self-proclaimed "major league fan" of the California Angels, Pete Reynolds had a big smile on his face as the first chilling swig of a Budweiser hit the back of his throat.
"Alright, so we took some time off to regroup," he said. "I just have a feeling that we're back in contention this year."
Although Pete's sentiment was widely shared at The Good Ol' Boys Saloon and Sports Bar on Katella Avenue in Anaheim, his enthusiasm made him a standout amongst the bar's early afternoon patrons. "The crowd here doesn't get going until later in the day," Pete explained. "Hell, most of these guys haven't even been up for an hour yet," he added as his wide grin, sans a full compliment of teeth, once again overtook his face.
As the name suggests, The Good Ol' Boys Saloon and Sports Bar ain't the ESPN Zone. It is not where the hip twentysomethings mix and mingle to sip call brands and catch a little of whatever game is being aired in high def on flat screens while preening and then trolling and prowling past the opposite sex.
The Good Ol' Boys Saloon and Sports Bars is where Anaheim's grizzled good ol' boys (emphasis on ol') huddle around two screens to watch and discuss the action that is taking place at nearby Angels Stadium.
"Man, I'm glad they don't call it The Big Ed anymore," said Pete. "I hated that. Angels Stadium is fine – although most of these guys in here have never called it anything but The Big A."
Built in 1966, The Big A has changed quite a bit over the years. It originally seated around 43,000 but renovations, including a $100 million face-lift in 1996, have increased its seating capacity by more than 2,000 seats. It has also taken on more glitzy Southern California motif with its outfield extravaganza of waterfalls, geysers and palm trees, but it's most famous feature – its nostalgic giant "A" ringed by an angelic halo which stands as a tribute to 1960s kitsch design – is pure throwback.
The Angels have also changed quite a bit. After years of far-less-than-spectacular baseball under the helm of Gene Autry, the Angels finally chalked up a World Series win in 2002 and have since inspired a dedicated following. They have also been sold by The Walt Disney Company to Arturo Moreno, the first Hispanic major-league owner, who ditched their stadium's corporate moniker for a more respectable name.
Still, no matter how much things change or what the stadium is called, for the guys at The Good Ol' Boys Saloon and Sports Bar, things rarely change. Just like it has, for as long as anyone in the place can remember, this neighborhood bar adorned with a flagstone exterior that serves as their home-away-from-home, is the only place the good ol' boys care to watch Angels games. It is a venue that clearly appeals to mature, white, Republican males who proclaim their loyalty to the Angels with well-worn caps rather than $30 Rally Monkeys.
Like the famous "A" over at the stadium, this watering hole is also a classic throwback. You won't find any sushi or freshly made doughnuts like you can get at the stadium. This place offers only American beer, beef jerky and impromptu Three-Ball tournaments. It's a no nonsense place with several pool tables, electronic darts and keno. The interior is stark but clean, lined with wood paneling and a few mirrors. The beer comes only in bottles. It is cold and dirt-cheap. There's a banner draped along a wall that says there is live entertainment to be enjoyed on weekends – local acts who hammer out country and western favorites. It's a cash only venue, and don't even think of ordering a Zima.
The 2004 baseball season was only a little more than two months underway during our visit to The Good Ol' Boys Saloon and Sports Bar, and two things had become clearly evident to the good ol' boys – that the Angeles newly acquired outfielder Vladimir Guerrero had rather easily acclimated himself to American League pitching, and that the Halos had "done themselves some good" by getting themselves one of the best hitters in the game.
At the time, Guerrero was leading the Angels, as well as all American League fielders, in batting average (.348), home runs (12), hits (69), total bases (119), runs scored (45), on-base percentage (.398) and slugging (.590).
"I don't think anyone is really surprised by Vlad's ability," said Pete. "We knew this was a good move. The guy has incredible talent and work ethic. He's one of the hardest workers in the game today. I've been out there at the stadium for batting practice. You should see him. He sets the tone for the practice and he has a real passion for the game," he added with that broad grin.
Pete, the good ol' boys, and other Angels fans weren't the only ones grinning about the acquisition of Guerrero – Angles Manager Mike Scioscia, the team, and Guerrero himself had also been doing their share of teeth bearing due to Guerrero's arrival in Anaheim and his first half performance. And along with the smiles that have come with good play, Guerrero had been showing the pearly whites over the good natured ribbing he had been taking from his teammates, who were displaying toothy grins themselves.
On that overcast June day the Orange County Register reported that Scioscia had recently made plans for some of his rookies to take in a local Renaissance Fair. Knowing that the name "Vladimir" is very Russian and very un-Dominican, his teammates found him the perfect gift while attending the fair and before a game had made a clubhouse presentation of a Dr. Zhivago-style Russian fur hat to Guerrero.
"It gets cold on the north side of the Dominican Republic," Scioscia quipped. "It drops down to about 84 at night in June."
While Guerrero's new fur lid won't be necessary for any trips back home, he also won't be needing it if things keep going as smoothly as they have been in Anaheim, where with his new team, in a new league, and under the spotlight, the formerly obscured Guerrero is flourishing in the warmth of the reception he is receiving from teammates and fans alike.
"Everything feels much better now that I've had time to meet everybody and blend in with what's going on here," Guerrero said. "I feel great. Everybody has made me feel very welcome and it's fun to come here every day."
It's always fun to show up when you're playing the way Guerrero was – showing off your prodigious power, your uncanny batting eye and your incredibly strong arm that can launch a ball from right field to the plate like an incoming scud missile.
The Angel's management and fans knew that Guerrero possessed those talents by what they had seen him do during his career as a Montreal Expo. What they didn't know was how a quiet, reserved, shy guy like Guerrero would deal with the increased media presence and everyday pressure of playing in a major market like Southern California.
That question seemed to have received an answer early on in the season.
"He's got a great personality," Angels closer Troy Percival said. "He's easygoing and he plays the game hard. You look at the veteran guys we have in here – Garret (Anderson), Tim (Salmon), Darin (Erstad), Troy (Glaus). Those are some pretty big-time players, and they all have that work ethic, too. So you know Vlad is going to fit in because all our guys are just like him."
Part of the warmth that Guerrero may have been feeling (aside from his five-year, $70 million contract) came before the season officially began by way of Scioscia's easygoing style. It was during the Angels pre-season that Guerrero got a good dose of Scioscia's humor-filled morning meetings.
"When I come in the morning, the meetings are crazy," Guerrero said halfway through pre-season. "I'm really enjoying it. Everything about Mike makes me laugh. He's always trying to pick on somebody and everybody is laughing all the time."
Scioscia, who seems to have a genuine affection for his right fielder, said that he was pleased to see that Guerrero had been so receptive to the whole concept of bonding through boisterous banter.
"We create an atmosphere that opens up lines of communication for everybody," Scioscia said. "The meetings humanize everybody, and Vlad has a great sense of humor and an incredible passion to play this game. He doesn't need people to go out of their way to make him feel at home. He loves just coming to the park every day. That's enough for him."
But no matter what sort of a sense of humor he may possess, the question loomed – could a shy and reserved family man from Nizao Bani in the Dominican Republic really be able to handle the rigors of playing big league ball under the glare of fans who are chomping at the bit for another World Series and the California media who tend to be far more ruthless than their Montreal counterparts?
His former Expo teammates have said that won't be a problem.
"People say that Vladdy is shy, but he knows what he's doing," said pitcher Javier Vazquez, Guerrero's former teammate who was traded to the New York Yankees during the off-season. "He's very intelligent. People think he's shy and doesn't want to be on a big stage, but I know him. I played with him through the minors, and I know that he just wants to play baseball."
Montreal shortstop Orlando Cabrera agreed: "I think he can handle the media," said Cabrera with a shrug. "He's a very smart guy. His agent (Pat Rooney) is doing an unbelievable job with him, trying to take care of him and teach him what to do in certain situations. So I think Vladdy is getting better with handling the media."
One of the other big questions that surrounded Guerrero when he crossed over to the Junior League was would he be able to adjust quickly to American League pitching, specifically the probability that he would be facing more curveballs and sliders.
As previously stated – that too hasn't been a problem.
"I don't look at it as performing in the American League versus the National League," Guerrero told reporters just prior to the Angels opening day game. "I just do my job. I work hard and I play hard and the rest takes care of itself. I think I'll feel just as comfortable here because I'm playing the same game."
Brad Wilkerson, the Montreal outfielder who was one of Guerrero's best friends on the Expos, thinks that his buddy makes a fair self-assessment. "I don't care if he goes to heaven to try and play baseball," Wilkerson said when told of Guerrero's remarks. "I think he will do well. He is such a natural talent. You can't pitch around him. He hits every pitch."
Hitting every pitch was something that Angels shortstop David Eckstein noticed from the first time he took batting practice with the team's new acquisition. "It's unbelievable some of the things he can do with a bat," said Eckstein. "Sometimes it's just the sound of the ball coming off the bat. The strength in his hands and wrists is just incredible."
While the strength in Guerrero's hands and wrists might prove impressive, his lower back is a different story. He had suffered a herniated disk and missed a month during his last season with the Expos. When he showed up for the Angels spring training, he did so in a back brace, although the team's doctor cleared him for play.
"He's just special," said Percival. "You can tell that every eye in the stadium is on him. Even when he's just standing in the outfield and a ball comes his way, before he even throws the ball, he's already getting a standing ovation. And as far as personality goes, you can rag on him and he laughs all the time. He's just a good guy."
Good guy, schmood guy... what the Angels, their fans, and especially the good ol' boys expect from Guerrero is a stellar talent that can get them back to the October Classic.
That talent was rapidly becoming evident, especially when in a home game against the Boston Red Sox Guerrero set a club record with nine RBIs, hit a pair of home runs, including a go-ahead three-run shot in the sixth inning, as the Halos went on to claim a 10-7 victory. "I don't think I've ever seen a night like I saw tonight with Vlad Guerrero," Scioscia said after the game. "He hit different pitches, different locations, he got us on top every time."
Guerrero had some very special fans in the crowd that night to enjoy that stellar performance – a group of under-privileged kids for whom he regularly provides free tickets for all Angel home games. That was something he began doing when he was with the Expos. He regularly hosted under-privileged kids every Sunday the team played at home, providing them with lunch, VIP tickets to the game and an autograph on their cards that bore his image and stats.
Speaking of those cards that bare his image, as of June 2004 there were 590 different cards featuring Vladimir Guerrero, but the most important of those is of course his rookie offering – the 1995 Bowman # 90. It is a card that has a potential as high as that for the man himself.
Vladimir Alvino Guerrero or "Vladdy" as he is called by family, friends and teammates, is one of nine children and was born on February 9, 1976. His professional career began when he was signed by Expos scouts Fred Ferreira and Arturo DeFreites in 1995. While he chalked up an impressive list of numbers during his eight-year stretch with Montreal, perhaps nothing will ever surpass the now-legendary 502-foot home run he hit on July 28, 2003 off Atlanta's Mike Hampton. The blast was the longest home run hit to left field in the 27-year history of Olympic Stadium and to honor the feat, the Expos erected a "502" marker where the ball landed.
Guerrero ranked among the Expos all-time leaders in every offensive category. In 2002, he became one of only five players in Major League history to record a .300 batting average, 30 HRs, 100 RBIs and 100 runs in five straight seasons, doing so from 1998-2002. His 234 home runs in eight seasons with Montreal still stands as the club record and, since 1998, he has averaged a .325 clip with 99 runs, 37 home runs, 110 RBIs, 20 stolen bases and 12 assists per season. His single-season career bests include a .345 average, 44 home runs in 2000, 131 RBIs in 1999, and 206 hits in 2002.
It's indicators of that sort that point to a future invitation to Cooperstown, the increased desirability and value of his cards and memorabilia, and continued smiles for Pete and the rest of the good ol' boys.
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