Vladimir Guerrero

The legend of Montreal outfielder Vladimir Guerrero seems to grow exponentially.

So few have seen him play, yet so much is being said about Guerrero, the game's most mysterious superstar, thanks to his exceptional talent and his Expos' utter lack of exposure.

To most fans, Guerrero, 24, remains nothing more than a highlight. Or an anecdote. Or a whisper. Never a full game. While the limited publicity is disadvantageous to Guerrero, sometimes the stories might even surpass his considerable accomplishments.

Despite being one of the better young teams around (at least that's what the standings say), the Expos are scheduled for no national U.S. telecasts, and no local telecasts either, as new Montreal owner Jeffrey Loria has stuck to his plan not to "give away" the broadcasts.

The Expos weren't drawing, either, despite their 25-19 record through yesterday and young stars such as second baseman Jose Vidro, pitcher Javier Vazquez and Guerrero.

The U.S. media often treat the Expos as a mirage, or worse, a minor-league team. It doesn't help, either, that Guerrero, who speaks almost exclusively Spanish, plays in a city where virtually everyone speaks French and/or English. He's reticent to do interviews in any language.

It isn't unusual for a writer to spend three days in Montreal trying to facilitate an interview but spending the time instead watching Guerrero don headphones and gleefully play PlayStation baseball. Legend has it that he'll swing at everything in the PlayStation game, too.

Even though he hacks from Hamilton, he almost always hits what he swings at, and that's part of the legend, too. There's a story that Guerrero once took a one-hop pitch from Expo pitcher Carl Pavano when both were in the minor leagues, and lined it for a double. Teammate Rondell White says he knows that whenever a pitcher tries to brush back or knock down Guerrero, invariably Guerrero will rise to homer in that very at-bat.

"When someone throws inside, I say, `Uh, oh, don't get him upset, don't get him upset,' " White said. "He hits a home run every time."

Several folks who actually have seen him play have nominated him as the game's best player. He has one of the "best two or three" outfield arms in the game, according to Expo General Manager Jim Beattie, though it's hard to think of someone who has a better one. And he has tremendous speed, though he has yet to master the art of stealing bases. (He's been thrown out on five of eight attempts this year.)

Everyone loves something different about Guerrero. "I like his durability," Expo Manager Felipe Alou said. "He shows up every day to play nine innings. He's a good late-inning hitter. I know from when I played there are players who do get tired. But he gets better as the game progresses, and he gets better as the season progresses."

Late in close games Guerrero was batting .450 and slugging .900.

A notoriously so-so starter - he was a career .285 hitter in April and May coming into this year - Guerrero's big beginning is causing as much of a stir as possible without TV coverage.

Through yesterday, Guerrero was batting .390 with 13 home runs and 39 RBI. His slugging percentage was .732.

"He's like a slowpitch softball player talking to the pitcher and yelling, `Throw it over the plate,' " said Expo vice president Fred Ferreira, who signed Guerrero in 1993.

The reason Guerrero can be successful swinging at almost everything, Alou pointed out, is that he can hit anything. "If a pitcher throws high and inside, and he's anticipating it, he can hit tape-measure home runs," Alou said.

Guerrero has three years to go in what will be the most cost-efficient contract of the modern age, $28 million for five years.

As with most things, the first Guerrero legend probably remains the best. After spending two months in the Dodgers' Dominican academy, Vladimir was delivered to an Expo tryout camp by an unknown man on a motorcycle. Guerrero, too poor to afford matching shoes that fit (he jammed a sock into one that was too big), pulled a groin muscle in the first inning of the tryout game, while grounding out. But Ferreira had seen an earlier 60-yard time of 6.7 seconds and a few laserlike throws and signed Guerrero immediately, reportedly for $2,000.

Legend has it Ferreira gave the man on the bike $200. If true, that $2,200 ranks with the $125,000 the Yankees paid for Babe Ruth as the best baseball deal ever made.