Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Vlad the Impaler will strike fear in your heart with neither remorse nor regard

In the Colosseum with a bloodthirsty lion. Swimming the Great Barrier Reef in a red wet suit. Riding through Ramadi while blasting Mudvayne or some other shitty band that should get you killed in this country...

...Pitching to Vladimir Guerrero with the bases loaded...

Mark 'em all down as situations I'd rather avoid. Unfortunately for Zack Greinke and the Royals, the last one presented itself in the first inning of yesterday's game. Greinke threw a decent pitch, a breaking ball off the side of the plate, but Vlad, being Vlad, hammered it to the left-center Jumbotron -- impaled it, really, with no fear, no mercy. No retreat, as those HGH-laced actors in 300 would say.

That punishing act reminded me of a fine Sports Illustrated feature by Esmeralda Santiago three years ago, "The Quiet Warrior" (you'll have to Nexis this if you can, or buy the book Sports Illustrated: Great Baseball Writing). Ms. Santiago begins:

Vladimir. It is a name that conjures up images of caviar, shots of vodka, bitterly cold winters and perhaps even a feisty Cossack horse. So when you see Vladimir attached to a Guerrero, one born and raised in the Dominican Republic, you begin to wonder about the creative impulse that pushed those two names together. "My children's names are all from the Bible, or of saints," Dona Altagracia Guerrero says. Vladimir, Eliezer, Maria Isabel, Julio Cesar and Wilton. Wilton? Well, almost all of her children...

Vladimir the Great, prince of Kiev (956-1015), was a savage warrior with a sword, a barbarian who converted to Christianity, then gave away his fortune, spread the gospel to his countrymen and was later made a saint. Dona Altagracia's Vladimir, born and raised in Nizao Bani, a small town less than an hour southwest of Santo Domingo, is both a Guerrero and a guerrero, a warrior with a bat.

The ball traveled 4
35 feet, but that's only according to Royals PR staff. "Were they measuring the height of it?" Angels manager Mike Scioscia asked afterwards. "If that ball wasn't 550, I don't know what was. That ball was crushed."

Indeed. So that's Vladimir, Warrior Angel, overshadowing Billy Butler's first Major League hit (in his first time up, a well-struck grounder through short and third) and the Royals' valiant comeback attempt (Mark Teahen hit a three-run moonshot of his own in the 3rd, and if Vlad's home run traveled 550 feet, Teahen's went 525... though both were probably in the 450-480 range, in my highly unscientific estimation). The Royals turned what could have been a bad blowout into an entertaining contest, and for that you have to give them credit. Joel Peralta and David Riske even worked well in relief, giving up just one run between them (Peralta's). It was enough to make you forget Greinke suffered another beating on the mound (it seems like he's destined for these kind of good day/bad day swings).

The story of the night, though, is Vlad. He hits the ball real hard.

POSTSCRIPT: Alex Gordon got plunked by a pitch in the 5th, marking the seventh time this season he's been HBP. He's on pace to get hit 42 times this season, which would shatter the team record of 18, set by Mike Macfarlane in 1994 (though if Gordon were to set this record, it'd come with an asterisk, as the '94 season was shortened by the players' strike). The modern-day record for most times HBP in a season -- 50*, set by Ron Hunt of the Montreal Expos in 1971 -- might be out of reach though.

And while we're on this subject, David DeJesus -- who had another solid 2-for-4 night -- was also plunked in the 1st inning. As a team, the Royals have been HBP at least 22 times** this year (sorry for the inexactness... I'll get a more accurate figure later, when it's not 3 a.m.). At this pace, I can tell you with confidence the Royals will break the Major League record for most times HBP as a team by August. I don't know if we should be rooting for this to happen or not, and what it means if it does.

Don Baylor doesn't hold the single-season record for most times HBP in a season, as was previously reported; Hunt does. In fact, Hunt led the league in HBP in seven straight years, according to Baseball Reference.

** UPDATE: It's 22 times HBP on the dot.
Baseball Almanac shows that Toronto holds the AL record for most single-season HBPs -- 92, in 1996. The Royals are on pace for 132.

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