The Last Run? Free-agent-to-be Vladimir Guerrero has kept Montreal in the playoff race

September 07, 2003

This was supposed to be a lost season for Vladimir Guerrero. On
May 27, after injuring his back in a game the night before, the
Expos' rightfielder was in so much pain when he woke up in a
Miami hotel room that he could barely get out of bed. A few days
later, after doctors told Guerrero he had a herniated disk,
forcing him to go on the disabled list for the first time in six
years, Montreal officials were worried that the four-time
All-Star would miss the rest of the season. "I thought his season
was over, and I thought our season was over," says general
manager Omar Minaya.

After a six-week period that included rest followed by intensive
therapy and a short rehab stint in the minors, however, he
rejoined the team on July 21. Since then Guerrero has fueled
Montreal's improbable playoff run by hitting .357 with 14 homers
in 38 games through Sunday. After going 17-22 without Guerrero,
the Expos were only three games back in the NL League wild-card

"I feel happy with what I've done after coming back from a bad
injury," Guerrero said through an interpreter last week, after
hitting three home runs during Montreal's four-game sweep of the
Phillies. "I'm taking the same hacks I took before, I just feel
good right now."

With Montreal entering the final month with a shot to reach the
playoffs for the first time since 1981, none of the Expos are
commenting on the life-altering decisions facing the team and its
star after the season. For one, the 27-year-old Guerrero, the
youngest player in history to hit .300 with 30 home runs, 100
RBIs and 100 runs scored in five straight seasons, will become
the most coveted free agent since Alex Rodriguez in 2000.

Secondly, the Expos, owned and operated by Major League Baseball,
not only don't have a permanent home yet but also are unsure of
where they will be playing in 2004 and how big a budget they will
be granted. (This season the team had a $52 million payroll, and
Guerrero's salary was $11.5 million.) Until he gets that
information, Minaya can't even make an offer to the franchise's
alltime leading home run hitter.

Nevertheless, the idea of Montreal's re-signing Guerrero is not
far-fetched. As baseball's most media-shy superstar--he rarely
gives one-on-one interviews--he may have little interest in going
to big-market cities like New York or Los Angeles. Guerrero, who
speaks little English, is very comfortable on an Expos team that
has an abundance of young Spanish-speaking players. If the Expos
play all or part of next season in Puerto Rico, where the club
hosted 22 home games this season, it would be another reason for
him to stay put.

"The Expos have always been a perfect fit for him," says Montreal
third base coach Manny Acta, who serves as Guerrero's interpreter
and is a close friend. "In Montreal he can walk down a street or
take a subway and no one will bother him, and he likes that. But
who knows about next year? Everyone is too focused on what's
going on with the rest of this season to think about what's going
to happen after it."

COLOR PHOTO: FRANCOIS ROY/AP After recovering from a back injury, Guerrero has hit .357 with14 homers in 38 games.