Guerrero sincere he’s turned life around

By Ken Gurnick
Updated: May 4, 2010

LOS ANGELES — Told that former Dodger Pedro Guerrero says he has cleaned up his life and wants back into baseball, 83-year-old Don Newcombe fires a pitch up-and-in to his fellow alcoholic: “Is he sincere?”

Newcombe was sincere 43 years ago, swearing on the head of his son that he’d never drink again. He rebuilt his life and now is a special advisor to the chairman of the Dodgers. How does Newcombe determine an alcoholic’s sincerity?

“Look in their eyes,” Newcombe said. “When they’re sober, you can see the whites of their eyes.”

Guerrero’s eyes — ever bloodshot back in the day when he threatened pitchers, beat writers and salary arbitrators — were clear as he emerged from exile last month when the Dodgers were in Florida.

Wearing two World Series rings, the 53-year-old was in the Dodgers’ clubhouse visiting first-base coach Mariano Duncan. In 1985, when injuries to others rushed a 22-year-old Duncan into the Opening Day starting lineup, Guerrero opened his home to his fellow Dominican and showed him the way — too often, the wrong way.

“We know Pedro did a lot of stuff you’re not supposed to do,” said Duncan. “He knows people won’t trust him because of what happened in the past. I told him he has to show he’s changed his lifestyle. He told me that the way he lived took 20 years from his life. It takes a real man to say you messed up.”

Duncan, after a 12-year playing career, worked his way through the development ranks into a job on the big league staff, while his buddy, Guerrero, tried to drink himself to death. The game has turned its back on Guerrero and, as his lone true friend still in it, Duncan is reaching out his hand and sticking out his neck.

“I knew Pedro when he was a superstar, and I know him out of baseball.

If one person can tell the truth about the guy, I’m the one,” said Duncan. “For me, when Pedro took me under his wing in ’85, I remember all the things he did for me. Now, I see a lot of changes in Pedro.”

“He used to be really stuck-up, and I think he’s misunderstood because of the way he behaved. I can tell you he’s become a better person now. He goes to church. He stopped drinking. I don’t recommend too many people. I don’t put my reputation in danger. But I’m pretty sure if he gets another chance, he won’t let anybody down.”

That’s what Guerrero is asking for, a second chance. Baseball is forgiving that way. Mark McGwire got one with St. Louis. Ron Washington in Texas. Steve Howe got six of them.

The Dodgers in particular welcome back wayward sons, be they Newcombe (who has risen to the title of special assistant to the owner after drinking himself out of the game) or fellow substance abusers Maury Wills and Lou Johnson, among others.

Guerrero was about as wayward as they come. He was a five-time All-Star, a tri-MVP of the 1981 World Series, twice runner-up for a batting title — and a drunk, his work habits were disruptive to team chemistry and his lifestyle a dangerous influence on younger players like Duncan.

The club put up with his antics for a decade because he could hit.

“He was a talented ballplayer and a lot of fun to be around, but he took the wrong road,” said Hall of Fame manager Tom Lasorda.

Guerrero can’t argue with that.

“I feel I did a good job in the time I played, but not as good as I was supposed to be if I lived the life I’m living now,” Guerrero said. “I would have put up better numbers and been a better person.”

“I’m not a bad guy. I used to come to the park with a hangover every day and I could still play like that. Can you imagine if I had been 100 percent sober all the time? It’s too late now to think about, but I can tell the kids what it did to me.”

And now?

“Now, I feel like a new man,” said Guerrero. “I know I did a lot of wrong things and especially when I was playing. I don’t feel like I did baseball like an everyday job. I let down a lot of people. Now, I’m a new man. I go to church, I’m reading the Bible, I pray every day.”

“The last three years, I quit drinking. That was my big problem. Now, I’m working with kids in the Dominican. I teach the kids the game and work with them and help them get good enough to get a contract. I tell them to stay away from drugs and drinking. I’m 100 percent different.”

Guerrero said he quit drinking after being hospitalized with high blood pressure and being told by his doctor that “I was killing myself.”

Guerrero sees 16 former teammates working for the Dodgers and wants to join them.

“I’ve been trying to get back for a long time, but you know how it is,” Guerrero said. “It’s kind of hard after so many years, so many things happened.”

Wills, whose life might have been saved by the intervention of the same Dodgers official who traded Guerrero — Fred Claire — cautions Guerrero to be patient.

“He’s got to earn his way back in,” said Wills. “He has to be visible, doing productive things that prove he’s in a good state of being. It won’t come on his timetable, it comes on somebody else’s and it never seems soon enough. And they won’t go on what he says. They want to see it.”

Guerrero spoke to current Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who managed Guerrero after his trade to the Cardinals. He also asked for help from former teammate and current Reds manager Dusty Baker.

“Joe Torre deserves an apology from me,” Guerrero said. “I had one of the best managers, but I didn’t appreciate anything about the game back then. A lot of us don’t appreciate what we have. All I wanted to do was party every night.”

Said Torre: “I had as much of a love/hate relationship with him as any player. You’d get angry with him, but he always had a good heart. He’s part of the reason I tell players they’re only here for a period of time. You think it lasts forever. I know I felt that way.”

“But it can end abruptly. It’s a shame. We do help people get back in the game. He has to build the trust back with the history he’s had. George Steinbrenner was as good as anybody taking care of people who wanted another chance.”

Guerrero said his abused body forced a premature retirement in 1992. In the nearly two decades since, he’s twice made headlines and wishes he hadn’t: he was acquitted on federal cocaine conspiracy charges in ’99, when his attorney argued that Guerrero didn’t understand what he was doing, and in a bizarre 911 phone call from O.J. Simpson accusing Guerrero of drug use (he was not charged).

“I know I did a lot of bad things, but I’m different now,” Guerrero said. “Church, religion helps me a lot. It was either my life or drinking. Now, I go to the gym. I never did that when I played. I never lifted, never did anything to take care of myself. I just hit. I walk every day, I stay away from junk food, I eat good.”

“You see, I’m different now.”