By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I'm just glad he's on my team for a change," shortstop Michael Young says of the man creating all the buzz at spring training in Surprise, Arizona. "For years he's made life miserable for all of us."
Now, the Rangers haven't won an American League West Division Championship since 1999, so the list of players who have assisted their demise is long. But at the top—undoubtedly—is Guerrero. Over the last six seasons and 102 games against Texas while with the Anaheim Angels, he produced a batting average of .396 with 24 homers and 66 RBIs. No active player has a better slugging percentage in Rangers Ballpark.
Every day in Arlington has been Guerrero's birthday, the Rangers his personal piñata.
"He's certainly inflicted damage on us through the years," Rangers' general manager Jon Daniels says before an afternoon exhibition game at Surprise Stadium. "We did our part to make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
But last year in Anaheim, the 35-year-old, eight-time All-Star showed glimpses of the beginning of the end. Already in moderate decline since being named American League Most Valuable Player in 2004, in 2009 he spent two month-long stints on the disabled list and hobbled through the worst season of his career.
When the Angels this winter signed sluggers Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui, Guerrero was discarded. It took the Rangers exactly one face-to-face meeting to validate Anaheim's trash as their long-coveted treasure.
During a four-hour January meeting at Guerrero's California home, Rangers manager Ron Washington asked him if he still loved playing baseball. Guerrero responded with a huge smile.
"The fire hasn't gone out," Washington says. "It's still lit."
Says the Spanish-speaking Guerrero through an interpreter: "Ron treated me the right way. I knew right away I wanted to play for the Rangers."
At the end of the meeting the Rangers offered Guerrero a one-year, $6.5 million contract, upon which he excused himself and called his mother.
"We're moving to Texas!" he exclaimed into the telephone.
A month later, on February 19, the Dominican-born Guerrero was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. And now, he has his Rangers teammates and fans salivating at what his bat can do in the middle of a talented lineup that struggled to score runs last season but has baseball experts convinced they can contend for a championship this season.
This isn't Sammy Sosa, signed as almost a novelty act in order for him to reach 600 homers and the team to camouflage what was sure to be a downtrodden year. And this isn't Kenny Lofton, signed as a stopgap and used to sweeten a future trade for prospects. Nope, this is Vladimir Guerrero, on the descent of his career, yes, but nonetheless one of the most feared hitters in Major League Baseball over the last decade (along with Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez) and instantly one of the most dangerous and dynamic bats in the history of a Rangers organization known for prodigious sluggers like Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro and A-Rod.
This is a shrewd signing aimed not at attendance or publicity or the future, but getting more hits and scoring more runs and winning more baseball games. Right here, right now.
"He's 35, we're not kidding ourselves," Daniels says. "He's somewhat on the downside of his career. But he's lost weight. He's stronger. He looks great. We still think he can help us and lift us up to something special this season."
It's refreshing this spring in Surprise, if for no other reason the Rangers aren't again counting on tired, old retreads like Hank Blalock and Frank Catalonotto and Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla. Optimism abounds, fueled by the organic maturation of farm-system gems like Julio Borbon, Elvis Andrus, Chris Davis and Neftali Feliz. The Rangers scared the Angels last summer before wilting in August and eventually ending 10 games behind in second place.
The gap, they say, has been gobbled up.
Ask Washington or Daniels or team President Nolan Ryan about winning the West and they'll unflinchingly nod in the affirmative. Ryan even predicts 92 wins, a level Texas hasn't reached this millennium.
"I just feel like that's a number that this ball club should be able to reach," Ryan says while sitting in the stands behind home plate. "I feel like we have the depth and talent, and we're capable of doing that. I'll be disappointed if we don't go out and win our division."
Daniels is reluctant to pinpoint totals, but says "whatever the number is, I expect us to be in the playoffs."
If early indications are accurate, Vlad's the same unorthodox, yet menacing batter in the box. Wearing no batting gloves, with unusually long arms and wickedly quick wrists through the zone, he has the uncanny knack of hitting any pitch out of any park. He swings at—no, he violently attacks—most everything he sees and is generally considered one of baseball's all-time best bad-ball hitters.