For 61/2 seasons, Vladimir Guerrero played a spectacular right field and put up equally spectacular offensive numbers for the Montreal Expos, but did it in the relative obscurity of French-speaking Quebec in front of minuscule crowds, with his own introverted personality adding to the sense of mystery about him.
It took only one season in the American League, in a major media market, with a winning team, for Guerrero to explode into the sport's greater consciousness, and yesterday the Anaheim Angels superstar was honored as the AL's most valuable player -- only the fifth time in history a player has switched leagues and won the MVP in his first season with the new team.
The honor was Guerrero's reward for a season in which he hit .337 with 39 homers, 126 RBI and 124 runs scored. Most likely, he separated himself from a pack of contenders in the season's final two weeks, when he almost single-handedly carried the Angels past the Oakland Athletics all the way to the AL West title, hitting .463 with nine homers in the season's final 15 games.
"Our expectations were high, and he met every one of them," said Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, whose team signed Guerrero to a five-year, $70 million contract last winter. "He carried the team single-handedly [down the stretch]. All of Major League Baseball had its eyes on Vlad, and he had an incredible season, and I think it speaks volumes about the talent he has."
Guerrero, 29, received 21 of a possible 28 first-place votes in balloting by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, easily outpointing New York Yankees right fielder Gary Sheffield, who received five first-place votes and finished as runner-up. Boston Red Sox teammates Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz received one first-place vote apiece and finished third and fourth, respectively.
Baltimore Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada finished fifth in the voting, triggering an incentive bonus of $300,000 in his contract. Guerrero earned a $400,000 bonus from the Angels for winning the award.
Guerrero, Ramirez and Ortiz all hail from the Dominican Republic, and yesterday was declared a national holiday by President Leonel Fernandez. Guerrero and his family were guests at the presidential palace in Santo Domingo for much of the day.
"I thank God I won this award," Guerrero said through a translator during a conference call with reporters. "I was in no way expecting it to be the way [the voting] came out. I'm thankful [the award] is in the country, and I admire the way [Ramirez and Ortiz] played, especially in the postseason."
The Expos allowed Guerrero to walk away via free agency after the 2003 season rather than trade him during the season, despite the fact it was a near certainty they would be unable to re-sign him.
For most of the winter, the Orioles appeared to be the front-runners to sign Guerrero, with some teams remaining cautious because of a back injury that cost him one-quarter of his 2003 season. The Orioles ultimately offered a bigger total package -- six years, $78 million -- but Guerrero chose the Angels' offer, which contained a higher annual average value while satisfying Guerrero's desires for a team and a home region with large Hispanic components.
"It meant a lot to be surrounded by them," Guerrero said, naming Angels teammates Jose Guillen, Ramon Ortiz and Bartolo Colon, all Dominicans, "because it felt to me like a family atmosphere."
Guerrero made a point to thank the fans in Montreal and the Expos organization -- which is being relocated to Washington for next season -- saying, "They gave me my first opportunity to be an everyday player in the big leagues."