Don't let Vladimir Guerrero's final years as a ballplayer cloud his brilliant first years — even as the messy ending unspirals.
It is sad, on some level, to see the former Montreal Expos slugger on the edge of an abyss after reportedly abandoning his comeback with the Toronto Blue Jays and drawing his release. The prospect of an Expos great extending his career with the surviving Canadian team would have had symbolic value.
Legacy can be tricky with a famous athlete, especially during the wind-down leg of his career. Only a few can pull off a Nick Lidström, retiring while still near the top of his game and after playing two decades for the same team. Ours is not to question why the Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones is the retiring future Hall of Famer receiving a farewell tour while Manny Ramirez and Guerrero, who were on the same level, were trying to find their old power amid the obscurity of Triple-A ball. It is certainly bittersweet for Canadian baseball fans, who remember that Guerrero spent his first eight seasons were with late and lamented Expos. That's the way it goes sometimes: no coming full circle, only small irony.
Guerrero being frustrated is no shock from a cold, hard baseball perspective: he was obviously scuffling with the Blue Jays' Las Vegas farm team. The Jays also never made any guarantees he'd make it to the big club, even though Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is a Montrealer.
Guerrero's attrition, to those who followed his early career in Montreal, has been somewhat sad to see over the past few years. There's a natural progression with every player, but seeing him play it out as DH-for-hire bouncing around the American League almost makes people forget what he was with the Expos.
In his early years with the Expos and Los Angeles Angels, Guerrero was a legit five-tool player. His stats were practically comparable to Willie Mays. No less an authority than Expos manager Felipe Alou said his swing and balance evoked Henry Aaron. He was such an exciting young player that some people in Ottawa, where the top Expos' Triple A affiliate was based in those days, still bitterly recall Montreal fast-tracking him from Double A to the majors in 1996.
In an age when sports was really getting cynical — Guerrero's first full season was 1997, one year before the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race — here was a player worthy of romanticism. That had value, especially for diehard Canadian ball fans in those years. The period from roughly 1995 to about 2004 was a really grim time to be a seamhead in Canada. The Expos were as good as gone from Montreal once plans to build a downtown ballpark went up in smoke; many now realize the beginning of the end wasn't the 1994 World Series-killing strike but when the Bronfman family sold the team in the mid-'80s. The Blue Jays went from being a big-market World Series contender player to a team with absentee and/or uninterested ownership playing in an antiseptic stadium. Having to cheer for Roger Clemens and Jose Canseco in Jays uniforms seemed like some karmic joke, even before we knew what we know now about them.
Hall of Fame as an Expo
Yet Guerrero, who could hit, hit for power, run, throw and field, rewarded people who were loyal and paid attention when baseball wasn't trendy in Canada. He gave plenty. That should be remembered. As for the legacy, Guerrero has already done more than enough to go into the Baseball Hall of Fame even if it turns out he's stroked his last dinger. Ideally, he should do so with an Expos cap on his plaque. He played more games for them (1,004) than for the Angels (846), although he won his MVP award with the latter franchise in 2004. It's the same predicament as another Expos outfielder, Andre Dawson: bulk of the career in Montreal, MVP award immediately after changing teams. Dawson went into the Hall as an Expo over his objections.
The lack of visibility that came from playing in Montreal and from not being a media personality might hurt Guerrero's name recognition with Hall of Fame voters. However, his peak years are more than enough for induction into Cooperstown. Guerrero has 449 career home runs, a .318 lifetime batting average and a career OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .931. At one point in his career he finished third or higher in OPS among all major-league rightfielders for nine years in a row, finishing first five times. His adjusted OPS of 140 is borderline for a Hall of Fame outfielder, but it does put him ahead of Ken Griffey Jr. in that department.
Above all else, there was no one like him in baseball. The Moneyball revolution won out and all of us now concede working counts and plate discipline is the way to go. Vlady showed there is no one way to do it. Other stars had better numbers, sure, but he was singular in who he did he did his thing. By way of quantifying that, it is worth noting that onnly Albert Pujols has a better strikeouts-to-homers ratio among MLB's top 10 players in career home runs.
Seeing Vladimir Guerrero return to take a few hacks for the Jays would have been great. But he's learning that old sluggers can't be choosers.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.