When we think of soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee Vladimir Guerrero’s outstanding career, we might recall his 2004 American League MVP season with the Anaheim Angels, when he carried his new squad to the postseason with a scorching .363/.424/.726 triple-slash line in September. Or perhaps we’d picture another Angels-era moment, a play that seems to be everyone’s favorite Guerrero highlight: that time he somehow blooped a hit on a pitch that bounced in front of home plate.
But many of Guerrero’s top moments came in relative obscurity, as a member of the (late, lamented) Montreal Expos. Although fans of the big-market Atlanta Braves and New York Mets got to see him play on television with some frequency, Guerrero was mostly touted as baseball’s best-kept secret during his peak, routinely playing before microscopic audiences at Stade Olympique. He was baseball’s equivalent of an indie band on the cusp of national discovery — the hipster fan’s alternative to mainstream favorites like Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds. And while some assorted clips do exist of Guerrero’s feats with his first MLB team, it was also the era right before MLB.TV permanently killed the notion of an underground star. Guerrero might have been the last truly great player to bear that title.
Certainly, no recent Hall of Famer was seen by fewer people in person during his best seasons than Guerrero. From 1998 to 2002, Guerrero produced 29.5 wins above replacement (WAR)1 for the Expos, marking the top five-year stretch of his career. Over that span, an average of just 10,038 fans came to see each of Guerrero’s home games, according to attendance data from Baseball-Reference.com. That’s the fewest of any HOF member whose career took place during the expansion era (since 1961), including likely 2018 inductees Chipper Jones, Jim Thome and Trevor Hoffman:
|Top 10||Years||Pos||Team(s)||WAR||AVG. Att/Game|
|Randy Johnson||1998-2002||P||SEA/ARI/ HOU||43.1||35,791|
That number stands out even more when you consider that Guerrero’s peak straddled the 1990s and 2000s, a consistent period of record-high attendance in the major leagues. All of the other least-watched Hall members on the list above came from the 1970s, when MLB-wide attendance per game had barely budged since the ’50s. By the time Guerrero came along, though, attendance was cresting after two decades of incredible growth. There’s a reason nine of the 10 most-watched HOFers came from the ’90s.
But playing in a crumbling, derelict ballpark north of the Canadian border, for a franchise whose roster was gutted after the 1994 strike derailed a season many still believe was destined for a championship, Guerrero was the ultimate under-the-radar superstar. For example, he finished only 13th in MVP voting in 1998 despite producing the second-best season of his career by WAR (and tying fellow likely Chipper Jones for fifth in WAR among NL position players). During his final four seasons in Montreal, Guerrero had three seasons with a quadruple-digit on-base plus slugging (OPS), yet he finished in the top five of MVP voting only once.
Of course, in some ways the privacy of Montreal also added to Guerrero’s mystique. In combination with his thrilling style of play — he loved to swing at (and hit) anything in the same area code as the plate, and he rifled down base runners with a cannon of an arm in right field — there was a certain romance to the image of the mega-talented Guerrero toiling away thanklessly for a soon-to-be-relocated shell of a franchise. He helped2 drag the Expos to surprising respectability in seasons like 2002, when they beat the odds to finish second in the NL East with 83 wins despite owning the league’s lowest payroll. And when Guerrero was finally given the spotlight of a bigger market in 2004, he made the most of it in MVP fashion.
It made for a great narrative arc to the career of an all-time great player. However, it’s still a shame more people didn’t get to see Guerrero play during his peak seasons. Nowadays, we take it for granted that we can watch small-market stars whenever we want via the power of streaming. But Guerrero serves as a reminder of a time not so long ago, when brilliant individual performances could still be limited to an extremely small audience of lucky admirers.