TORONTO – These types of coronations, overflowing with the euphoric joy inherent to the optimism of real hope, are exceedingly rare. A rush of fans to the ballpark for batting practice, oohs and ahhs punctuating every swing. A World-Series-sized media contingent documenting every moment. VIPs, entourages and hangers-on at each turn. Ovations at every opportunity, even for the simple fielding of a foul groundball, just because. In so many ways, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s debut was a scene like none other in Toronto Blue Jays history, even before he led off the ninth with a double down the first base line ahead of Brandon Drury’s walkoff, two-run homer in a 4-2 victory over the Oakland Athletics.
"It was exciting," Guerrero, in his typically understated way, said afterwards.
The best recent comparable to the vibe at Rogers Centre on Friday was July 29, 2015, when Troy Tulowitzki made his debut after being acquired from the Colorado Rockies. There was an electricity that night in recognition that the franchise’s entire outlook had shifted with the addition of one dynamic player. The sense was similar this time around as fans delighted in every little thing Guerrero did, understanding that suddenly a key part of the future they’ve been waiting for is here.
"Let’s go Vladdy! Let’s go Vladdy!" a crowd of 28,688 shouted from its feet each time he stepped to the plate, and roared in delight when he poked a borderline four-seamer called a strike against him earlier in the game into right field off Yusmeiro Petit in the ninth. Alen Hanson came in to pinch run and after a Billy McKinney sacrifice and a Teoscar Hernandez lineout, Drury hammered another four-seamer over the wall in centre to trigger pandemonium.
Afterwards, Guerrero dumped a water cooler on Drury, who before the game was offered another day off by manager Charlie Montoyo, but instead said he wanted to play, and started at second base after being displaced at third.
In the ninth, Montoyo "said ‘time for you to be hero’ and I said, ‘OK,’" Drury relayed with a wide grin.
So there will definitely be more happy around the Blue Jays rebuild now. Fun seems to ride shotgun with the 20-year-old, who appears almost oblivious to the circus around him, hovering above the fray.
Yet amid the jubilation, it’s worth keeping in mind that Guerrero’s ascension is only a beginning, not an end. His clock has started, and the onus is firmly on the Blue Jays’ front office to sufficiently build around him so that his peak isn’t squandered the way those of Carlos Delgado, Vernon Wells and Roy Halladay were.
Along with those already in the majors, the Blue Jays still have the likes of Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Anthony Alford and Nate Pearson coming, and that’s a promising base to work from. But asking all those young players to both reach their potential and time together is a lot. Some bold strikes will also be required to build a pitching staff, especially if Marcus Stroman — brilliant Friday in seven innings of one-hit ball — and Aaron Sanchez are traded this summer, as expected.
That’s why the Blue Jays still have a lot of work to do, and right now the hopes of fans and needs of the organization are all being pinned on Guerrero, a focal point not only locally, but also for baseball fans across Canada thanks to his father’s history with the Montreal Expos, passionate supporters in the Dominican Republic and the wider national baseball audience.
Asked before the game if the expectations for him were fair, Guerrero, speaking through translator Hector Lebron, replied simply, "I’ll give the best of me and with time we’ll see what happens."
To a degree, growing up in the big-league clubhouses with his Hall of Fame dad prepared him for the circus that will surround him. Few athletes of any age, let alone ones only a month removed from their teenaged years, look as comfortable in the hot seat as Guerrero, who arrived at the ballpark wearing his dad’s No. 27 Expos jersey.
"It’s pretty cool to be that cool," said Montoyo.
Gurrero also showed tremendous feel throughout a day that was all about him, by trying not to make it all about him. "The advice of my teammates," was his reply, for instance, when asked about some things he’d remember. "They treated me like I was here for 10 years. Everybody was very nice and supported me the entire game. That’s really what I’m taking out of this game."
Still, there’s a lot that Guerrero is carrying and it’s impossible to know exactly how he’s feeling. He’s been consistently guarded in his public comments, rarely revealing much, leaving others to paint the picture of what he’s really like.
When general manager Ross Atkins was asked what Guerrero’s arrival signalled for the progress of the Blue Jays’ rebuild, he began his reply by describing the third baseman’s "warmth" and the way "teammates embrace him and care about him and like being around him."
"That level of warmth and connectivity and bringing people together is, in our view, very, very powerful," he said. "Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, Brandon Drury, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, many, many more, have an impact on this clubhouse. We ultimately feel that Vladdy’s impact is going to be a very powerful one. …
"Having grown up in the clubhouse it’s just so realistic to him to think about him not just making an impact in playing, but being great and being exceptional. You don’t come across that often. And we’re very fortunate as an organization to have that potential."
Ultimately, though, making the most of that potential is what counts, which is why even amid the celebratory nature of Guerrero’s arrival, the ever-present talk about his defence remained.
To demonstrate how omnipresent that chatter is, when triple-A Buffalo manager Bobby Meacham broke news of the promotion, he jokingly started the conversation by telling Guerrero that he needed to get better in the field.
"I told him, ‘OK, I’ll be here the next day,"’ relayed Guerrero. "And he said, ‘Well, there’s a problem, I won’t be able to help you because you’re going to the big-leagues.’"
Guerrero made good on two defensive chances Friday, charging in to pick a Stephen Piscotty chopper on a short hop and throwing across the diamond on the run in the fourth, and then moving to his left to snare a Chad Pinder smash before relaying to first for the out in the seventh.
"I wanted that groundball in the first inning to get those butterflies out of the way," said Guerrero. "But it happened in the fourth inning and I felt very good the rest of the way."
Said Montoyo: "You’ve got to be comfortable to make that play on the slow roller. That’s when I knew he was relaxed."
While one game doesn’t determine anything, he certainly showed the "exceptional hands" and plus arm-strength Atkins mentioned when asked for an assessment of where Guerrero’s defence stands right now.
What he ultimately turns into on the hot corner remains a moving target.
"Is he somewhat below average for major-league third baseman? We’ll see," Atkins said. "He could come here and perform as an average third baseman, but we want him to be great and we’re shooting for him to be exceptional, not just average."
Really, they’re not only shooting for it, but counting on it, especially at the plate, especially as the expected anchor for a work-in-progress core. But even if Guerrero does his part and meets all those expectations, even if he’s as good as advertised, it won’t matter if the Blue Jays don’t do their part by supplementing around him, ensuring they don’t waste everything he offers.