On a Dodger team of aging heroes like 33-year-old Steve Garvey and young stars like 21-year-old Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Guerrero, 26 and playing in his second season as a regular, has carved out a prominent niche all his own. At the end of last week, Los Angeles was clinging to a one-game lead in the National League West and Guerrero was a leading candidate for MVP.
Guerrero, who has displaced Garvey as the Dodgers' cleanup hitter, led the team in batting (.306), runs (86), homers (32), runs batted in (98), game-winning RBIs (18), slugging (.543), on-base percentage (.376) and, as always, selflessness. As a rookie in 1980, he substituted for ailing Davey Lopes at second and slumping Rudy Law in center and batted .322. Last season sore-armed Reggie Smith couldn't play rightfield, so Guerrero hit .300 in his stead and was a tri-MVP in the World Series. He started this year in rightfield, but when Ron Cey strained a thigh muscle on Sept. 5, Guerrero began shifting back and forth between the outfield and third base—often during the course of a game.
No matter. As the Dodgers took over the division lead with a seven-game mid-September winning streak, Guerrero had two game-winning hits, two homers and seven RBIs. He accomplished all this despite an increasingly swollen right hand he had jammed swinging at an inside pitch Sept. 10. In pain and in health, he's a good bet to become the 14th active player to produce a .300, 30-homer, 100-RBI season—and the first to accomplish the feat so early in his career. He has already become the first Dodger ever to hit 30 homers and steal 20 bases in one season.
Guerrero has played six different positions since arriving in L.A.: first (his favorite), second, third and the three outfield spots. "Why should switching bother me if I know how to play all those positions?" he says. "I just move from one to the other and pretend I started the game there."
"He makes great judgments," says Batting Coach Manny Mota. "He knows he can use the whole field and when to go for the long ball or base hit, and he remembers to cut down on his swing with two strikes."
Knowing Guerrero's fondness for low pitches, San Diego's Eric Show recently threw him a ridiculously low one—10 inches off the ground. Guerrero swung and missed. Show tried the same thing on his next delivery, got it up a bit and lost the game when Guerrero doubled home Ken Landreaux. "He's got holes you can throw to," says Show, "but they're getting smaller and smaller. It's amazing how much he's improved just over the last season."
"He's got great baseball intelligence," says Leftfielder Dusty Baker, Guerrero's best friend among the Dodgers. "I must be in the game," Guerrero adds, "because I once fell asleep on a plane and woke up swinging."
Guerrero's the rare ballplayer who will stand up and shake hands with someone he has been introduced to in the clubhouse. He happily answers to "Pedro" in Spanish and "Pete" in English. L.A. Manager Tom Lasorda considers him a quiet leader. Because he makes bilingual public-service broadcasts on behalf of every major cause from safety on the public buses to cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Dodger spokesmen call him "concerned." To the players, he's eminently kiddable because of his combination of absentmindedness and good humor.
Guerrero and his wife, Denise, a vivacious New Mexican of Spanish, Mexican, American Indian and Irish ancestry, share a car and a condo in a middle-class L.A. neighborhood 10 minutes from Dodger Stadium. "Which neighborhood?" he was asked. "Lafayette Park," said Guerrero. "No," said Utilityman Derrel Thomas in a tone of mock sternness. "That's the street. It's the Wilshire district. Remember that." Later Guerrero asked a reporter to send him a copy of a story but couldn't remember his own address. "I know the place but not the number," he said.
Denise has been a big help to Pedro—so much so that veteran Dodger Outfielder Rick Monday's wife, Terry, has called her "the perfect example of what a young player's wife should be." Guerrero shows his appreciation of Denise, whose main contribution to his success was to teach him patience, by wiggling a finger at her after each of his Dodger Stadium home runs. It's his way of saying, "That was for you, Baby."
"Pedro's basically a big ham," says Denise. "I'm always taping him on a videocassette, singing to Dominican music. His ambition is to have a band with the two of us playing—him on drums, me on saxophone."
The other key figure in Guerrero's support system is Mota, who once pitched him 75 consecutive curves in batting practice. Like Guerrero, Mota is a Dominican who languished in the minors before being promoted for good. Guerrero spent all or parts of seven seasons down on the farm, before the Dodgers ran out of options and brought him up to stay in 1980; more than once before then, Mota talked him out of quitting.
"If I think he's doing something wrong at the plate, I call to him from the first-base coach's box," says Mota. After getting Guerrero's attention, Mota will signal—pointing to his head if Guerrero is looking up, showing his palm if Guerrero is uppercutting, pointing to his shoulder if his protégé is "opening up" too soon.
Guerrero grew up in San Pedro de Macorís, a city of 66,000 about 40 miles from Santo Domingo. His parents separated when he was eight, and at 14 he dropped out of school to haul sugarcane for $2.60 a day. "I'd work all day, play drums at night and play baseball on weekends," he says. "We'd go on the road and only nine or 10 guys would show up, so I got used to playing a lot of positions."
By the time he was 16, Guerrero had settled at third and was leading his youth league with a .438 average. Cleveland promptly signed him for a $2,500 bonus. "We talk a lot about scouting with projections," says Regie Otero, who discovered Guerrero. "He was five-feet-11, 157 pounds. I looked at the width of his shoulders, back and front, and knew that he would get heavier and stronger. He had lived off of rice and beans. Meat—when? Vegetables—when? Eggs—when? Milk—when?" Guerrero now weighs 190 pounds.
He spent only one season in the Cleveland system. In 1974 the Indians were hungering after Bruce Ellingsen, a left-handed pitcher in the Dodger system. Otero, by then working for the Dodgers, persuaded Al Campanis, L.A.'s director of player personnel, to trade Ellingsen for Guerrero. Ellingsen has retired, having pitched just 16 major league games. Guerrero hit .300 or better in six of seven minor league seasons. From third, he switched to first and later the outfield after fracturing his left ankle at Albuquerque in 1977.
For Guerrero, it was a shattering experience in more ways than one. "Every day I'd see him walking around the field," says Dodger Pitcher Bob Welch, who was Guerrero's teammate during his recuperation period at Albuquerque in early 1978. "Ten laps, 12, 14, wouldn't say a word. Then, he'd get in his Thunderbird and drive away."
But the injury turned out to be the best break he ever had. "Before, I wasn't interested in being a good base runner or working on my defense," he says. "All I worried about was my hitting. After I got hurt I had a lot of time to think. There was a lot more money in baseball than when I signed, and I was thinking that if I played better I could make good money someday." Guerrero worked so hard to rehabilitate his ankle that he not only became an all-around player but also a faster one. He now has a $275,000 salary that figures to double—or triple—by next spring.
Indeed, the Dodgers, who considered trading him last winter, are now expected to do almost anything to keep him happy. That means both raising his salary and giving him a permanent position. Guerrero has had frequent shoulder difficulty while switching from the outfield to third. Now there's speculation that L.A. will trade the 34-year-old Cey, install Guerrero at third and insert 22-year-old Mike Marshall in right. That's a lot for a club to do on behalf of one man, but Guerrero is one man who has done a lot for his club.
Guerrero (left) has an eager ear for his guru, Mota.