Between the seams: The free swingers

Spider-Man opened this month with Tobey Maguire in the starring role. Some baseball people wondered whether the assignment shouldn't have gone to Vladimir Guerrero instead.

Guerrero, the Montreal Expos slugger, has some of the longest arms and quickest hands in baseball, attributes which allow him to make contact with almost any pitch. High, low, inside, outside. None of that matters to the Expos' dazzling right fielder.

"Vladi has those Spider-Man arms," said Florida Manager Jeff Torborg, who managed Guerrero in Montreal last season. "He can reach anything."

Along with such players as Ichiro, Alfonso Soriano, Nomar Garciaparra and Julio Franco, Guerrero is the standard bearer for a disappearing breed in the major leagues: the bad-ball hitter. Their greatness runs counter to a growing trend that emphasizes strike-zone discipline, patience and a high on-base percentage.

Between 1992 and 2000, average on-base percentage in the major leagues rose from .322 to .345. Pitches per plate appearance rose from 3.69 to 3.80. Walks increased from one every 10.45 at-bats to one every 9.19.

There's no doubt patience is in vogue.

Bad-ball hitters aren't interested in following the crowd. They go up hacking.

Detroit first baseman Dmitri Young, another bad-ball lover, tells the story of a Guerrero home run at Cinergy Field when Young was playing for the Cincinnati Reds.

"Vladimir hit an upper-deck shot off Dennys Reyes that was this high off the ground," Young says, bending down to place his hand at carpet level in the Tigers' clubhouse. "It was a slider low and he golfed it. I still don't know how that got out. I guess when you have an arm span of eight feet, you can do that."

Guerrero knows his reputation, and he isn't about to apologize. With a career batting average of .319 and an average of 39.5 home runs the past four years, why should he?

"I've always been able, since I was in the minor leagues, to not have a strike zone," Guerrero said through a translator. "I go to swing. When the pitch comes, I don't have to get a pitch down the middle. If I like the pitch, even if it's 15 inches off the plate and that's the pitch I wanted, I'm swinging."

Yogi Berra has caught Guerrero's act, and the Hall of Fame catcher can relate, even though Berra is short and squatty while Guerrero, seven inches taller, is long and gangly.

"I was up here," Berra, 76, says as he pantomimes a helicopter swing. "The high ball, I liked. Sometimes I'd swing, sometime I didn't. The thing was, I could see it good. It probably came from Joe Medwick. He was my idol. He swung at bad balls."

In later years, Berra saw traces of himself in a pair of Pittsburgh Pirates stars: catcher Manny Sanguillen and the late Roberto Clemente.

"Clemente was like me," Berra says. "He liked balls up and away. Sanguillen swung sort of like me."

Asked to explain his philosophy, Berra offers up a pseudo-Yogiism.

"If you see it, hit it," he said. "Sometimes you don't see it. I'd let it go and the next time I'd swing at it. I saw it better the next time."

Confused? Sanguillen, who had almost as many doubles (205) as walks (223) in his 13-year career, understands perfectly.

"If you keep your balance, you'll hit, no matter where the ball is," he said.

Laughing, Sanguillen recalls the day at Wrigley Field when he hit not one but two balls that bounced in the dirt. Put them both into play, too.

"Ferguson Jenkins threw me some kind of palm ball or something with the bases loaded," he says, "and I hit a double to left field."

Sanguillen's first two home runs in the minor leagues came on pitchouts.

Sanguillen mentions Garciaparra, Juan Gonzalez and Pudge Rodriguez as modern hitters who embrace the bad-ball method.

"I enjoy watching Garciaparra," Sanguillen says. "He swings at everything."