TORONTO – In trying to rationalize the emotionally hypercharged reaction to Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s rest day this week, perhaps the most revelatory insight to be drawn is in precisely how important the slugging third baseman has already become to the team’s fanbase.
Look, for obvious reasons, the 20-year-old was going to be disproportionally popular on the Toronto Blue Jays as the leading harbinger of hope on a rebuilding club. Factor in how much fun he is on the field, along with how insanely good he is, and it’s easy to understand why.
But for fans to be so passionate about someone just 22 games into his big-league career, and for them to turn his playing time into an article of faith is truly remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented, at least in local circles.
It’s without hyperbole then that manager Charlie Montoyo, asked if he held his breath when Guerrero turned his left ankle coming out of the batter’s box on a sixth-inning single Tuesday night, smiled and replied: “Everybody (did).”
That’s a lot to put on anyone, let alone a 20-year-old, yet despite the near-constant hurricane that surrounds him, Guerrero walks unfazed in the eye of the storm. The cool manner in which he’s handled himself amid the controversy this week brought to mind something triple-A Bisons manager Bobby Meacham said at the end of last season in an interview with Amy Moritz of the Buffalo News.
Asked what about Guerrero most impressed him, Meacham replied: “To me, the biggest thing is how he handles himself. Not even on the field. I’m talking about off the field where, I’m not even thinking about fans, I’m thinking about how our organization tries to help him along to grow. And sometimes it gets in the way. We want this special program for you. We want this special way of nutrition. We want this special way to lift weights. We want this special way to take ground balls. We want to make sure of everything, right?
“And it’s grinding on a player, any person really, to have every single day that way for six months for however many years he’s been with us,” Meacham continued. “That’s tough to handle, to take it all and sort through what you need to be able to go out and perform at 7 o’clock after all that. He’s done a great job of sorting through things. He’s done a great job of I think filtering out the stuff that’s not going to help him for 7 o’clock, but you can tell he understands what everyone’s doing. He understands everyone is trying to help me, but I’m not going to let it get in the way of being good.
“He knows when he runs a ball out what that means to his teammates. When he goes first to third it’s not just for him and the Blue Jays. He knows how it’s going to make everyone around him feel. He senses that. That’s what leaders do.”
Meacham is a really insightful dude, carrying the wisdom of lessons learned the hard way during nearly four decades in pro ball. And the more you stop to consider all he says there, the more impressive what Guerrero is already becomes.
Everybody wants a piece of the kid – the fans so excited to see him; media eager to provide content to satiate that public interest; the front office that desperately needs him to max out his potential and whose fate, to some degree, is tied to his success; the coaching staff charged with nurturing and leveraging his talent; the high-performance department staff that is paid to keep him on the field; the Hall of Fame father who gets an extension of his legacy through the career of his progeny.
Imagine trying to find yourself as a person and an athlete with so many people whispering in your ear. Imagine acclimating to the best baseball league in the world with all that constantly swirling about, in these instant-gratification, social-media debased times. Imagine wanting to not only meet all the expectations, but to exceed them on top of that?
Seriously, can you imagine?
Yet there’s Guerrero doing his thing every day, flashing that high-wattage grin, swinging that fearsome bat, being a good teammate, almost oblivious to the gusting winds around him.
That’s ridiculously hard and extremely special, which explains why it feels like the Blue Jays want to cover him in bubble wrap. “He’s fun to watch,” Montoyo said in reaction to Guerrero’s homer Tuesday night, “because he can do stuff not all guys can do.”
Very much so, which is why Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora was marvelling at how Guerrero “dominates the strike zone” with his ability to zero in on strikes “and not expand.”
“That’s the difference between him and his dad. Obviously, his dad is a Hall of Famer …” Cora said before trailing off. “Fair or not, there was so much hype around him that, just let him be. Just let him be and he’s going to be a good player.”
Easier said than done, especially because of what he already means to so many, as this week’s off-day controversy so clearly showed.