Vladimir Guerrero: The $2,500 Signing with Mismatched Shoes and Clemente Tools

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 17, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO - MAY 14:  Vladimir Guerrero #27 of the Montreal Expos laughs in the dugout during the game against the San Francisco Giants at Pac Bell Park on May 14, 2003 in San Francisco, California.  The Expos defeated the Giants 6-3.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The kid showed up unannounced, riding on the back of a motorcycle, wearing shoes that didn't match.

"One was larger than the other," Fred Ferreira remembered. "He had a sock stuffed into one of them so it would fit."

It was the spring of 1993, and Ferreira was on the outskirts of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He works for the Baltimore Orioles now, but he was with the Montreal Expos then, running a tryout camp at a field in Mendoza.

The kid with the mismatched shoes was about to become the best player he ever signed.

"I've had 72 guys make it up there [to the major leagues]," Ferreira said proudly.

Some were stars. Some won World Series. Ferreira thought Bernie Williams deserved Hall of Fame consideration, but he never got there.

This week, that kid with the mismatched shoes could be Ferreira's first in Cooperstown.

Vladimir Guerrero has a chance in his first year on the ballot, although the votes publicly revealed suggest he may fall just short. Ryan Thibodaux, who runs the Hall of Fame Tracker and follows these things more closely than anyone, has Guerrero at 74.4 percent so far, with 75 percent required for election.

Numbers like that mean Guerrero will get to the Hall of Fame, even if it's not this year. A chance like this means Ferreira will be watching closely for the Wednesday announcement.

"I certainly am waiting," he said.

He's not alone. Every player on the Hall of Fame ballot has a scout who first signed him, a coach who first believed in him, an instructor who helped him along the way. Everyone has a story that becomes all the more cherished when the vote goes the right way.

Houston Astros scout Tom Mooney gave Jeff Bagwell a seven (out of eight) on power potential when Bagwell was at the University of Hartford and then recommended the Astros trade for Bagwell when he was still in Double-A.

"Remember it like it was yesterday," Mooney wrote on his Facebook page after Alex Speier of the Boston Globe wrote about scouting Bagwell.

Texas Rangers scout Doug Gassaway clocked a 16-year-old Ivan Rodriguez throwing 93 mph to second base, as Sandy Johnson remembered in an MLB.com story by Tracy Ringolsby.

11 May 1997:  Outfielder Vladimir Guerrero of the Montreal Expos swings at the ball during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.  The Expos won the game 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Jose L. Marin  /Allsport
Jose L Marin/Getty Images

And Fred Ferreira signed Vladimir Guerrero for $2,500 out of a tryout camp in the Dominican Republic.

"Jon Heyman wrote in Sports Illustrated it was the second-best deal ever, behind the Babe Ruth deal," Ferreira said.

It's an even better story.

Guerrero wasn't exactly unknown that spring. His older brothers had both played baseball too, and Wilton Guerrero signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers a year and a half earlier. Vladimir spent a couple of months in the Dodgers academy, but they never signed him.

The New York Yankees worked out Guerrero too, but as a pitcher. They told him to come back a week later, but in the meantime, Guerrero showed up at Ferreira's tryout.

"We had about 30 kids already there," Ferreira said. "The first thing we had him do was run a 60-yard dash, and he ran like 6.5. He ran that well with shoes that didn't match. Then we had him throw from the outfield. They were good throws, very good, exceptional.

"Running and throwing, those two tools can't be taught."

Ferreira was intrigued, but he had to know if Guerrero could hit. They were setting up a game, and he told his assistant to have Guerrero lead off every inning.

"The first at-bat, he hit a ground ball to short and tried to beat it out," Ferreira said. "He was really busting it down the line and then he pulled up. He'd pulled a hamstring. I saw him go sit in the dugout with his head between his legs."

So that was it for the day. Some running in mismatched shoes. A few throws. And one ground ball to short.

Ferreira had a flight out that afternoon, but he decided on the spot Guerrero was worth a chance. The flight home could wait.

Guerrero told the Expos he had been working out at the Dodgers academy, which would make him ineligible to sign with another team. Then he said he'd been there 60 days.

11 May 1997:  Outfielder Vladimir Guerrero of the Montreal Expos signs his autograph on a ball during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.  The Expos won the game 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Jose L. Marin  /Allsp
Jose L Marin/Getty Images

"I said that makes him a free agent," Ferreira said.

The Dodgers hadn't signed him because they thought he looked more like his older brother Albino, who they released because he was too slow. They preferred Wilton, who eventually played eight years in the big leagues but was never a star.

"In this business, you consider yourself a success if 5 percent of the guys you sign make it to the majors," Dodgers scout Ralph Avila told Jeff Blair in a story for the Montreal Gazette three years later. "[Vladimir] will be part of the Expos' 5 percent, not ours. And that's how it works sometimes."

Guerrero told the Expos he was 17, so they would need his parents' permission to sign him. He was actually 18, but they wouldn't know until 2009 that he had been lying about his age.

Ferreira canceled his flight and made plans for the 40-mile drive west to Peravia province, where Guerrero was born. But first, Guerrero told them he wanted to stop at the Dodgers academy to pick up his things.

"It turned out he had one shirt there," Ferreira said.

The signing was straightforward, as Guerrero's mother quickly agreed to the $2,500 bonus. It was a different era. By 2015, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, he got a $3.9 million deal.

"I signed a crude Dominican player with great tools to play ball and a good disposition," Ferreira reported back to his superiors in Montreal.

"They sent him to the Dominican Summer League, and I told the people in the office this kid will be Player of the Month for the next six months," Ferreira said.

He had another message for them too.

"He was swinging at everything, but I told our instructors to let him do what he does," Ferreira said. "Leave him alone. When he got to the States, Felipe Alou told him the same thing."

Alou would later refer to Guerrero as a "baseball machine," according to the Blair story in the Gazette.

Alou was the Expos' manager by then, and Guerrero would soon join him. He shot through the Montreal farm system, skipping Triple-A altogether.

"After seeing Vlad in Double-A, our scouts said the kid had tools like [Roberto] Clemente," said Dan Duquette, the Expos general manager at the time.

He never did stop swinging at everything. And hitting everything.

"Vladimir Guerrero is the best retired Truly Bad Ball hitter of our time," Eno Sarris declared in a post on FanGraphs this month.

It carried him through 16 big league seasons, 449 home runs, a .318 career batting average and four finishes in the top four in Most Valuable Player voting. In 2004, his first season after signing a five-year, $70 million deal with the Anaheim Angels, Guerrero won the MVP award in the American League.

He had long since justified the $2,500 Fred Ferreira spent to sign him and the canceled flight home.

And when he goes into the Hall of Fame, you can bet his shoes will match.

                

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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