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Healthy, humble Vlad lets his bat do the talking

Healthy, humble Vlad lets his bat do the talking

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Healthy, humble Vlad lets his bat do the talking
SARASOTA, Fla. -- He remembers the headline, the words emboldened by size and occupying every thought of manager Felipe Alou that morning. Alou, then the manager of the Montreal Expos, didn't usually pay attention to what the local newspapers splashed across the sports section regarding his team.

But this was different.

Alou had been privy to the raw talent that was Vladimir Guerrero since the summer of 1994, when Nelson Norman told him that he had to see this Dominican kid he had in the Expos Gulf Coast League.

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"You've got to look at this," Norman said. "It's impossible for this kid to strike out."

It was true. Alou saw it firsthand that day, and he had a front-row seat again in September 1996, when Montreal finally promoted Guerrero from Double-A. He had seen Guerrero hit his first homer, a blast off Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers over the opposite-field fence. He also watched as the rookie outfielder, while standing on the warning track, threw out a runner trying to score from third base.

Now Alou read the story -- the one that criticized Guerrero's injury-plagued rookie campaign -- and wondered how it would go over with the fans and the "gentle giant" himself. Sure, he had a power bat and a cannon of an arm, the article reasoned, but Guerrero -- who played in just 90 games in 1997 due to a trio of injuries -- couldn't stay on the field. He was a nice addition but his tenure would be short-lived, predicted the paper, which dubbed Guerrero "an accident waiting to happen."

Thirteen years later, Guerrero -- a fan favorite -- has enjoyed one of the most prolific careers in recent baseball history, with a .320 lifetime batting average, 436 home runs and 1,433 RBIs in 2,002 games. He is still putting up power numbers -- belting 29 homers and 115 RBIs in 152 games for Texas last season -- and is seemingly on a collision course with the Hall of Fame. But as he stated at his introductory news conference with the Orioles this spring, Guerrero -- who has played at least 140 games in six of his past seven seasons -- is in no rush to get to Cooperstown.

"I believe he still has a couple of great seasons left," Alou, now a special assistant with the Giants, said of Guerrero, a nine-time All-Star and eight-time Silver Slugger. "He is just a machine that was built to hit the baseball.

"And when it is all over, he will be remembered only for what he did between the lines."

There is nothing accidental about that, either.

In a world in which athletes frequently test the letter of the law, Guerrero -- who is from a small town on the Dominican Republic's south coast -- has never made headlines for anything other than baseball.

"I know he has a little bit of a temper inside when he makes an out," Alou said. "But frustrated? Or upset? I never saw him [that way]. I respect his attitude, the quality of baseball player he is and the man he is."

A revered figure and bona fide rags-to-riches story, the most feared presence in the Orioles' lineup spends nearly every morning with a box of fan mail by his side. Guerrero signs everything: the shiny new Orioles photos, a shot of him smiling with his former Angels teammates and a vintage Expos baseball card, carefully sliding each into its envelope.

Don't worry, he tells teammate Felix Pie, whose locker is one stall down -- when the season starts, his only focus will be baseball. But right now he will use these sleepy spring mornings to stop, sign and appreciate.

"It's pretty cool," said second baseman Brian Roberts, who shares an agency with Guerrero and had heard about his humility. "He obviously hasn't let much change him, that's for sure."

The mail comes in steady streams, and Guerrero diligently keeps up with it, sticking to the same routine he's had since he first went to Montreal. Back then his mother would come once a month and stay with him, preparing Dominican food that has become nearly as legendary in baseball circles as her son's bat.

"His mother has the best food in the league," said Texas Rangers infielder Michael Young, who would eat lunch and still find himself loading up on what Guerrero's mom brought to the park.

Young, who knew plenty about Guerrero's bat when he was with the American League West-rival Angels, was struck with how upbeat and well liked the mild-mannered slugger was inside the Rangers' clubhouse.

"Everybody knows Vlad has had a Hall of Fame career, but what I didn't realize is what a great teammate he is," Young said. "He comes to play every day, he plays hard and he's always in a good mood. The Orioles already have a good offense, but he's going to make them much better. I can't say enough good things about Vlad."

Throughout his career, Guerrero has always preferred to let his bat do the talking. Signed to a one-year, $8 million deal right before Spring Training started, he was visibly uncomfortable during his first news conference with the Orioles and rarely grants interviews. But to his new teammates, who initially met him with a mixture of curiosity and awe, his mere presence in the clubhouse speaks volumes.

"It's the way he goes about his business," said first-base coach Wayne Kirby, who was the Rangers' outfield/baserunning coordinator last year. "He plays the game hard. You wouldn't think so, [that] a guy who's made that much money still has that much pride in the game.

"It's like that commercial [for E.F.] Hutton: When someone speaks, everyone's ears open. It's just the way he walks around. Everyone's like, 'He's the big dog, he's the big chief.' All the players know it. That's the thing about it. It's about respecting the game. That's what he brings."

A bad-ball hitter who has dominated on sheer strength and natural ability, Guerrero has always evoked a crowd when he steps to the plate, whether it's the AL Championship Series or a routine batting-cage session at the Orioles' training complex.

"You can just see his intent," outfielder Adam Jones said. "He's had that same work ethic for 15 years. It's pretty cool to see. He gets his work in and gets out.

"I don't think he wants to sit back."

The veteran Guerrero doesn't want any special set of rules. He has been adamant about doing every drill in camp this spring, and has been a regular fixture -- by request -- in the exhibition lineups and during outfield work.

"I definitely feel really good about this situation," Guerrero said, with teammate Michael Gonzalez translating. "I like all the guys, and it's just good getting to know everyone.

"I just pray to God I don't have any injuries or anything and I stay healthy so I can produce for the Orioles like I have always."

A former AL MVP, Guerrero is third all-time in hits, home runs and RBIs among Dominican-born players. He wants to eclipse the 500-homer mark and believes that if he is healthy, he can bolster an improved Orioles lineup that also includes new additions Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy.

Guerrero smiles when he talks about the Orioles' first spring home game, a 12-6 rout of the Rays that included five homers, one of which came from Guerrero.

"The only guy who didn't play that day was [Derrek] Lee, but you obviously saw the power potential in the lineup," Guerrero said. "I just hope I stay healthy and will go out there and do what I do."

That would be plenty for the Orioles, who are trying to get out of the AL East basement and snap a streak of 13 consecutive losing seasons. The hope is that adding a piece such as Guerrero -- and, to an extent, Reynolds and Hardy -- will take the pressure off some of the team's other bats.

"If he wants to play a couple more years, there's no sitting back," Jones said. "So that's a bonus for us. If we can get the year he had last year, just imagine all the other numbers that can transpire [in the rest of the lineup] in that situation."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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