Who's afraid of a little change?
Originally Published: September 12, 2007By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine
Editor's Note: This story appears in the Sept. 24 edition of ESPN The Magazine.Angled on a red leather sofa in the bustling Angels clubhouse, Vladimir Guerrero quietly watches television. Almost an hour earlier, he and his teammates had soundly defeated the Tigers on a bright Southern California summer afternoon, and the fact that no one around him is hurrying to leave speaks well of the Angels' chemistry. Jered Weaver turns to the famously private slugger and jokingly says, "Hey, Vlad, you're going to Hooters with us tonight!" Guerrero lifts himself from the sofa and flashes a devilish grin. "No chance," he says, limping away. Although he ranks among the league leaders in batting average and RBIs, Guerrero is clearly pacing himself. With the playoffs on the horizon, both he and the first-place Angels are trying to ensure that he's as dangerous in the fall as he was in the spring. This has required some adjustments. At AGE 31, the man everyone simply calls Vlad is no longer the player who hit 39 homers and stole 40 bases for the 2002 Montreal Expos. That five-tool talent could go deep, make a diving catch in rightfield, throw out a runner at home and dash around the bases at will. But while he's still got the smile and singular bad-ball swing, Vlad's body has been conspiring against him for the past several years, forcing him to stop playing the game with such wild abandon. His back, his left shoulder, his aching knees and now his right elbow -- all have limited his effectiveness, and it's hard to remember when he moved without a hobbled gait. That means he's no longer expected to steal, or bowl over catchers, or dive for balls or even play rightfield every day (he's been the DH roughly 20 percent of the time -- a number that's certain to rise, thanks to tendinitis in his throwing arm). Vlad and the Angels learned the hard way how important it is to rein in his freewheeling style. Two years ago, they beat the Yankees in the Division Series and seemed like an even match with the White Sox for the American League pennant. But Guerrero had just one hit, an infield single, in 20 at-bats, and the Angels fell in five games. At the time, he denied he was injured. But now he reluctantly admits it was true. "I tried to do my job, but I had a problem with my shoulder," he says in Spanish. "Sometimes the pitches were right there and I missed them." The problem started in May 2005. While trying to score from first against the Dodgers, Guerrero slid headfirst into home and came up with a partially dislocated left shoulder, which cost him almost a month. He returned to hit .443 in June and .340 in August, but he reinjured the shoulder down the stretch, ruining his postseason. The Angels can't afford a repeat this October, but curbing Guerrero's aggressiveness can be tricky. He despises change. As a kid, he missed out on a chance to sign with the Dodgers because they demanded he be more selective at the plate. He still yearns for the green light every time he gets on base -- which is often, considering he's hitting .327 and his .405 OBP is sixth in the American League. But he has just two steals in five tries. "They don't let me run anymore," Guerrero says. "I think they just want me to stay healthy."
He can hit it if it's in his eyes. I threw a pitch that was 10 inches off the plate, outside, and it snapped his bat, and he still hit it to right for a double that scored a run. And that was pitching around him.
--Padres pitcher Chris Young on Vladimir Guerrero