Sportsnet invites you to relive some of the team’s best moments through Blue Jays Rewind (re-airings of games in the past five years) and Classics (re-airings of games from the 1992 and ’93 Word Series runs). The series kick off with Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s MLB debut re-airing on Sunday, March 22 @ 3:30 p.m. ET.
TORONTO – The walk from the hotel to the ballpark is a short one, but Vladimir Guerrero Jr. dresses for the occasion.
He’s wearing an Expos jersey, and not just any Expos jersey. This one features the name and number of his Hall of Fame father–a reminder not only of Vlad Jr.’s immense promise but of the considerable expectations facing baseball’s number one prospect.
It’s a few minutes before noon. His first day as a big-leaguer is about to unfold…
The clubhouse doors open and out comes Guerrero Jr. He’s now wearing a home-white Toronto Blue Jays jersey and a white panel Blue Jays hat.
After a few congratulatory handshakes, he finds himself seated at the podium in the team’s media conference room. Upwards of 50 media members are there, from outlets serving English, Spanish and French-speaking audiences. A few minutes earlier, the team’s GM explained the significance of the moment from that same seat.
"We have a Canadian-born Dominican baseball player," Ross Atkins said. "The son of a Hall of Famer that is coming into Canada to play for this great city and country."
Guerrero Jr.’s message is more low-key. Speaking in Spanish through interpreter Hector Lebron, he answers most questions by the book. He wants to get better every day. He can only control so much. And yes, he’s happy to be here.
Late in the press conference, he gets a few laughs telling the story of why he has so much more plate discipline than his father. When he was seven years old, Vlad recalls, he swung at a pitch that hit him in the face. Ever since, he has been more selective.
After 20 minutes, the questions have all been answered. It’s time to practice.
Cameras, maybe a dozen of them, are trained on the dugout entrance in anticipation of Guerrero Jr.’s arrival to field level. He emerges, bat in hand, and turns right, walking along the empty dugout. At the far end of it, there’s a bat rack. He places a lone bat in one of the upper slots. The barrel goes in first. The end of the bat shows off No. 27.
Back in the clubhouse, Guerrero Jr. has a few minutes before team stretch. He spends them reclined on clubhouse chairs chatting with outfielder Socrates Brito and reliever Joe Biagini, who kisses Guerrero Jr.’s hands in mock-veneration.
A few steps away, Charlie Montoyo has set his lineup. His newest infielder will bat fifth and play third tonight.
Time to stretch. Guerrero Jr. joins his Blue Jays teammates to limber up down the left field line. The jersey he wore to the press conference has been replaced with a long-sleeved, blue workout shirt.
The cameras follow as Guerrero Jr. stretches, but they aren’t the only observers around. Led by Vladimir Sr., the Guerrero family’s here in full force for the occasion.
Within a few minutes, the Blue Jays are taking the infield, something they don’t always do. Maybe they want to set expectations for the new arrival, or maybe it’s a coincidence. Guerrero Jr. doesn’t seem particularly worried either way. He simply fields the grounders coach Shelley Duncan hits his way and throws them across the diamond.
Most days, the stadium’s quiet at this time aside from some music blaring over the stadium speakers and the occasional exclamation during batting practice. Today’s a little different. Realizing that fans will want to see their top prospect prepare, the Blue Jays open the gates an hour early.
"I can’t imagine what that pressure is at 20 years old," Montoyo says.
As Guerrero Jr. approaches the batting cage, a few thousand fans applaud. They’ll have to wait, though, because the rookie will only hit once Justin Smoak, Randal Grichuk and Rowdy Tellez have taken their turns.
BP begins with one round of bunting and another round of opposite-field hits, but once Guerrero Jr. gets going his power’s on full display. One ball goes off the facing of the third deck in left field. Another lands deep in the centre-field Flight Deck. A third stays low — it’s maybe 25 feet at its peak — but still leaves the yard.
Each time he connects, his teammates track the flight of the ball along with the fans.
"Hey, someone else hit after him," says Tellez, the next hitter up.
"Now you’ve got to do that in a game" says Smoak.
Between rounds of BP, Guerrero Jr. talks hitting. He’s all smiles, even when his teammates give him a hard time over a poorly timed swing. Then, after 15 minutes in the cage, it’s time for a new group. Guerrero Jr. collects baseballs near home plate, puts them in a bucket for the next round of hitters and heads inside.
There’s no mistaking Guerrero Jr. when he takes the field prior to first pitch. Even at 20 years old, he’s bigger than most players. If any doubt remains, those gold dreadlocks help identify him from afar.
Fans — many of whom are already wearing his jersey — seem thrilled by his very presence in Toronto. They erupt as Guerrero Jr. jogs toward centre field to greet former teammate Kendrys Morales and cheer even louder when his name’s announced as part of the starting lineup. Even seemingly innocuous gestures like throwing a foul ball into the stands earn applause from the 28,688 in attendance.
In the bullpen, as Marcus Stroman warms up, he’s looking forward to having baseball’s top prospect behind him for the first time.
"Probably just as excited as the entire fan base," Stroman says. "He’s going to give us a huge little edge."
Fans are on their feet chanting "Let’s Go, Vladdy" as Guerrero Jr. walks from the on-deck circle for his first major-league at bat. His walk-up music of choice: Old Town Road. It’s go-time.
True to form, Guerrero Jr. takes the first pitch he sees from Mike Fiers. It’s one of 17 he’ll see today. On the fifth pitch of this at bat, he shoots a 106.8 m.p.h. grounder toward first base. Morales, who played with Guerrero Sr. in Anaheim before mentoring his son this spring, is there to field it. Guerrero Jr.’s officially 0-for-1.
Guerrero Jr.’s here because of his bat. He can throw, and he moves reasonably well, but his bat’s still way ahead of the rest of his game and everyone knows it.
"Is he somewhat below-average among major-league third basemen? We’ll see," Atkins said Friday. "I’m sure he could come here and perform as an average third baseman, but we want him to be great. We’re shooting for him to be exceptional, not just average."
So far so good. When Stephen Piscotty chops a grounder toward third, Guerrero Jr. charges, fields it on a short-hop and throws across the diamond on the run.
"I was more nervous than he was," Montoyo says afterwards. "You’ve got to be comfortable to make that play. That’s when I knew ‘yeah, he’s relaxed.’"
At bat number two. After working the count in his favour, Guerrero Jr. takes a big cut at a 3-1 pitch and sends it deep down the left field line. The crowd stands in anticipation of his first big-league homer, but Chad Pinder races over and makes the catch high against the wall, turning a double into an out. 0-for-2.
When Pinder bats the following inning, Blue Jays fans greet him with boos.
Facing Fiers for the third time, Guerrero Jr. should have the advantage. Now that he has seen him a couple of times, he’s going on more than just the tips he got in the batting cage.
The first pitch of the at-bat arrives inside, backing Guerrero Jr. off the plate. This prompts a little dance from Vlad, calling to mind Adrian Beltre, one of his most admired players.
On the second pitch, Guerrero Jr. connects, hitting the ball 99.8 m.p.h. to right field. He has made solid contact again, but it’s not hit far enough to escape the grasp of Piscotty. With that, Vlad’s 0 for 3.
Another grounder from Stroman, who’s dealing tonight. This one’s hard hit down third-base line. The Blue Jays like their third basemen to play closer to short, so Guerrero Jr. has to move back and to his right to catch this two-hopper. By the time he does, his momentum’s going away from the infield, and Pinder’s flying down the line. Time to test that arm. Guerrero Jr. loads up and fires on a line to Smoak. Inning over.
"I let him know on the spot how I feel about it," Stroman says. "He showed off that cannon. I could sit here and rave about him all day to be honest with you."
If you’re thinking walk-off as Guerrero Jr. walks up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, you aren’t alone. With the score tied 2-2, Guerrero leads off. He could end it with one swing right here.
Fans are chanting ‘Vladdy’ again, and his manager wonders ‘what if.’
"It was almost like ‘oh my god he might hit a walk-off,’" Montoyo says.
The homer will have to wait, but Guerrero Jr. sends a ball down the first-base line for a double, the first hit of his major-league career. It’s the fourth hard-hit ball of the day for Guerrero Jr., who claps his hands emphatically as he pulls into second base. 1 for 4.
"I don’t know if people understand how good a hitter this guy really is," Stroman says. "He’s way ahead of his years."
Three batters later, Guerrero Jr.’s in the dugout, replaced by a pinch runner, when Brandon Drury hits a walk-off homer. Eager to celebrate his first win as a big-leaguer, Guerrero Jr. races toward home plate.
Moments later, he’ll drench Drury with Gatorade.
Guerrero Jr.’s not exempt from the post-game showers, though. After the game, his teammates place him in a laundry cart and cover him with Bud Light and shaving cream. Welcome to the big leagues.
Guerrero Jr. wraps up his second media availability of the day and heads back to the clubhouse. Soon enough, he’ll be back at his hotel room to get some sleep before game two.
First, he has to collect some MLB memorabilia of his own to give to his father. A bat, a ball — maybe even a jersey.
"Just the way I dreamed," he says.