September 14, 2003: Vlad Guerrero hits for the cycle
Baseball is a funny game; you never know what might happen, even when two teams are playing for nothing coming down to the end of the season. On the afternoon of September 14, 2003, the Montreal Expos hosted the last-place New York Mets at Olympic Stadium. The Mets were just playing out the string at the end of a disappointing season; they were sitting at 63-84, 28 games out of first place coming into the game.
Tom Glavine, looking for career win number 252, was on the mound for the Mets. He was having a miserable season by his standards, with a 9-12 record and a 4.36 ERA. He faced the Expos’ young rising-star Zach Day in front of a good late-season turnout of 21,417. The Expos were hovering above .500 at 75-74 but were 17 games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves. Hoping to just see the home team win, the crowd saw Vladimir Guerrero put on a show they would never forget.
Guerrero’s 2003 campaign was his eighth, and last, as an Expo. There was very little chance that Major League Baseball — MLB ran the Expos that season as it tried sell the team and had hoped to trade Guerrero for some prospects — would sign him and saddle the team’s new owner with a contract that promised to fall in the $50 million to $75 million range. So, Guerrero was essentially on a season-long audition. But everyone tried to lowball the Expos, and MLB was not going to just give him away. He had been plagued by injuries and was on the disabled list with a herniated disk from June 5 to July 20. The injury ruined any chance of trading Guerrero, as teams didn't know how healthy he truly was. Despite all of this, Guerrero entered this game with 23 home runs and 74 RBIs, and was hitting .321 in just over 350 at-bats.
Guerrero doubled to right field to lead off the second inning with the Expos already in a 3-0 hole. He came home with the Expos’ first run on Michael Barrett’s triple to deep center field. Joe Vitiello’s grounder to short brought Barrett home and made the score 3-2.
The Expos tied the game in the next inning and Guerrero got a single, but one had nothing to do with the other. Brad Wilkerson led off with a walk, moved to third on a single by Jose Vidro, and scored on Orlando Cabrera’s sacrifice fly. Guerrero singled, moving Vidro to second, but the Expos couldn’t score any more runs.
The Expos took the lead for good in the fifth. With two out, Cabrera reached first after being hit by a pitch and scored when Guerrero tripled off the right-field wall over Roger Cedeno. Guerrero scored on Todd Zeile's single to make the score 5-3 after five innings.
Guerrero knew he was close to the cycle when he stepped to the plate with one on to face Dan Wheeler in the seventh. All he needed now was the home run. “The first pitch was a breaking ball for a strike and then I was looking for the breaking ball and I got it,” he said after the game. “There was just one at-bat to go and I just went up there and tried to swing as hard as I could and see what happens and it happened.”1 Guerrero crushed the ball to deep right field and knew it was gone right away as he just flipped his bat down and started his slow home-run trot. His two-run shot completed the scoring in the Expos’ 7-3 win.
“He knew they were going to throw nothing he could pull, so he stayed back to hit that breaking-ball pitch and took it the other way. He’s the only one who can do that. That's crazy,” Cabrera said. “He was in the zone and he knew he had to take it the other way and he did. He's capable of doing all that stuff.”2
Brad Wilkerson was also impressed by his teammate’s abilities: “It was just amazing. I was sitting in the dugout and I said, ‘He's going to do it. He didn't try to do too much. He took the ball the other way. He got the pitch he could hit hard. It’s a special moment to do something like that.”3
While the Expos were happy for their star outfielder, they wondered aloud what might have been if Guerrero had played the whole season. Despite his missing almost two months the Expos had a winning record coming into the game. “What’s sad is I wonder where this team would have been if he hadn’t been hurt. That's the only thing I think about,” said general manager Omar Minaya. “I believe we had a team here that was as good as any team in the National League.”4
Guererro became the sixth Expo to hit for the cycle, joining Wilkerson, Rondell White, Chris Speier, Tim Foli, and Tim Raines. He was the second Expo to do it during the 2003 season; Wilkerson had accomplished the feat on June 24 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Oakland’s Eric Byrnes and Cleveland’s Travis Hafner were the only other players to hit for the cycle that year.
The Expos became the first team since the 1998 Colorado Rockies to have two players (Dante Bichette and Neifi Perez) hit for the cycle in the same season. Before this game, the closest Guerrero had ever been to a cycle was in Double-A ball at Harrisburg in 1996. He was missing the double and hit a ball into the gap but stopped at first for a single.
Sadly for the Expos, Guerrero’s cycle contributed to his passing the season-long audition; he signed a five-year, $70 million contract with the Anaheim Angels before the 2004 campaign. Yet another player exited through the Olympic Stadium’s revolving door of magnificent talent.
This article appeared in “Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos” (SABR, 2016), edited by Norm King. To read more articles from this book, click here.
In addition to the sources listed in the notes, the author consulted:
1 Bill Ladson, “Vladimir Guerrero Hits for Cycle Against Mets,” MLB.com, September 15, 2003.
2 Associated Press, “Guerrero Stages One-Man Show,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2003.