For the average 17-year-old in Canada and the United States, a home cooked meal, an ordered pizza, or a McDonalds run is an everyday event.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. moved into an apartment in Bluefield, Va. with three other Dominican-born prospects and quickly discovered that finding something to eat was a daunting task. With a lack of cooking experience and a language barrier, the guys just figured it out as they went along.
“We worked together to cook Dominican food. It was really hard at the beginning to become independent,” Guerrero recently said through a translator. He laughed as he recalled eating the same meal every day for the first few weeks.
La Bandera Dominicana – or The Dominican Flag, in English – was simple, familiar and delicious, the perfect combination for hungry athletes with minimal cooking experience. The plate consists of beans, rice, and either chicken or pork.
Moving to a foreign country can turn everyday tasks into overwhelming challenges. But for a 17-year-old who signed with the Toronto Blue Jays as an international free agent and travelled nearly 2,500 kilometres from the Dominican Republic to Virginia for the 2016 season, baseball provided a safety net. It is universal, and allowed some elements of his routine to stay consistent.
“For good luck, I listen to Christian songs 45 minutes before every game,” Baseball America’s top-ranked Blue Jays prospect said, “and 20 minutes before game time, I sit in the bullpen quietly by myself.”
A creature of habit, Guerrero relied on his new job as a professional baseball player to distract himself from the difficult transition of a dramatic culture change.
“It was really different from home,” Guerrero said from his house in the Dominican Republic, where he is spending the off-season with his family, “but I was focused on the work and just thought about that. I wanted to stay concentrated and just focus on baseball.”
Bluefield, where the Toronto Blue Jays’ Appalachian League affiliate plays, is a small town of roughly 5,000 people that teeters on the edge of Virginia and West Virginia. Home is in Don Gregorio – a community of about 6,000 people inside the city of Nizao, in the southern region of the Dominican.
Baseball is ingrained in the culture of Don Gregorio, so that part of the transition to the United States was seamless for the young third baseman. Learning how to live on his own required more time.
“It was really hard to make my own food and wash my clothes and all of that,” Guerrero said.
Luckily, he didn’t have to struggle by himself. Having a group of Latin players around helped him get accustomed to the new team rather quickly and made the language barrier less problematic.
“I had a good relationship with all the guys, I felt comfortable with everyone and we talked a lot,” Guerrero said. “I had a lot of friends, but mostly with the Latin guys.”
Since entertainment options were limited in Bluefield, the four Dominican housemates spent much of their free time in their apartment listening to music, playing PlayStation, engaging in the occasional late night poker match, and talking about baseball – something Guerrero loves to do.
Baseball is an obsession that Guerrero Jr. shares with his father, Vladimir Sr., who was recently named to the upcoming Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. They have an extremely close relationship and spoke on the phone before every Bluefield game, often multiple times.
On one occasion, they were able to speak face to face.
In just his second minor league baseball game, Guerrero Jr. belted his first professional home run with his father in the stands. When they met after the game, Junior gave his dad the home run ball and the bat he used to hit it.
Guerrero Jr. and his dad have been nearly inseparable since he arrived home in Don Gregorio for the off-season, and that won’t change until it’s time to hop on a plane and head back to spring training.
“We are trying to be together because when I am playing and he is here, we don’t have that kind of contact,” he said. “So now we spend almost all the time together.”
The off-season will be a busy one for Guerrero Jr. He took a week off when he arrived at home to catch up with family and friends, but now he’s back to business, working daily with a personal trainer and trying to refine his defence.
“That was something I really wanted to improve,” he said. “We have a plan we are working on.”
The details of that plan remain unknown, but Guerrero’s early track record shows he has more than enough tools. He found success at the plate (.271/.359/.449, eight home runs, 46 RBI, 33 walks, 35 strikeouts) despite being the youngest player on the Bluefield roster by almost two years.
He doesn’t know where he will be playing baseball to start the 2017 season, but this time those off-field adjustments promise to be a little easier.