Some men are myths, but they’re all still men, in the world. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrived in Toronto carrying his father’s name, and his father’s legacy, and the legacy of his father’s most famous beautifully dead baseball franchise, draped on his back. There is no more trumpeted young player in baseball that Vlad the younger. He is Zion Williamson, but earthbound. He doesn’t go flying; the baseballs do.
But Vlad Jr. seemed like he’d been here forever. He bombed some home runs in batting practice in a friendly competition with the hulking Rowdy Tellez. He smiled that easy, beaming smile. He looked at home, because he was. Manager Charlie Montoyo was asked if he had ever seen a player this comfortable, this young.
“No,” Montoyo said. “Never seen it. Not anywhere. Which is pretty cool, to be that cool … that’s the impression I had with him the whole time, in spring training, the whole time — (it’s) special, to be like that. I would be nervous, I know that for sure. I don’t know if it’s because he grew up in the clubhouse, maybe it makes him more relaxed. But he is relaxed.”
He was asked what he would tell the kid before he took the field, and Montoyo said, “Just be yourself. Keep having fun. You know, there’s not much to say to him … just be you.”
That was the right advice. Vlad Jr. carries so much myth: the eponymous, voluminous boy-child of his legendary father, the Dominican natural who grew up so poor he drank from puddles. Vladimir Guerrero Sr. was a primal force who could throw, run, and chase any pitch he liked, hitting them off his shoe tops to the moon. Vlad Sr. never read scouting reports, never studied for the test, and stepped into the box as this legendary figure who left even other major leagues gasping in awe.
As then-Montreal Expo Michael Barrett once told Dan Le Batard, “he’s one of the wonders of our world … he’s so natural, so pure.” Then-Phillies reliever Jose Santiago disagreed, saying, “That guy is not from this planet. He’s an extraterrestrial.” Asked for the best hitter he ever saw, Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said, “Vlad Guerrero Sr. Not just saying that because his son’s here. But that I played with, yes. He hit every pitch. If it was in the dirt, everywhere, he’ll hit ’em. Yes.”
The son is from this planet, a different kind of prodigy, carrying everything he carries with such apparent ease. After his pre-game availability Guerrero started to the field, but was told it was too soon. He sat next to outfielder Socrates Brito and leaned back in the chair belonging to reliever Joe Biagini, and when Biagini arrived he told Vlad, stay there, no problem. And, a little awkwardly, kissed the kid’s hand.
“Can I take a picture of you in my locker?” asked Biagini. “I can send it to my family. They’ll be very excited.” He didn’t actually take the picture. Guerrero started out to the field again, but was again told, too soon. He stopped and inspected the two World Series trophies outside the clubhouse, in their glass cases; he squatted to inspect the bottom one.
And when the 20-year-old with the lumpy frame and the blond dreadlocks and the young god’s swing stepped in for batting practice he was cheered by the smattering of fans who were there after they opened the gates early, as the BP was live-streamed on Sportsnet. When he took the field he was cheered by the 15,000 or so, maybe more, who were in their seats 15 minutes before first pitch. And when he stepped into the batter’s box for the first time, he was cheered by the half-full crowd at the Rogers Centre, on a rainy Friday night. His father watched from behind the cage.
He had worn his dad’s Expos jersey to the park. Mythology upon mythology.
“It was more to honour my dad,” said Vlad Jr., through an interpreter. “Since I was a kid I was running around with my dad in the clubhouse and the field, and I just wanted to bring that back today.”
LeBron James once said he regretted naming his eldest son LeBron James Jr., because of the expectations that came with it. But unlike his father, Vlad Jr. is said to be a studious baseball savant, able to predict pitch sequences, never chasing them. He let a fastball go outside in his first at-bat, but it was called a strike and he grounded out. He is an astonishing blend of power and discipline. Guerrero Jr. told a story about chasing a bad pitch when he was seven years old and bonking it off his own nose; he said that’s when he stopped swinging at bad balls. A genius.
When the game started there were still empty seats, and still one of the best crowds of the young year. This team’s rebuild can’t be saved by one man, in a town where Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay didn’t sell enough tickets. He could be his father, or better, and it will be wasted unless the club surrounds him with talent, far and wide. Mike Trout might be the best baseball player ever. The Angels don’t matter anyway.
“Well, there’s things that I cannot control,” Vlad Jr. said. “(Cavan) Biggio, (Bo) Bichette, they’re all playing great, and whenever it’s their turn to be in the big leagues, then it will be all right … I’m just going to give my 100 per cent. I’ll give the best of me. And in time, we’ll see what happens.”
True. Nothing bad has happened yet. Nothing’s gone wrong. He is still this young myth, this icon, this 20-year-old kid in a town where baseball is still a little lost. We should enjoy the magic that Vlad Guerrero Jr. makes, the genius, before it’s time to worry about him, and the bigger picture. No, he can’t save it by himself. He can only try.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur