When I think of Vladimir Guerrero, I think of a “ballplayer”. Not an athlete, or a professional, a “ballplayer”. He sticks out. Vladdy Guerrero does not fit into those roles. In fact, he doesn’t fit into his time.
The name Vladdy brings a thought to my head – an imaginary at-bat. I see him standing in the batters’ box, twirling his bat behind his head, leaning out over his feet. In my head, Vladdy is waiting for a pitch. He’s holding his head high and his front elbow low. It’s late in a ballgame. Guerrero needs to come through. Pressure mounting, his dugout and thousands of fans focus their eyes and spirits on him. And all the while, Vladdy is smiling.
Guerrero has never won the World Series. He has never won a batting title, or a gold glove. As his career winds down, his numbers and statistical legacy are beginning to dwindle. However, he has never been more significant. Vladdy Guerrero is the last pure “ballplayer”.
Let’s take a trip into the not-so-distant past; I’m thinking 1960. Baseball is “America’s Pastime”. To be a “ballplayer” is every boy’s dream; to play the game for as long as possible is every “ballplayer”’s dream. In 1960, baseball wasn’t a profit-based media conglomerate. Baseball, along with the other major sports, was still a game. It wasn’t an enterprise of millionaires; Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the time’s two biggest stars, shared a small apartment in Queens. Men played because they enjoyed the game. There were no designated hitters, no in-depth scouting, batting and pitching reports, and no steroids. Guerrero fits this era. He doesn’t concern himself with modern intricacies (pitch selectivity, batting gloves, etc.), only with swinging and running as hard as he can, and basking in the beauty and pure pleasure that baseball can afford him. Vladdy doesn’t step into the batters’ box to earn his paycheck. He doesn’t do it to have a productive and patient at-bat, or to strategically expose a pitcher’s easy-to-hit cutter. He does it, simply, because it’s what he likes to do.
At this point in my fantasy, Vladdy’s facing his first pitch. It’s a strike – he swings and misses. He doesn’t need to collect himself; he’s the epitome of a free swinger. Next pitch is right down the middle – he’s late on it. Strike two.
Vladdy plays baseball like the true “boys of summer”. His approach to the game does not fit into the modern sports world. Baseball is a game he gets to play every day, not his job. His naïve yet driven attitude towards the sport is unparalleled. Most players spend hours each day studying their opponents and developing strategies and theories towards specific parts of their game. Guerrero is different. He takes prolonged batting practices, and warms up with his glove, even though he hasn’t played the role of an everyday fielder in years. He cares about turning on strikes and pushing for that extra base.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Vladdy Guerrero’s life is his nonchalant attitude towards the lifestyle of the common athlete. In today’s over-scrutinized sports scene, athletes’ every move is documented, and their every thought transcribed. They have willingly accepted the position of role models to their fans. Kids grow up idolizing them, and learning from their character and image. This is one of sports’ greatest problems. Athletes are not true role models; they don’t fit the part. They can speak as thoughtfully and act as maturely as they want, but in the end, they are just playing a part. Realistically, their careers and ideals are not incredibly positive. The modern athlete is driven by money and material success. Very few are highly educated. No matter how mature LeBron James dresses and tries to speak, when push comes to shove, he’s not someone who should be emulated. Vladdy Guerrero embraces the notion of the classic pro. He plays to enjoy himself, staying away from the tailored image of a media darling. He doesn’t go out of his way to participate in interviews – he has yet to learn English properly. He hasn’t been swept into the wave of the celebrity athlete. In this day and age, Vladdy is extremely unique. He doesn’t focus on his image or his statistics. Vladdy plays the game he loves, the way he feels comfortable. His dreadlocks hang down, his bat circles high, and his smile shines. Vladdy looks goofy. And it’s beautiful.
I enjoy watching Vladdy Guerrero play because he’s so different. He’s like a record player; his style is outdated, yet the beauty and quality of his nature persists. He isn’t graceful at the plate, or incredibly disciplined. He swings at any pitch he likes, not the pitches that stat reports favor. He doesn’t follow the technological or professional norms. Vladdy does what he wants. He is a “ballplayer”.
As Vladdy bends awkwardly over the plate, bare handed, the third pitch comes. He doesn’t flinch. His smile vanishes. Vladdy is upset. He isn’t out; the count is one and two. Vladdy’s unhappy because like him, the pitch was way outside the box, too wild to connect with.