For 15 years, his were the at-bats to see, as Vladimir Guerrero had uniquely married havoc and precision into his. Sorting one from the other required patience, too, enough to separate the temporary commotion from the lasting result, the hell-was-that from the how-’bout-that.
Maybe other batters swung harder. Maybe some swung with a firmer belief, that if the guy out there let go of the ball, then surely it was hittable, and surely he would hit it. Other batters had their own styles, their own moments when their appetite ended and meticulousness began. None, however, gathered quite so much to cram into such a tiny spot – the place where the bat barrel meets the baseball – as Vladimir Guerrero.
It was different. Different to me, anyways. And, at times, it felt mystical.
At 6:15 p.m., a time when a baseball clubhouse is alive with preparation, Vladimir Guerrero sat facing his locker in his full uniform, spikes to cap. Every night.
Twenty-four other men nourished themselves for the three or four hours ahead, on sandwiches or protein bars or whatever looked edible in the kitchen. They showered or they hit 20 more balls off a tee or they cut it up with teammates, laughing the tension away. In a game that tilts to failure, sometimes the routine is all there is. The rest is chaos.
The one they knew as Vladdy wore headphones. Music from the island, they assumed. His eyes were closed. His face tranquil. In his long fingers, taped in places against the trials of so many gloveless swings, he held a bat. A gamer, maybe. Time would tell. Some had made the cut previously, but this was a new night, a new game, and they’d each be put through the test again. Perhaps a half-dozen others had been leaned against the locker wall, waiting their turn in the nightly ritual.
Each bore the same C243 model number on the barrel, along with two numbers on the butt end: 27 for his jersey number, to distinguish his from others in the bat rack, and 32 for its weight in ounces.
Vladdy, eyes and ears removed this assessment, twirled the bat in tiny circles. He lowered it, raised it, wagged it side to side, as though blessing his locker. He set it down, a definite maybe, then blindly reached for the next. At the end, the few that landed in the maybe pile went through another round, until Vladdy had chosen the one. The one that would pick up for the last, that would continue the legacy of the last, in a season over which he’d have 206 hits, 80 of them for extra bases, accounting for 366 total bases. The year was 2004. He would be the American League’s MVP. Much was expected of the bats then. So Vladdy seemed to measure them for their density, their balance. All the important elements. Their spirit.
Tim Salmon stared. He’d never seen such a thing. He’d been around, too. For 15 minutes, 20, more, he’d watch. And then Vladdy would open his eyes, remove his headphones and leave the clubhouse, headed for the dugout, carrying the chosen one and a spare or two. The damnedest thing.
So it was one afternoon when Salmon’s bats were broken. Not, like, cracked or splintered or anything. They simply weren’t working right. Malfunctioning. Popping balls up. Grounding into double plays. Missing entirely. Broken. He was scavenging the clubhouse for substitutes when he passed Vladdy’s locker, no Vladdy in sight. He took one of those C243’s by its handle, hoisted it to waist height, thought, “Geez, this thing’s a log.” He inspected the knob, saw the 32, thought, “No chance,” lugged it straight to the clubhouse manager’s office, where there was a scale, and laid it on the tray.
Salmon wondered what the 32 was. So he returned to Vladdy’s locker, arranged another five of Vladdy’s bats in his arms and, like firewood delivered to a hearth, hauled those to the scale. One by one he weighed them.
On it went, each marked with a 32, none actually 32.
He marched back to the locker. Vladdy was there, likely looking for his bats.
“Vladdy,” he said, “what’re your bats weigh?”
“No, they don’t.”
“Come with me,” Salmon said.
Together they weighed each bat again, Vladdy’s eyes widening with each readout. Finally, he nodded.
He scooped up the bats, three to a hand, looped through his fingers. He returned to his locker, eyeing the bats as though they’d been lying to him the whole time. He leaned them against the wall, placed his headphones on his ears. He closed his eyes.
And he reached for the first bat.
Vladdy’s world could be a little different. His mother – Altagracia Alvino – frequently fed both clubhouses, and so helped raise a generation of ballplayers living away from home. They requested her chicken, rice and beans. The dish was delicious and, given Vladdy had eaten it for decades, might just possess magical powers. He hardly spoke, even in his native Spanish. He laughed a lot, still does. He played the game, from one end to the other, once stealing 40 bases, twice leading outfielders in assists (granted, many times leading outfielders in errors), four times walking more often than he struck out. He hit. And then he went to the Hall of Fame.
Man, did he hit. Because he was better than most. He was smarter than most. He saw more than most. He worked harder. And, maybe, possibly, why not, his bats talked to him.
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