero's season-by-season statistics over the last five years:
Year Games Hits HR RBI Avg.
'98 159 202 38 109 .324
'99 160 193 42 131 .316
'00 154 197 44 123 .345
'01 159 184 34 108 .307
'02 161 206 39 111 .336

That would be the Expos with no Vladimir Guerrero -- a team, a name, a bunch of uniforms but no marquee attraction.

"This is the one guy I hope people realize you can surround with other players and build a team around," Wilkerson said. "I bet if you asked teams right now who they'd want to start a club with, 80 to 90 percent would say him, or A-Rod.

"That's why a bad situation for us could wind up being a no-win situation (if the Expos eventually find a new home, but without Guerrero). So they need to get a move on and do this. If they're going to do what's best for the organization, move us or whatever they're going to do, they need to do it. We've got to get Vlady signed with this club."

Think of how bizarre this situation is: A star player, with his contract clock ticking, who wants to stay. A team, and teammates, that understand how vital it is to keep him. Yet all of their fates conceivably could be completely out of their control.

Which makes this free-agent season -- for this electrifying player, on this drifting, virtually homeless club -- one of the most dramatic sagas of the free-agent era. But you would never know it from the silence in Viera this spring, or the soft words flowing from the star himself.

Asked how different this season feels to him, Guerrero replied, simply: "There is nothing different about it. I've just got to go out and do the same job I did in years past."

But out there in the distance is a potential ending to this story that nobody wants. Everyone around the Expos knows it. They're just not ready to feel that pain quite yet.

"I don't think that far ahead," said Minaya. "You just take care of today."

And today, the great Vladimir Guerrero is still an Expo. Tomorrow, their sun will come up only when Bud Selig says it can.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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