Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s journey to big leagues about more than just talent

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Michal Majewski)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — It was late March, 2018, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit the ball off Jack Flaherty — the one that electrified Montreal. You’ve seen it a million times by now. Flaherty, who starts for the St. Louis Cardinals, came home with a breaking pitch and Guerrero drove it into the same left-field seats his father used to. He might as well have hit it through time.

The often-overlooked part of that moment is the fact that Guerrero was sitting on the pitch — just a 19-year-old sitting on a slider in a 1-0 count. He felt like he had to. Guerrero had been hunting fastballs throughout his two games in Montreal but was seeing nothing but off-speed. The Cardinals weren’t messing around with him. So, before he went to the plate and launched that rocket to left, Guerrero told his teammates what he was looking for.

“I mean, Flaherty’s slider is pretty devastating. Most guys don’t see it well,” says Patrick Cantwell, a Blue Jays minor-league catcher who was with the team in Montreal. “And Vladdy just goes up there and sits on it. That’s really tough to do. It’s a little unbelievable to me. That mindset is something special. After the game, he said if Flaherty would have thrown him three fastballs over the plate, he would’ve struck out.”

It’s now 13 months later. And Guerrero’s still crushing breaking balls. Here’s one from the other night that landed somewhere near Neptune:

That was Guerrero’s first game at triple-A this season, after an oblique issue sidelined him for a few weeks late in spring training. By his fifth game, he had seven hits, including another homer and a double. He reached base in half of his 20 plate appearances. He even stole a base, a delayed dash for third that caught the defence so off-guard that he jogged in standing up.

It’s almost as if he’s a major-league talent playing in minor-league games. As if his current level of competition is no longer challenging him. At this point, to deny that Guerrero’s bat belongs in the majors is to deny the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Guerrero should be a major-leaguer. And within the next week, he probably will be.

But he isn’t yet. Not on Friday at Sahlen Fields, where Guerrero sat patiently on a service vehicle outside the Buffalo Bisons clubhouse, fiddling with his amber-tipped dreadlocks and waiting for media to gather for what his manager, Bobby Meacham, jokingly referred to as “his press conference.” The Bisons intended for Guerrero to meet the media on the field. But frigid, wet conditions forced him inside, adjacent a batting cage where Anthony Alford was taking loud hacks off a tee.

Thwak, thwak, thwak, went Alford’s bat, as he whacked baseballs into a net at around the same pace as Guerrero deflected a couple dozen questions he’s answered a couple dozen times before, all of them a variation of the same theme. Do you feel you’re ready for the majors? Thwack. Is it frustrating to still be in triple-A? Thwack. Is it tough to be patient and wait for the call? Thwack.

“It’s out of my hands. I’m not frustrated. I continue to play 100 per cent. And when the time comes for the call, I’ll welcome it,” Guerrero said through his interpreter and handler, Jesse Guerrero (no relation). “You can see — it’s obvious I’m ready. I feel ready. I can’t control what happens. I just control what I can do myself.”

It was early April, 2018, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit the ball off Jose Mesa Jr. — the one that sounded like lightning through a tree. It was only his fifth game at double-A, and Guerrero had been scuffling a bit — by his standards, at least — through his first series with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. It’s early spring in the northeast; tough to get your bat going when it’s 2 C every time you take the field. Plus, Mesa’s no joke. The New York Yankees prospect throws in the mid-90’s.

“So, Vladdy takes Mesa’s first pitch, fastball up,” remembers John Schneider, who was New Hampshire’s manager at the time. “And he kind of steps out of the box, and does his thing — I can see him thinking. And then he just gives me this look.”

Schneider was standing in the third-base coach’s box, as minor-league managers do. He’s had a great view for a lot of Guerrero’s plate appearances. He can read the kid’s body language better than most. The way Guerrero crouches down in the batter’s box to watch balls tail off the plate. The way he shakes his head, wiggles and cranes his neck between pitches. The little mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that make him so much fun to watch. Guerrero was doing just that when he gave Schneider the look.

“And then he steps back in. Next pitch, another fastball up, it’s like 95. And Vladdy hits it off the batter’s eye,” Schneider says. “And he’s grinning at me as he rounds third. So, in the dugout after the inning, I’m like, ‘Vladdy, what’s up, man? What were you doing there?’ And he goes, ‘I saw the first pitch had a little backspin, so I decided to swing on top of it a little more.’ And I said, ‘Oh. It’s that easy, huh?’ And he just said, ‘Yeah, I guess.’”

This is what makes Guerrero so captivating to watch. Not only for the mammoth home runs, the daring baserunning, and the way a ballpark’s energy pulses whenever he’s at the plate. But for the way he wears everything he’s feeling in the box. He’s so animated. Every plate appearance is its own theatrical production.

He’s just a lot of fun. On the field and off. Schneider tells a story about the time Guerrero stole his cheat card from his hat, and started quizzing the manager about the team’s signs. He’s got another one from a rain delay, when Guerrero had a teammate lure Schneider into a room to take a look at something, only for baseball’s top prospect to jump out from under a table and try to scare him. Minor-league teammates rave about the containers of chicken, pork, rice and beans Guerrero would regularly bring into the clubhouse, care of his doting grandmother, Altagracia Alvino, who will join in him Toronto whenever he gets there.

“He’s always doing stuff to keep things light. That’s the thing people don’t know about him — he’s really funny,” Schneider says. “I guess when you’re hitting .400, it’s easy to have fun.”

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It was mid-May, 2018, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit the ball off Tyler Bashlor — the one he predicted he would. It was the first game of a double-header, and New Hampshire was down two going into the bottom of the seventh, the final inning. Jonathan Davis led off with a double, and scored when Bo Bichette doubled behind him. As he ran back to the dugout, Davis passed Guerrero, who was on deck and about to come up representing the go-ahead run.

“Vlad turns around and looks at Cavan [Biggio], who was hitting behind him, and he says, ‘Hey, I’m about to go oppo. Right here. He’s going to throw me a cutter away and I’m going to go oppo,’” Davis says. “Sure enough, Vlad gets up there, and first pitch, very first pitch, cutter away. Vlad hit it off the scoreboard.”

He certainly causes quite a stir — on and off the field. Autograph seekers began cluing in when Guerrero was with New Hampshire, camping out at team hotels when the Fisher Cats were on the road, and sometimes tailing their bus. Even Friday, on a cold, rainy night in Buffalo, a small horde of fans gathered along the right-field railing, hoping to get a moment — maybe even a brief interaction, if they’re lucky — with a 20-year-old who ultimately never took the field.

And it only goes up from here. After two years spent carrying the weight of being baseball’s top-prospect, Guerrero will soon go to the majors, where everyone will expect him to instantly look like he belongs. And maybe he will. No level of affiliated baseball has challenged him yet. But plenty of ballplayers have enjoyed wild success climbing the minor-league mountain, only to find the demands, stresses, and level of competition at the summit too much to handle.

“It’s a different animal up there in the big leagues,” Meacham says. “It’s just so different.”

The last thing Meacham wants after Guerrero leaves his clubhouse for Toronto is to see him return. And yet, that would be a completely normal progression for the average professional ballplayer. Even Meacham, the No. 8 overall pick in the 1981 draft, went up and down between the majors and triple-A in four of his six big-league seasons with the Yankees. Mike Trout, the best player on the planet, went up and down in his age-19 season before he stuck.

“It’s not like he’s going to go to the big leagues and hit .400 with 100 homers every year. He’s going to have adversity like everybody does,” Meacham says. “And it takes a certain amount of self-assuredness and confidence to be able to withstand that at that level. I believe he has it. And hopefully he can do it with no problem.”

We’ll see. If one thing’s certain, it’s that all the attention hasn’t gotten to Guerrero just yet. He answered all those redundant questions patiently and consistently Friday, never straying off the team-first, play-hard, control-what-I-can-control messaging the Blue Jays want to hear from him. Of course, it’s easy to do everything right when you can do no wrong.

“This is the easy part, right? This is the easy part where everybody loves him, thinks he’s the greatest. The tough part is knowing there’s going to be days when it’s not going to be like that,” Meacham says. “Because this is nothing compared to what he’s going to have to handle when he goes 0-for-20 and makes five errors in a week in the big leagues.”

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It was mid-April, 2019, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit the ball off Bobby Poyner — the one that landed in a parking lot 450 feet away. You know, this one:

Like Flaherty and Bashlor, Poyner’s a major-league calibre pitcher. He made 20 appearances for the Boston Red Sox last season. Bashlor made 24 with the New York Mets; Flaherty’s in the St. Louis Cardinals rotation. They’re all good enough to play at that level. Guerrero’s good enough, too. But he’s yet to graduate the minors.

We all know the reasons why. Age, experience, development, defence, conditioning, and the language of baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. Guerrero was never going to be called up last year, no matter how many walk-off bombs he hit. And once the calendar turned to 2019, he was never going to be called up any earlier than 15 days into the season, before the Blue Jays could delay his service clock long enough to gain an additional year of contractual control.

But that’s all over now. Guerrero’s service time is no longer a concern. He’s healthy and raking at triple-A. His development isn’t finished, but it won’t be until his career is.

The final hurdle may be simply playing games. The Blue Jays have indicated they’d prefer to see Guerrero compete on three consecutive days before finally calling him up — as if that arbitrary achievement will do anything more to confirm what he’s already proven with each home run mightier than the last. The planet certainly isn’t cooperating. This weekend in Buffalo, the Bisons were able to play only two innings of their three scheduled games thanks to persistent and heavy rain. Guerrero made just one plate appearance. Naturally, he drew a walk.

Regardless, someday very soon, Meacham will call Guerrero into his office and finally deliver the news. Go get ‘em. Don’t come back. Meacham’s reservoir of wisdom runs deep, but he figures he won’t give Guerrero much advice in that meeting. From his experience, players don’t hear anything you say after you tell them they’re going up. Guys black out. Their eyes go wide. You might as well be speaking Bengali.

But there is one thing Meacham tells every young player he gets to deliver the news to. It’s advice he doesn’t reckon Guerrero needs, but he’ll give it anyway.

“The biggest thing is don’t blend in — stand out,” Meacham says. “That’s how you become great. We all fall into that trap. They make a lot of money up there being a rookie, right? They’ve got a lot of people and attention. But you can’t stop there. Heck, you can reach for the stars and still end up playing five years in the big leagues like I did. You don’t want to play five years in the big leagues just because you didn’t want to reach, or you didn’t try to go the extra mile.

“Just, ‘Hey, man, stand out.’ And that’s what he does. That’s what he does.”

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