COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — As the hair gets thinner, the beards get whiter and the bellies get larger, the tales grow taller. That’s true of regular folks and it’s really true of the baseball immortals who gather every summer for the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
This year, with six former players going in as the Class of 2018, many of the tales this weekend are about the unorthodox swing and hitting skills of a member of that class — former star Vladimir Guerrero.
The thing is, they’re all true. If you don’t believe it, check YouTube for a video of Guerrero hitting a bounced pitch for a single at Baltimore’s Camden Yards.
Or listen to Guerrero’s fellow Hall of Famers.
“Talk about being able to pitch to him — there was not a ball that you could feel comfortable throwing,” inductee Trevor Hoffman said on Saturday. “He’d hit it off the ground, he’d hit it above his head. There wasn’t a pitch that he wouldn’t swing at.”
Said Chipper Jones: “The guy could hit anything. Anywhere. Hit it hard, too. It didn’t matter if you bounced it up there. There was no one way to pitch him. I can remember sitting in team meetings and nobody knew how to get him out. I guess you’d be better off just throwing the ball down the middle and hoping he hits it at somebody. I know playing third base, he was one of the scariest dudes I ever had to play third base against.”
Guerrero hit .318 with 449 home runs for four teams in a 16-year career. Even though he’s best remembered for his exploits with Montreal, Guerrero is going into the Hall as the first player with an Angels logo on his cap, which has apparently caused some howls of protest in Canada.
The Hall makes the final decision on the plaque logo with input from the player. Guerrero said he wanted it to be an Angels logo because he went to the postseason in five of his six seasons with the Angels after going playoff-less in Montreal.
“It was still a tough decision all the way to the end,” Guerrero said through a translator. “Also, I have said throughout the last year that because the Expos don’t exist, that actually made my decision a little easier.”
Guerrero played from 1996-2011, before exit velocity became a thing. You didn’t need the exact miles per hour to measure Guerrero’s hardest-hit balls.
“I loved his swing,” Jim Thome said. “I loved how aggressive he was. I remember — I was telling this story the other night — how when he hit a ball in Montreal off Brett Myers that was the hardest ball I’ve seen hit and it was never coming down.”
Guerrero, who never wore batting gloves, said he swung the bat so hard that it took years after he retired for the calluses on his hands to recede.
Guerrero also completely went against the current era’s fixation on hitters “hunting strikes” and laying off pitches outside the zone. For Guerrero, the zone was anywhere his long swing could reach. He would bend way over to reach outside pitches and pull his hands in rapidly for inside offerings.
“Vlad would scare you to death because if you threw a pitch you would consider a pitcher’s pitch, he’d golf it,” John Smoltz said. “If you threw it down the middle, maybe he didn’t hit it as well.”
Said Greg Maddux: “He was hard to pitch to because he hit everything. I remember one night Smoltzie bounced him a slider and he hit a double. You talk about a good bad-ball hitter — that was him. He hit pitches out of the strike zone more than anybody.”
Guerrero is the proud papa of one of baseball’s top prospects, infielder Vladimir Jr., who will join his father here on Sunday and then head to Toronto’s Buffalo affiliate for his first taste of Triple-A. Guerrero, 19, hit .402 (not a misprint) with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs in 61 games for Double-A New Hampshire.