Tuesday, August 11, 2009

By Geoff Bilau - Angelswin.com Senior Editor

To paraphrase LL Cool J, don't call it a comeback; he's been here for years.

An Angels fan base that has grown increasingly more fickle in recent years, however, seemed to need a reminder that Vladimir Guerrero is still, in fact, their daddy.

Whether due to the more frequent stints on the disabled list, the emergence of younger stars (Kendry Morales) and newer, more exciting faces (Bobby Abreu) or early emotional preparations for what could be Guerrero's final season at the Big A, Angels fans have most definitely distanced themselves from the man who arrived on their doorstep six years ago selling a brand of baseball dominance many had never before witnessed in person.

His freakish hitting skills and sheer jubilation at playing the game of baseball were at once captivating and infectious. You may not have watched every pitch of the game, but you certainly stopped whatever you were doing to watch Guerrero's at-bats.

Already a four-time All-Star during his first seven seasons in the baseball purgatory that was known as Montreal, Guerrero in 2004 unveiled his star into the bright Southern California sun, where all of baseball could finally see it. He led the Angels to their first Western Division title in 18 years and was rewarded with the American League MVP award.

Subsequent seasons brought more division titles, more All-Star appearances, more hardware ... more happy Angels fans.

But then came May 2008. Guerrero was suddenly human, enduring a dreadful slump the likes of which Angels fans had never seen from "Super Vlad." He batted just .219 for the month and for the first time since he arrived in Anaheim was not elected to play in the All-Star Game. Guerrero suddenly looked old. Early critics said his bat had slowed down, that he was unable or unwilling to make adjustments; every third strike on a pitch a foot outside in the dirt further evidence of their claims.

Further compounding matters was a balky knee that made his already awkward running appear almost painful and limited the number of innings that he could play in the field. Was Guerrero's star burning out that quickly, his body doing to him what so many opposing pitchers could not?

Guerrero's second half of 2008, however, seemed to answer that question with a resounding no, as he came storming back with a .330 average and 41 RBI in 56 games.

Last November, Guerrero finally opted to have surgery to clean out scar tissue and debris in the right knee that had bothered him the previous few seasons. He vowed to be stronger and more durable back on two strong legs for 2009.

"I'm looking forward to it," Guerrero told the Los Angeles Times in February. "Everything feels so good, everything is clean now, but I don't want to predict any numbers for stolen bases or say how I'm going to run in the outfield. I prefer to wait."

Guerrero worked hard and was fit enough to return for Opening Day. It was a brief return, though, as a torn pectoral muscle limited him to one extra base hit through eight games and soon forced him back to the disabled list. When he returned in late May, his struggles came back, as well. He went 26 games without a home run and only four doubles. Meanwhile, Torii Hunter and Chone Figgins were carrying an offense that seemed to be dragging Guerrero along with it. Whispers about the end of his career returned — and grew louder with each game.

As the calendar turned to July, however, Guerrero started to find his groove once more, homering in consecutive games for the first time all season on July 4-5. He even felt good enough to make his first appearance back in the outfield. Two days later, he was back on the DL, this time after tweaking a muscle behind his left knee while fielding a ball in right field.

During the month Guerrero was sidelined (along with Hunter), the Angels offense exploded, averaging better than seven runs per game. Powered by Figgins, Abreu, Morales, Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis, the Angels lineup became so potent, many wondered if it even still had room for an aging, seemingly broken down former MVP. And when Mike Scioscia inserted Guerrero back in the clean up spot upon his return, the move was called everything from "unwise" to "ridiculous."

Which brings us back to our mislabeled "comeback." In the seven games since his return, Guerrero has batted .357 and clubbed four home runs, including No. 400 of his career, the eventual game-winner on Monday night.

And as the 37,388 fans at the Big A demanded — and received — a curtain call, it appeared that all was right again in Anaheim. Vlad was back. Angels fans not only remembered why they missed him, but perhaps realized for the first time that they really did miss him.

Just don't call it a comeback. It's more like "The Way We Were."
Love to hear what you think!


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