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Inside Baseball

Aug. 17, 1998
Aug. 17, 1998

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Aug. 17, 1998

Baseball
NFL Preview 1998

Inside Baseball

BEST YOU'VE NEVER SEEN
Get a load of Vladimir Guerrero--if you can

This is an article from the Aug. 17, 1998 issue

Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero had played in 115 games
this season, through Aug. 9, and none of them had been broadcast
nationally in the U.S. He plays his home games in front of an
average of just over 11,000 lonely Canadians. He's a Dominican
who speaks only Spanish playing an American game in a
French-Canadian city. All of which conspires to make Guerrero
the best player you've probably never seen. What does Guerrero
think about this? "I don't think about how many people are
watching me," says Vladimir, through his brother Wilton, his
teammate and translator. "I'm just happy to play baseball for
myself."

When 22-year-old Vladimir talks about his job, he often grins
like a teenager, and he looks the part thanks to a set of braces
across his lower front teeth. Wilton insists that Vladimir's joy
for the game hasn't changed since they were kids playing baseball
in the dirt streets of Nizao Bani in the Dominican Republic with
a ball made from rolled-up socks, a guava tree limb for a bat and
milk cartons for mitts. Fifteen years later Vladimir still
doesn't wear wristbands or batting gloves and is swinging hard
from his heels every time at the plate. He has retained a
childlike disregard for the strike zone, hacking at almost any
pitch between the dugouts, but he's among the National League's
top 10 in nine key offensive categories. Says Montreal hitting
coach Tommy Harper, "It's almost as if you have to bounce the
ball to make him swing and miss." Adds Expos general manager Jim
Beattie, "Teams are starting to pitch around him, but he's tough
to unintentionally intentionally walk."

Guerrero is still raw on defense as well. He leads all National
League outfielders with 13 errors, but he also has six assists
with an arm so powerful that, by his account, three times in his
pro career he has scooped up an apparent single to right and
thrown out the batter at first. When SI conducted a poll last
week asking third base coaches whom they would least like to see
in rightfield with a runner going from first base to third on a
single to right, Guerrero and the Pirates' Jose Guillen were the
winners. "He's got a cannon," said Phillies third base coach John
Vukovich. "He can throw a ball to third base on a line from the
corner. It's unbelievable."

Cubs coach Tom Gamboa cited one throw in particular. "[Chicago
second baseman] Mickey Morandini hit a ball to the wall, Vladimir
bobbled it, and Mick came to third," Gamboa says. "Mick barely
beat the throw and got up, saying, 'How did the relay get here so
fast?' I said, 'Mick, that was no relay.'"

Noting Guerrero's exuberance, free swinging and robust arm,
Montreal manager Felipe Alou fearlessly compares him to the
young Roberto Clemente and predicts that Guerrero can only be
sidetracked by the type of reckless injuries that helped limit
him to 90 games in his rookie season a year ago. "Vladimir has
so many tools, but he has to know when to use them," Alou says.
"He could probably steal 100 bases, but he'd get tired and hurt,
and his power numbers would suffer. Tools don't do us any good
if they're on the shelf."

As of Aug. 9 Guerrero had played in all but three of the Expos'
118 games this season. He was fourth in the league with a .334
batting average, fourth with 267 total bases, eighth with a .591
slugging percentage and tied for ninth with 26 homers. He was
named the National League Player of the Month for July, when he
hit .385 with 11 homers, 27 RBIs and a .771 slugging percentage.
"I feel like a better hitter each day," he says. "It's just my
second year in the majors, and I'm only 22, so I still make
mistakes, but not as many as before."

Naturally Alou is already fretting over how long the
parsimonious Expos can afford to keep Guerrero, because he will
become eligible for arbitration after the 1999 season. Montreal
is negotiating a long-term deal with Guerrero, and Beattie says
that he hopes the July 31 acquisition of Wilton from the Dodgers
might induce Vladimir to stay. The Guerrero brothers have proved
to be inseparable so far. Their lockers are side by side in the
Expos clubhouse, they live in the same apartment building in
Montreal, and they are together almost every waking moment. "We
like to talk about how our baseball dream has come true," Wilton
says. "It's fun to watch my brother get better, and I believe
someday everybody will know about him."

Turns out Vladimir might finally get some exposure through a
quirk of scheduling. The Expos play their final four games of
the season in St. Louis, where legions of fans may be watching
Mark McGwire chase the home run record and might also notice a
certain Expos outfielder.

Randy Myers Trade
THE PADRES'BIG GAMBLE

Anyone who has ever played poker for more money than he or she
could afford to lose can appreciate the pressure on general
managers today. The Aug. 6 deal that sent 35-year-old reliever
Randy Myers from the Blue Jays to the Padres shows just how high
the stakes can be.

When Toronto placed Myers's name on the waiver wire last week,
San Diego general manager Kevin Towers had a dilemma: He could
submit a claim to ensure blocking rival Atlanta from acquiring
Myers, who is in the first season of a three-year, $18 million
contract that pays him $6 million in each of the next two
seasons, or he could pass and risk letting Myers go to the
Braves, whom San Diego might face in the playoffs. Towers laid a
pancake block on the Braves. Whether San Diego really wanted
Myers is questionable. That the Padres didn't want Atlanta to
have him is indisputable.

San Diego agreed to send Class A catcher Brian Loyd and a player
to be named later to Toronto for Myers, who will serve mostly as
a setup man for closer Trevor Hoffman. Towers conceded after the
Myers trade that his actions were designed in large part to stop
the Braves. (As it turns out, Towers may have been tilting at
windmills. While the Braves held some discussions with Toronto
about a deal for Myers before the deadline, their interest had
apparently cooled, and Atlanta manager Bobby Cox recently stated
that he was satisfied with Kerry Ligtenberg as the Braves' closer
for the rest of the season.)

Still, Myers could fill a key role for the Padres as the first
reliable lefty in their bullpen since Myers himself saved 38
games for San Diego in 1992. He could also take over some of the
closer's workload from Hoffman, who through Aug. 9 led the majors
with 38 saves but already had made 49 appearances following two
seasons in which he pitched in 70 games each. After recently
tying a major league record by converting his 41st consecutive
save opportunity, Hoffman blew his first save of the season and
sustained his first loss 11 days later, the same day as the Myers
trade.

Myers, though, doesn't arrive in San Diego with satisfaction
guaranteed. He's not the same dominant reliever who had 45 saves
in 46 opportunities for the Orioles last season. Though he did
have 28 saves for Toronto, he also had five blown saves, a 4.46
ERA and had allowed 65 base runners in 42 1/3 innings. After Myers
let a save get away against the Rangers in his final appearance
for the Blue Jays, Texas hitters said he pitched tentatively,
throwing one changeup after another. More tellingly, even Toronto
general manager Gord Ash seemed to be criticizing Myers when he
said after the deal, "You can't diminish the significant number
of saves Randy had, but there weren't many save situations we
felt overly comfortable in. He got the job done, but it wasn't
always pretty."

Many baseball scouts think Myers's prime has passed. Said one
American League executive, "The Padres got the big bomb dropped
on them--a $14 million bomb." Myers is now the most expensive
player the Padres have ever signed; he is under contract for more
money than San Diego has committed to current stars Hoffman, Andy
Ashby, Ken Caminiti or Tony Gwynn. With that in mind, Towers will
likely attempt to trade Myers after the season. In the meantime,
Towers thinks Myers can help the Padres beat the Braves and reach
the World Series, a critical step in getting a favorable vote
this November on a new downtown stadium proposal. Towers is
gambling that his new high-priced setup man will help close that
deal. Alas, against the Marlins on Aug. 7, in his first
appearance back with the Padres, Myers blew a save in the ninth
inning.

A Versatile Cub
THE UTILITYMAN'S UTILITYMAN

Insulting jacks-of-all-trades is nothing new. In The Great
Gatsby, Fitzgerald mocked "that most limited of specialists,
'the well-rounded man.'" So it goes in baseball, where calling a
guy a utility player is a nice way of saying he's a journeyman
.220 hitter who's only in the bigs because he can fill in when
one of the good players pulls a hammy.

This year, however, Jose Hernandez of the Cubs is doing his best
to dispel that stereotype. He is having the best season of his
seven-year major league career, hitting .264 with 17 homers and
56 RBIs through Aug. 9. He has done all this despite the fact
that he has moved around more than an Army brat. "I don't think
you can call him a utility player," says Chicago shortstop Jeff
Blauser. "Jose's an every-day player."

Yeah, but an every-day what? Hernandez started 78 of the Cubs'
first 118 games--some in centerfield and others at all of the
four infield spots--and he has hit everywhere in the batting
order except third and cleanup. Hernandez has also played left
and rightfield, and though he has never caught in a game, he has
warmed up pitchers in the bullpen. "Every team needs a guy like
Jose," says first baseman Mark Grace. "We can give any of our
regulars a day off and not lose anything by having him in there."

Hernandez grew up in Puerto Rico playing shortstop, but he began
living the life of a baseball nomad in 1988 with the Gulf Coast
Rangers, a Texas rookie league team. "We didn't have anyone to
play third," says Hernandez, so he filled in there. "The next
year I was in A ball, and I started playing second, too. Then one
morning the manager woke me up and said, 'Let's go down to the
park early and take fly balls in the outfield.'" Hernandez took
the suggestion in stride. "You always want to play your regular
position," he says, "but I was thinking of guys like Jose Oquendo
and Luis Aguayo, guys from Puerto Rico who played a lot of
positions and stayed in the majors for so many years."

While his versatility is what got him to the bigs, Hernandez
admits it would be nice to come to the park with some idea of
where he'll be playing. He may now get the chance to settle down,
at least for the rest of the season. The Cubs parted with third
baseman Kevin Orie at the trading deadline, leaving Hernandez to
play the hot corner. Manager Jim Riggleman has no qualms about
leaving the position in the hands of such a well-rounded man.
"He's right there with Ken Caminiti, Matt Williams and Edgardo
Alfonzo as a Gold Glove candidate," says Riggleman. "He's as good
as it gets at third." --Mark Bechtel

For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE FIVE-TOOL PLAYER Guerrero has so much talent, Montreal may not be able to afford to keep him. [Vladimir Guerro in game]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG [Drawing of Brian Giles with spider bites on his leg]

ADDING INSULT TO INJURY

In late June, Arizona pitcher Brian Anderson burned his face in
a most embarrassing fashion: He used the side of his jaw to test
the temperature of an iron in his Texas hotel room. Then he
missed a start in July because of elbow stiffness caused, he
says, by laying his pitching arm across the top of the backseat
of a taxi for about 20 minutes during a shopping trip to Rodeo
Drive in Beverly Hills. Says Anderson, "It's almost like someone
has a voodoo doll of me somewhere and is sticking pins in it."

It seems that plenty of Anderson's fellow major leaguers are
similarly cursed. The following is a collection of some of this
season's most unlikely injuries.

Cut finger, David Cone, Yankees
Ace righthander missed a start after being bitten on right index
finger by mother's Jack Russell terrier pup.

Infected leg, Brian Giles, Indians
Outfielder missed four games and required injections of
antibiotics after suffering multiple spider bites on left leg
during road trip to Oakland.

Bruised shoulder, Mark Sweeney, Padres
Utilityman missed a game after tumbling out of a golf cart while
getting a ride to the parking lot following a 16-inning win.

Broken jaw, Jeff Tabaka, Pirates
Reliever was DL'd after teammate Marc Wilkins punched him after
a card game at appropriately named Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.

Cut wrist, Allen Watson, Angels
Lefthander lacerated wrist of his pitching arm while cracking
open a beer bottle the day before he was due to come off the DL.