Vladimir Guerrero returns to the scene of his prime, wondering whether he will be vilified in the place where he created so many special memories.
Guerrero, the American League's most valuable player in 2004, hit 173 home runs in six seasons with the Angels but now wears the blue (and occasionally red) of the rival Texas Rangers.
"I don't know what the reaction will be when I'm back for the first time," Guerrero, speaking through an interpreter, told reporters in Texas on Sunday as the Rangers prepared for a series against the Angels that starts Tuesday in Anaheim. "I have to wait and go there and see what happens."
Angels right fielder Bobby Abreu, who played alongside Guerrero last season, doesn't think there's any suspense about how the slugger will be received in his first game back.
"You're going to have a standing ovation," Abreu said. "I mean, the fans over here love him. He's a good player, a great guy with a nice personality and one of those players everybody wanted to watch."
Indeed, even on a recent weekend afternoon with the Colorado Rockies in town at Angel Stadium, old Guerrero jerseys with his No. 27 across the back were spotted throughout the ballpark.
Angels fans could see a lot of Guerrero in the coming weeks. The AL West-leading Rangers play six games in Anaheim between now and Aug. 1, and Guerrero is expected to participate in the All-Star game July 13 at Angel Stadium — he's the runaway leader in fan voting among the league's designated hitters.
After seeing Guerrero torment their team for years, Rangers fans have enjoyed watching him repeatedly go deep in the heart of Texas. He is among the league leaders in homers (15), batting average (.327) and runs batted in (60), and his 31 RBIs in May were a career high for a month.
Cooperstown may have to wait a little while longer for the 35-year-old who seems to be re-entering his prime.
"He's Vlad, man," Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said of a noticeably trimmer Guerrero. "He's got that Vlad aura around him, that little bit of a bounce. You put that little bit of confidence in him and that's what you're seeing right now."
That swagger was missing for much of an injury-plagued 2009 season in which Guerrero hit .295 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs in 100 games for the Angels. It was the first time he failed to hit .300 with at least 25 homers since his second major league season in 1997. This season, a healthier Guerrero has already equaled his '09 home-run total and surpassed by 10 the number of RBIs he had last year.
Although the Angels and Guerrero's agent discussed a deal that would have kept him in Anaheim, he eventually signed a one-year, $6.5-million contract with the Rangers that included a $9-million mutual option for 2011.
"When free agency comes along things get complicated and it was obvious that Vlad was going to wait and see what was out there and we had to move forward," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said.
And so Guerrero departed after having helped the Angels to five division titles and two appearances in the AL Championship Series. His .319 batting average as an Angel stands as the franchise record, and his 366 total bases and 124 runs during his MVP season are also club bests.
The statistics reflect only part of Guerrero's impact; the perpetually smiling slugger who liked to wear a Superman T-shirt was as much of a force in the clubhouse as on the field.
"The thing we liked about him so much is that days he didn't play, he was at the end of the dugout rooting for his boys out there," Hatcher said. "He just loves the game. To him, it's just going out there on a playground and playing baseball and he brings that to the ballpark every day."
Guerrero seems to bring a little something extra to the Ballpark in Arlington, where his .374 average this season is actually worse than the .394 average he had in 50 previous career games there. His success in Texas made him a natural fit for the Rangers.
"Even when he was over here, he played well in Texas and I kind of figured he was going to sign over there," Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said.
Although Guerrero's numbers are better than those of the player who took his DH spot in Anaheim — Hideki Matsui is hitting .262 with 10 homers and 46 RBIs — the Angels seem pleased that their longtime star has bounced back from a trying season.
"You can't be anything but happy for Vlad," Scioscia said. "I just hope he takes a couple of days off in this series."
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