Fred Ferreira, Montreal's international director of scouting, never got the name of the gentleman who delivered arguably the best all-around player in the game today on the back of a motorcycle one day during an Expos tryout camp in the Dominican Republic.
If Ferreira could locate him, he'd probably give him a big hug and a handshake filled with money. This is how Vladimir Guerrero, now 24, began his odyssey from a raw Dominican too poor to own a pair of tennis shoes that fit to the game's most impressive, albeit under-appreciated, talent.
In 1993, Guerrero was close to signing with Los Angeles when he heard about the Expos' camp and was taken there by a guy who delivers prospects to such affairs.
Guerrero, who had to jam a sock in one shoe that was too big, timed 6.7 seconds in the 60-year dash and impressed Ferreira with his powerful arm. However, Guerrero pulled a groin muscle during the tryout and missed most of the game. Still, Ferreira was so impressed that he signed Guerrero on the spot for "under $25,000," as he said, and gave $200 to the stranger on the motorcycle.
"I saw the arm and the running speed. Those are two things you don't teach," Ferreira said. "Despite not swinging a bat, I knew that could be taught. A good student of the game can progress."
The next season at the Dominican Summer League, Guerrero had to take batting practice last because if he was among the first group of hitters there would be [filtered word] left. He hit too many over the fence. A baseball in the Dominican is a rare and prized possession. If they fly out of the stadium, they don't come back.
Guerrero was so good he made the jump from Double A to the majors after the '96 season. In his two-plus seasons with the Expos, Guerrero has compiled numbers that put him in a sparse class. He hit his 100th career homer on Wednesday, and has just over 300 RBI, to go along with a .320 batting average.
If Guerrero is a mystery man to the casual fan, he might be altering that with a frightening start this season. Entering a three-game series with the Giants this weekend, he was first in the National League in hitting (.452), slugging percentage (.863) and on-base percentage (.524), tied for the lead in homers (eight) and second in RBI (26).
Alou, who has brushed shoulders with many Hall of Famers over the years, said Guerrero is a rare breed of talent and a throwback-type player.
"He reminds me of the old-time players, like Mays, McCovey and Hank Aaron, people that used to come back when they made an out and say, `He's going to come back with the same pitch next at-bat.' "
Guerrero also has become a unique player, prompting comparisons to the late Joe DiMaggio -- a power hitter who makes contact. From last Sept. 25 to April 19 -- a span of 22 games, 71 at-bats and 82 plate appearances -- Guerrero did not strike out. Not once. He has struck out three times in over 70 at-bats this season.
"It's amazing," said fellow countryman, Sammy Sosa of the Cubs. "I don't know how he does it. I just want to know."
For most of his career, Guerrero has been a hidden treasure, playing in the vast wasteland known as Olympic Stadium. The lack of exposure has intensified this season with the Expos failure to negotiate an English-speaking radio contract.
"He reminds me of Andre Dawson," said Warren Cromarte, a former Expos outfielder. "He's got the same body Andre had. Chiseled. Andre could have won two more MVP Awards if he had played somewhere other than Montreal."
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