'Impossibly wonderful' Vlad likely to enter Hall

Slugger played with joy, desperation at remarkable level

January 4th, 2018

It's time for Phase 2 of this Hall of Fame ballot project. As you hopefully know by now, we are going through the 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot player by player leading up to election day on Jan. 24. Up to this point, we have gone through 15 players. They are all interesting and excellent players, but I didn't vote for any of them. To be candid, I didn't come especially close to voting for any of them. This is a stacked ballot. There are many players on it -- too many, really -- who have viable Hall of Fame cases.

Now, we go to the next part: There were nine players on this ballot who were no-doubt yes votes for me. We will take them one by one over the next nine days.

By voting for nine, I still had one vote left (the Baseball Hall of Fame allows us to vote for a maximum of 10) and there were nine players I considered pretty strongly for that final spot. I'll write about those nine borderline players last, leading up to the big vote.

Vote 1: Vladimir Guerrero

There is an unfortunate temptation, after being told many stories about the depths of poverty that many Dominican baseball players endured as children, to grow numb to it all. So many players talk about dirt floors and endless days working in the field and how the only escape was the ragtag baseball games with players using milk cartons for gloves and rolled-up socks for balls and metal pipes for bats ... and maybe, after a while, we stop being shocked. Maybe we still listen to the stories but no longer hear them, no longer feel them.

Vladimir Guerrero played baseball like no one else in his time, like no one else I have ever seen. It is right to say he played with joy, but there was something more than joy; Guerrero played with some combination of joy and desperation. He swung at everything. He unleashed throws with abandon. He ran the bases like he was running for his life. In a way, I guess, he was.

Many years ago -- 15 years at least -- Dan Le Batard wrote a story for ESPN about Guerrero and what I remember vividly is Guerrero talking about drinking puddle water when he was a child. He grew up without electricity, without running water, in a, yes, dirt-floor shack where he slept in the same bed with three or four family members, depending on the night. At the worst moments, puddle water was the only option.

He had to quit school after the fifth grade to help support his family, but it wasn't much of an adjustment; even by then he had missed more school days than he attended while working in the fields.

The tiniest glimmers of hope came only from the baseball games they played in Nizao. All the neighborhood kids shared the nine baseball gloves brought to the town by former big league shortstop Jose Uribe. And they dreamed, nobody more than Vladimir Guerrero.

Well, Guerrero was the special one among them. He had everything: size, speed, an amazing arm, hand-eye coordination that boggled the mind. One in 20 million come along like that. The question, then, is what kind of player do you want to become when you have all that talent? Do you become a slugger? A batting champion? An all-around force?

Guerrero became ... impossibly wonderful. I can't think of any other way to describe it. After getting a taste of the Majors, playing nine games as a September callup, he made it to the big leagues as a 22-year-old and right from the bell he did amazing, absurd things. He hit .302 that year even while swinging at basically every pitch, including sales pitches that random salespeople were doing in nearby offices. He hit with power. He was ludicrously aggressive on the bases, running into doubles and outs with equal confidence. He threw out 10 baserunners from the outfield in roughly half a season, and airmailed at least as many cutoff men.

Vlad Guerrero was pure, concentrated baseball passion on display.

He was a full-fledged superstar in his first full season. That year he hit .324 with 38 home runs and 109 RBIs. He slugged .589. He scored 108 runs. The next year he did it again, only with a few more stolen bases and homers, and he slugged .600. The next year he did it again, only he upped the average to .345 and the slugging percentage to .664.

The next year he decided to steal bases, so he stole 37. The next year, he stole 40 -- coming one home run short of the ultra-exclusive 40-40 club. The next year he was great again, but got hurt. The net year he led the league in runs and total bases. The next year ...

It just went on and on for Guerrero. He hit .300 or better 11 years in a row -- he hit .324 or better seven times, which is the same number as and Roberto Clemente. He was as volatile a player as you could imagine, once hitting a pitch that bounced, once smashing a double on a pitch that was eye-high and so on -- and yet, year after year he would churn out the same statistics. He was as turbulent as a windstorm. His yearly stats clicked like a metronome -- 100 runs and 100 RBIs and 35 homers and 35 doubles every time.

As amazing as it all was, something bigger built around Guerrero, an aura. He was The Natural. He was born to do this. Guerrero didn't watch much video. He wasn't too keen on scouting reports. He wouldn't rein himself in. And day after day, he would do something impossible -- hit a pitch that no other batter could reach or throw out a runner from the warning track or turn a routine single into a mind-boggling double. Teammates and opponents were drop-dead awed by him. His own manager, a fairly good ballplayer himself by the name of Frank Robinson, said: "Every day I find myself saying, 'I can't believe he just did that.'"

Playing that kind of all-out, no-retreat, no-surrender baseball did create some unhealthy side effects. Guerrero wasn't perfect. He swung at everything so he hardly ever walked unless it was intentional (Guerrero led the league in intentional walks five times, but averaged just 34 unintentional walks per 150 games). He made some of the most sensational throws of his time -- his 126 outfield assists were each spectacular in some way or another -- but he also committed 125 errors. A 1-to-1 assist-to-error ratio for an outfielder is not ideal. He stole 181 bases but was caught 94 times.

That was him. Everything was aggression with Vlad the Impaler. He swung hard and for the fences at all times. He failed big and succeeded bigger. He was awesome.

As for his Hall of Fame case -- he missed out in his first year because of two factors. One, his career was a touch short; he retired at 36 and didn't quite get to some of the magic numbers like 3,000 hits (2,590) or 500 home runs (449). But, even so, his dominant hitting (.318 lifetime average, 25th all-time with a .553 slugging percentage, 34th with a .931 OPS) would have made him a first-ballot inductee in a normal year; he got caught in the cyclone of last year's stacked ballot.

He finished with 71.7 percent of the vote, just a few votes short of first-ballot induction. Look for him to get more than 90 percent as he rolls into the Hall of Fame this year. Cooperstown will be a much more fun place when that happens.