Run at your own risk

I heard a story the other day about an impromptu throwing contest before the 1977 All-Star game -- Dave Parker, Ellis Valentine and Dave Winfield firing balls from deep right to the plate, zip after zip.

I don't know if it's true, but I sure hope it happened. Can you imagine? Low-flying jets roaring in from out of the blue and popping a fresh blister in some poor catchers glove? I mean, crank up the wayback machine and send me on my way, would you please? I gotta see this.

You can have home runs. You can keep grabs at the wall, too. Give me gunfire, give me strong-armed throws from corner to corner, give me "uh-uh, no he didn't" challenges to the laws of physics. For a straight-up WOW, there's nothing better.

If it's back in the day, give me clips of Parker, Valentine and Winfield. If it's in the here and now, I'll take a highlight reel full of Vlad Guerrero, Jose Guillen, Ichiro, Richard Hidalgo, and Bobby Abreu, with some Jim Edmonds, Torii Hunter, and a little Raul Mondesi thrown in the mix.

I'm not talking about accuracy or technique (Buster Olney's going to talk that talk here tomorrow, so stay tuned), you understand. I'm talking about heat and power, about thunderbolts coming out of a guy's arm and flying across the yard.

More than anyone else, I'm talking about the Angels' reigning MVP, SeƱor Guerrero, the strongest arm in the game today.

"He just scares the s--- out of you," White Sox third base coach Joey Cora said. "He's just so powerful."

"He gets that ball from the outfield to the infield quicker than anyone I've ever seen," Athletics third base coach Ron Washington said. "He really wings it."

With Guerrero, it's a pure power thing. There's not a lot of mechanical precision and his feet aren't always set right, but his arm overwhelms all of that, wheeling and dealing like a devastating roundhouse punch. There's a kind of ragged beauty in it. You watch him throw and you have a sense of his specialness, of the unique gifts he carries in his body.

Angels GM Bill Stoneman says it's not just physical, though, it's a part of his character, as a player and a leader.

"He has an unbelievable arm," Stoneman said. "But he's a wonderful all-around player, and he's an aggressive, powerful guy in every phase of the game."

The way he throws, all-out, is the way he is, Stoneman said: "It's an overall approach with him. His enthusiasm and aggressiveness set the tone for everyone else on our club. The young guys watch him and know how to play. He makes us all better."

The effect of Vlad's arm on the rest of the league is less salubrious. Opposing coaches and baserunners aren't eager to take chances against him for fear of getting burned.

"The guy is intimidating because he takes chances," Cora said. "Somebody'll hit a ball deep to right and you think, 'There's no way he's going to make that throw,' and then, sure enough, here he comes, and he's got it right there and you're dead."

Cora is especially aware of Vlad because his own manager, Ozzie Guillen, tells stories about being torched by the man years ago when he was playing in Montreal.

"Ozzie took a chance on him when he was coaching third for Florida one time," Cora said. "He sent Tim Raines home on a ball that was way deep. Ozzie says there was no way he was going to throw Tim Raines out, the way it was hit, where Vlad was ... no way. But Vlad did it. Bam. Just like that. And ever since, Ozzie talks about that play whenever we play the Angels and he says, 'You have to be careful with Vlad, Joey. Very careful with Vlad. Remember now. Remember!' "

Guerrero's 13 assists were tied for second-best in baseball last season (Hidalgo had 14), but Cora says when you think about strong arms in the outfield, you've got to be thinking about the runners who never moved, too.

"You know who's out there, you know what he's got," Cora said. "And you just don't take as many chances. There's that extra one-percent risk factor in the back of your mind, especially if a guy makes a throw early in the game, because then you're thinking about it the rest of the way, and it might cost you a run, it might even cost you the game."

Washington says, as good as Vlad is, there's no real intimidation in play, just judgment: "As a base coach, you have to do what you have to do and you have to live with the consequences, but I'll tell you what, with those guys, the Vladimirs and Ichiros, when the game is on the line, you just don't want to let those guys get you. You just have to be smart."

In fact, Washington says, sometimes smart is running on Guerrerro. As powerful and aggressive as he is, his lack of accuracy makes him beatable. A guy like Ichiro will almost always read the situation, make a determination about whether to let fly or not. Guerrero on the other hand, tends to throw first and ask questions later.

"Vlad has a hell of an arm," Washington said, "but if you talk about accuracy, he's lacking. He has super power, but he doesn't always know where the ball is going to go and he sometimes makes unnecessary throws. When I decide if I'm going to take a chance, I'll take a chance on him before I will on Ichiro."

Washington talks about refining technique, about getting your body in a position to come down, come up, crow hop, and deliver over the top on one strong step. With Vlad he says, what you get is something where he'll "stand straight up and just throw, because that powerful arm gets it there." He's never had to do it another way.

Which leaves you wondering, amazing as he is now, could Vlad be even better? How terrifying would he be? What would that look like? Would poor Joey Cora ever get any sleep?

Guerrero's almost 29 now, and he's been in the bigs nine years. He's not likely to change much about what he does or how he does it. So if we want to see the future of strong arms, if we want to see a guy who's still learning, we'll need to look elsewhere.

For the role of Vlad II, we ought to consider Toronto's Alexis Rios, who racked up 11 assists in just 111 games played as a rookie last year.

Take a look at the highlight clip on Rios' mlb.com player card (entitled "Rios guns down Ichiro"), where he nails Ichiro (not Bucky Jacobson, now, but Ichiro) on a tag-up-from-third (not a scoring-from-second, you understand) play at the plate.

That, ladies and gents, is a WOW. That, my friends, is an arm to be reckoned with.

"My throws come naturally," Rios said. "It feels good. When somebody tries to run on you and they think they've got it but you just throw the ball and get them out. It feels good."

I'll tell you what feels good, Alex: Watching a guy make a throw like you did on Ichiro.

"He's going to be one of the best, no doubt," Cora said. "He's got some refining to do, but he has a very strong arm and he's only going to get stronger."

Rios says he's not inclined to change too much about his approach to throwing -- "I don't like to think about it too much. I just let it go," he said -- but he'll be just 24 years old when the season starts and it's clear the best is yet to come for him.

"He's got great skills and he's still learning," Stoneman said.

In the meantime, we're all going to have some fun watching him come up.

How do I know? Because when he has fun, Rios practices throwing the ball for distance. "I can throw it from the third-base line over the right field wall when I get going," he said. That's right, just like a certain legendary trio did at the All-Star Game once upon a time.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.