Even in a complex age we still sometimes meet a man as simple and hard as the poverty that made him.

Crush a thousand men and 999 may die, but the one who lives will be special. One of nature's crueler laws.

Pedro Guerrero's name means "warrior" and that's close enough.

When you are born poor in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, you fight upward or you sink down. You succeed or you cut cane for a lifetime.

"I always know I am going to make it in the major leagues someday," says Guerrero, who signed a pro contract at 16 and this year, at 29, may be the most valuable player in the National League.

Why?

Guerrero's handsome, smooth face grows implacably quiet. "Because I could not go back. There was nothing."

Twenty years ago, Manny Mota of the Los Angeles Dodgers played winter ball in his native Dominican Republic. To the children who swarmed around him he threw coins.

Now the children of San Pedro de Macoris have grown up. A dozen of them are in the majors -- more big leaguers than have been produced by any city on earth. Joaquin Andujar, George Bell, Tony Fernandez, Julio Franco, Alfredo Griffin and Juan Samuel among them.

How many children, like Guerrero, looked at Mota, Rico Carty, Juan Marichal and the three Alou brothers and said, "That's the way out," we can not know. We only meet those very few, like Guerrero, who are so exceptional that learning the game with a guava-tree limb for a bat is no hindrance.

Today, Mota is the Dodgers' hitting coach, leaning on the cage. Guerrero is their hitter, launching practice pitches into the Veterans Stadium upper deck with a swing both savage and compact.

Many, looking at Guerrero's .326 batting average, his 28 home runs, his 70 RBI and his $7 million five-year contract, call this a success story.

Guerrero knows better. He goes back to San Pedro de Macoris every winter.

The poor come to him, a steady stream it sometimes seems. To beg.

"I can't find a way to say no," he says. "They know I am rich. And I know how poor they are. They come to my house, stop me on the street. I'm a real soft touch. I don't think that's bad.

"They all tell a story. About their mother or child who is sick. I know some are lying, just to get the money. Just like anywhere else -- good people, bad people. Some are the ones who boo me at the ballpark.

"It bothers me," says Guerrero, "that I cannot tell who is telling the truth, who really needs the money and how much."

So what does he do?

"I guess," he shrugs. "Some ask for $50 and I give them $25. Some ask for $25 and I give them $100.

"But to everyone at least I give something," says Guerrero, who funds 11 youth teams. "I will do anything for that little town."

"Pedro never forgets his friends," says Mota. Or his parents, for whom he has bought a home, or his brother, who lives in his L.A. condo, or even rookie teammate Mariano Duncan -- yes, also from San Pedro -- who lived with Guerrero and his wife Denise for three months.

Let's be honest. Guerrero is no saint. Just a proud, driven and simple man, remember. He is as vain as he is handsome, posing in front of mirrors without knowing it for minutes at a time, seemingly transfixed by his own beauty. He expects special treatment from the Dodgers and gets it. After the strike, Guerrero missed the first game back and the Dodgers weren't even going to fine him until the NL made it a mandatory policy for any AWOL players.

True, Guerrero loves food too much; he ballooned to 218 pounds once last year and, someday, the massive chest and buttocks that are now his power source could become his enemy. True, he spends his money as generously on himself as he gives it to others; he loves jewelry and lives in Hancock Park near Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley.

No Dodger would emphasize such nagging demerits against a loyal team man who plays hurt, hard and smart.

Perhaps one story says enough about Guerrero as a player. Save it for The Natural II. Last month, Guerrero's bad back, which sometimes goes out of place and spasms, had a spell so severe that Manager Tommy Lasorda told Guerrero to leave the game. "Let me give it one swing," said Guerrero.

One swing. More like a half-swing, as Guerrero reinjured his back. The result: one 430-foot game-winning homer over the center field fence. Guerrero needed 40 seconds to walk the bases, then was out of the lineup more than a week.

Such heroics, everything in fact that Guerrero has done this year, have been a joyous vindication after nearly a season and a half of frustration.

In '84, Guerrero was weighted down by excess poundage, by the expectations attendant on a $1.25-million-a-year deal and, finally, by the pressure of being shifted from the comfort of the outfield to the embarrassment of third base.

Many a star, coming off back-to-back 30-homer, 100-RBI years, would have nixed the position switch. But Guerrero gritted his teeth through 22 errors and six months of Chavez Ravine boos.

"I try not to listen to the boos," he said. "Every day, I read the letters from Dodger fans -- 25 to 50 of them -- all telling me, 'We are with you. Those who boo are not the true Dodger fans.' "

On June 1 this year, Guerrero was headed toward another season of humble 16-homer, 72-RBI power stats. Finally, the Dodgers admitted they'd been dumb. Lasorda gave Guerrero a reprieve to play left field, saying, "We know you're willing to play third, but we'd rather have your bat than your glove."

His dignity, his performing grace, in a sense, restored, Guerrero homered in his first game and hit 15 home runs in June, winning NL player of the month. Then he batted .460 in July.

"You know that nursery rhyme, 'Thirty days hath September, April, June and November,' " says Lasorda. "Well, I changed it. I knew June was Pedro's favorite month, so I told him that, in the U.S., June had 60 days. I'd see him in July and say, 'Well, Pedro, it's June 52nd and I see you're still hot.' "

To Guerrero, it does not mean a great deal that he leads the league in slugging (.609) and on-base percentage (.424). His play comes from deeper sources. As he says of one Dominican team owner who once gave him a few much-needed dollars during his bush-league days, "He showed he cared about me before I was famous. He buy my heart."

The things Pedro Guerrero wants most, money no longer buys. That, perhaps, is why he gives away his millions so freely. "Winning honors is nice," he says, "but I remember my rookie season ('81) when we won the World Series. That was the best.

"I play for the ring," says Pedro Guerrero, "and the sweet champagne."