-- Close your eyes, and you can see it. There he is, Vladimir Guerrero, striding to home plate at Angel Stadium wearing road grays rather than home whites, hitting in front of Jose Guillen instead of Garret Anderson, playing for Washington rather than Anaheim.

Prior to last season, that's all Guerrero had known, the Montreal Expos franchise that -- presto! -- became the Washington Nationals over the winter. And Guerrero couldn't have served up a more stark reminder of what the Nationals lost than he did Monday night, when his new team -- the Angels -- thrashed the Nationals, 11-1. He swung at one pitch up near his chin and muscled it into right field for an RBI single. He rapped out two more singles, then hit a three-run homer.

It is no wonder, then, that Tony Siegle, the Nationals' assistant general manager, sat in the visitor's dugout Tuesday evening -- the sun glaring in his eyes -- and assessed the loss of Guerrero for a Montreal franchise that had little direction, even less clarity about its future, in the following manner.

"It was devastating," Siegle said, and he repeated himself. "Devastating."

That the Expos were without Guerrero last season -- when he won the American League MVP award in his first year with the Angels -- was only part of the reason they stumbled their way to 95 losses. That they have moved on from his loss, finally, is indicated by their unexpected rise to first place in the National League East.

But there was no way to watch his performance Monday night, when he went 4 for 4 with five RBI, and not think: What if?

"His natural ability is not approached by anybody that's playing the game today," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "He is a force. You let the ball go, he can hit it out. . . . He's capable of hitting any ball thrown toward home plate, and hitting it hard, and hitting it far. There're not many people in the history of this game that you can say that about."

From his first appearance in an Expos uniform, late in 1996, to his last at the end of 2003, Guerrero hit .328, slugged .588, crushed 234 homers and drove in 702 runs, all in the relative obscurity of Montreal. He may not have achieved international stardom in part because of where he played, but also because of his personal demeanor. A native of the Dominican Republic, he chose not to learn to speak English.

"For Vladdy, that's all he thinks about -- baseball," said Guillen, another Dominican who played with Guerrero last season in Anaheim. "He doesn't want to learn English. He doesn't think it matters. He just wants to play, to play baseball."

So baseball people knew him. Opposing pitchers knew him. And the Expos, who snared him from his homeland, knew him all too well. "He's a tremendous individual," Robinson said. If the franchise -- already owned by Major League Baseball, seemingly destined to move away from Montreal -- was to have any credibility, it had to work to sign Guerrero, who was due to become a free agent at the end of 2003.

So in spring training 2003, as Siegle recalled, he and then-general manager Omar Minaya spoke with Guerrero's agents, Diego Benz and Fernando Cuza, and tried to come up with an idea of what it would take. On July 24, a week before the trading deadline, they made an offer: five years, $75 million. Guerrero didn't sign.

As the season drew to a close, Siegle said, they wanted to make another push. They offered a slightly lower dollar figure, Siegle said, but allowed Guerrero an out. If the club hadn't moved from Montreal by the end of 2004, if there was no more certainty to the situation, he could have become a free agent.

"He still would have had plenty of teams interested in signing him to a huge contract," Siegle said. Guerrero didn't sign.

So the team entered the offseason filled with uncertainty. In late October, Guerrero declared free agency. In early December, it became official: Guerrero would not come back to the Expos. The Baltimore Orioles, the New York Mets and, in the end, the Angels waged a war for his services. There were concerns about Guerrero's back, which cost him a month-and-a-half of the 2003 season. In the end, the contract he signed -- five years, $70 million -- was less than the one the Expos had offered in the summer.

In December, too, the Expos traded Javier Vazquez, their ace in waiting, to the New York Yankees for first baseman Nick Johnson and outfielder Juan Rivera. And they went to spring training with a gloomy feeling, Siegle said.

"We were in danger of losing all our most important players," he said. "We were facing another year playing games in Puerto Rico. Our other big players were on the brink of free agency. And Vladdy, he's a talent that comes along once every 25, 50 years. That was a blow. There's no way you replace him."

Tuesday night, he dug in in the third spot against Livan Hernandez, the Washington starter. Hernandez, unlike Guerrero, decided to sign with the Expos early last season, getting a four-year deal for $30 million. Second baseman Jose Vidro -- still on the disabled list but preparing to return, perhaps by the end of the month -- did the same thing. New general manager Jim Bowden replaced Guerrero in right field by trading for Guillen.

Guillen, though, hasn't had a season like Guerrero's last year: .337, 39 homers, 126 RBI.

"I'm telling you," Guillen said, "there's no one like him."

Former Expo Vladimir Guerrero could have been wearing a Nationals uniform.