TORONTO – Epy Guerrero was a pioneer in the development of the player pipeline from the Dominican Republic to North America, in the process helping the Toronto Blue Jays become a key player in one of baseball’s most fertile areas.
The impact of his work is still being felt to this day across the game, which is why his death Thursday at age 71 touched so many people.
“When you create the prototype of something that creates an avenue for an industry like Major League Baseball to funnel I don’t know how many professional players to the minor-leagues and big-leagues, it’s a huge legacy to leave behind,” said Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista. “It’s not to be overlooked that outside of the United States, the country that contributes the most to major-league and minor-league talent is the Dominican Republic, and he has one of those stepping stones in that process of how to create the system that’s in place now to get that talent here.”
The Blue Jays did not have details of his death but did send out a tweet of sympathy to this family.
Working under Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick, whom he followed from the Houston Astros to the New York Yankees and finally the Blue Jays, Guerrero helped land franchise giants such as Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado, plus several notable performers like Damaso Garcia and Kelvim Escobar.
His work helped make the Blue Jays a destination of choice for young Dominicans in the 1980's and '90s, a status the team lost at the turn of the century, but has been rekindled under GM Alex Anthopoulos.
Back then, getting seen by Guerrero was a big deal for young Dominicans because it would cement their prospect status.
"Yeah, definitely," said Bautista, who befriended Guerrero while playing against his son Fred while growing up in Santo Domingo, and later getting coached by sons Mike and Sandy with Winter Ball team Tigres del Licey. "He was a great baseball mind."
Long before modern baseball academies tied to big-league clubs were the norm, Guerrero ran a makeshift academy on a rough diamond with a beat-up building to house players who'd sign for pennies in the hopes of making it off the island.
He joined the Blue Jays as Latin America scouting supervisor in 1978, as Gillick sought to help build up the expansion club through a largely untouched talent pool. Guerrero also served briefly as a uniformed coach with Blue Jays in 1981.
Eventually they followed the lead of the Los Angeles Dodgers and built their own complex that Guerrero ran, signing as many players as possible in the hopes some would stick.
It remained that way until Gillick left in 1994 and under Gord Ash he and the Blue Jays, faced with tighter budget restrictions, had an uncomfortable parting of ways in '95.
"We are looking for fewer signings, but signings of quality, rather than quantity," Ash said at the time. "All things come to an end. This relationship has had its ups and downs, but as we head into the next decade, our plan is to focus more out of the Dominican and into other countries like Panama, Venezuela and even Columbia. We will certainly not forget about the Dominican."
Guerrero later worked for the Milwaukee Brewers and continued to run his academy, where Bautista on occasion works out during the off-season.
"He was one of the pioneers in scouting players down there and also creating the baseball academies," said Bautista. "The Blue Jays, alongside him, were one of the first two organizations to develop the concept and put it in practice, and that creates a livelihood for a whole number of people, not only the players playing there. It creates an infrastructure for work for people from transport security, coaches, teachers, cleaning people, cooking staff, every one of those academies employs between 50 and 100 people and it all stems from the original concept of it, and he was one of the first to come up with it."
Two of Guerrero's sons still work for the Brewers: Mike is manager of the triple-A Nashville Sounds, and Sandy is their minor-league hitting co-ordinator. His other two sons are also employed with big-league clubs: Patrick (named after Gillick) is the Latin America co-ordinator for the Los Angeles Dodgers while Fred is the Dominican Republic scouting co-ordinator for the Minnesota Twins.
As a family, their fingerprints are all over Dominican baseball in ways big and small.
For instance, Mike scouted Emilio Bonifacio for the Brewers before the he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"He was one of the biggest scouts in the DR," Bonifacio said of the senior Guerrero.
Jose Reyes learned of Guerrero's death via text messages from friends whom Guerrero signed.
"He was one of the best scouts there, for sure," said Reyes, who didn't know him personally. "I know 100 per cent that everybody in the Dominican knows the stuff he does there. It's a sad day for the Dominican."
The Blue Jays held a moment of silence before Thursday's game against the Baltimore Orioles in his honour.