By Stephen Brunt in Don Gregorio, Dominican Republic, and Manchester, N.H.
By Stephen Brunt in Don Gregorio, Dominican Republic, and Manchester, N.H.
A Hall of Famer living as the lion of Dominican baseball. A top prospect still hungry for his father’s approval. Deciphering the complicated relationship between Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Jr.

This is not the tourist’s Dominican Republic. This is not an all-inclusive resort with manicured white sand beaches and cocktails with umbrellas in them and tall fences topped with razor wire to keep out the local riffraff. Drive an hour south and west of the country’s sweaty and frenetic capital, Santo Domingo, along a ridiculously dangerous highway, and you arrive in the town of Don Gregorio. The streets are narrow, the buildings squeezed close together. Nearby beaches are rocky and crowded. Fetid piles of garbage are everywhere. The baseball diamonds are exactly as one would imagine, with pebble-strewn infields that make a bad hop in a big-league park feel like nothing at all for the great Dominican shortstops of the future.

The town’s main intersection is a magnificent sensory-overload stew: Bachata music at deafening volume pumping out of a huge speakers set up outside a café; diesel fumes left in the air by the trucks carrying loads of mangoes and plantains that roar by at breakneck speed; heavy funk from a sidewalk fishmonger’s stand, where in the oppressive heat, with no means of refrigeration, small silver something-or-others are gutted and scaled and tossed into plastic bags for the waiting customers; bands of tiny barefoot kids running in and out of the street, leaping over open sewers, cheating death.

It all hits you like a wave.

What separates this place from so many others like it is the big house just five minutes up the road, part of a larger family compound — a kind of Caribbean Hyannis Port filled with Guerreros instead of Kennedys — marked by a huge No. 27 built into the side of a hill that looms over the town. (The same number pops up in graffiti form in the makeshift dugout of a ballfield found at the end of what must be the town’s most desolate street, home to Haitian squatters who live in appalling conditions: “Supey 27 VG” it reads.)

The mansion’s security gate slides open and a group of men emerge, walking slowly, with a head-back, belly-out swagger. They’re en route to Colmado Brayan, a grocery store, sort of, but also a restaurant and watering hole and community centre. The Presidente beer there comes in big quart bottles, like the stuff of Canadian beverage rooms past. Rum is poured discretely into styrofoam cups.

“When Guerrero’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame was announced last winter, things got crazy around here.”

At the pack’s centre is Vladimir Guerrero Sr., who rose around noon and then spent a leisurely day being fed and watered and enjoying the many benefits left to him after a long and distinguished career in professional baseball. His house is a monument to himself, lined with giant photographs and framed memorabilia. The one exception is a small dining room, where every inch of available wall space is lined with photographs of his eight children, the product of five different unions, including the increasingly famous firstborn son with whom he shares a name.

When Guerrero’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was announced last winter, things got crazy around here.

Hail the Conquering Hero
When Vlad Sr.'s induction into the Hall of Fame was announced, the celebratory motorcade in Don Gregorio stretched for kilometres.

In Canada, there was excitement, because of Guerrero’s time in Montreal, because he will forever be remembered as the last great Expo. And in Los Angeles he was likewise celebrated as the first player to enter the Hall wearing a California Angels cap. But his status in the Dominican is something else entirely, befitting one of only three players from this baseball-mad nation to have received the sport’s highest honour. (Juan Marichal and Guerrero’s friend and former teammate Pedro Martinez are the others.)

On arriving back from New York, where he’d received the joyous news, Guerrero was feted in the capital like a visiting head of state. Then it was on to Don Gregorio, where the line of cars heading into town stretched all the way back through the neighbouring city of Nizao and then out to the big highway at least 10 kilometres distant, delaying the guest of honour’s arrival by hours. When he finally got home, what ensued was a party for the ages.

The men arrive to join the crowd at Colmado Brayan. Greetings and elaborate handshakes and hugs are exchanged, drinks are poured and everyone settles in to shoot the breeze and play some dominoes. Tiles are still being slapped down and bottles are still being opened as darkness falls. Laughter fills the air. Guerrero, who doesn’t say much, who can seem shy — or sullen — much of the time, smiles a miles-wide smile.

It is good to be king.

To understand the son, you have to understand the father, and then turn his story upside down.

Vladimir Guerrero Sr. grew up not far from his current palatial digs in a tiny house made of mud brick and originally roofed with palm leaves. He isn’t interested in returning for a visit today, so his older brother Wilton leads the tour. Wilton is a very different character than his sibling — fast-talking, animated, and deeply and expressively religious, rising at four every morning of the week to attend church. “We keep the house because we don’t want to forget,” he says. “We want to have it in our mind. When I come by, I say, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ because I have a new life now.”

Guerrero relatives live in the old place, and given all of the hellos and introductions it seems like Guerrero relatives occupy the entire block. Wilton talks about the difficult times, especially after Hurricane David in 1979, a storm that did terrible damage to much of the country. The little house was wrecked, and the modest income the family earned from selling fried food on the street disappeared. The Guerreros’ mother, Altagracia, was forced to move temporarily to Venezuela to find work, leaving her children in the care of a great aunt. Altagracia shuttled back and forth between the two countries for 11 years.

“We keep the house because we don’t want to forget. When I come by, I say, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ because I have a new life now.”

“When did you and your brothers first play baseball?” Wilton is asked.

“When we were born,” he says.

They played using gloves fashioned from milk cartons and a ball made from a sock stuffed with plastic bags. Wilton didn’t get his first real glove until he was 15, a hand-me-down from his older brother, Eleazar, who had just signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Eleazar didn’t get past the Dominican Summer League. Another Guerrero brother, Julio Cesar, was signed by the Boston Red Sox but made it only as far as A-Ball.) Wilton signed with the Dodgers a year later, and played eight seasons in Los Angeles, Montreal and Cincinnati.

The Dodgers looked at Vladimir as well, working him out at their Dominican complex for eight months before finally sending him home to Don Gregorio, unsigned. Montreal Expos scout Arturo DeFreites saw something in the lanky, high-waisted kid that the Dodgers missed. He convinced his organization to sign Vlad for a $2,100 bonus.

Very soon the stories began to percolate up from the minor leagues about a raw but remarkable prospect who could run, who could hit with power, who could throw out a runner at home from the warning track — on a line. But there were still skeptics because of Guerrero’s willingness to swing at — and often hit — pitches far outside the strike zone. “The first year I was in the United States, I batted .314 or .315,” Guerrero says. “Still, people I didn’t know wanted to change my batting style, until Arturo DeFreites came along and told them to leave me be. Whether I stood against a lefty or a righty, they should just let me bat.”

Guerrero made his major-league debut with Montreal in 1996 as a 21-year-old. “We all heard about Vladdy and how well he was doing,” says Moises Alou, who was an outfielder with the best Expos teams of the ’90s “We knew he was good. I remember when he came up in September. I was on deck when he hit his first homer off Mark Wohlers. Mark Wohlers was one of the best closers in the league. And the first time he faced him, he took him oppo off the foul pole. I thought, ‘Wow, this kid’s for real.’”

Two years earlier, the greatest Expos’ team of all had been denied the chance to win a World Series when commissioner Bud Selig cancelled the second half of the season because of a players’ strike. By the time Vladdy donned bleu, blanc et rouge, the franchise was in the early stages of its long, drawn-out death. He was the final flicker of light before darkness fell.

In Montreal, Guerrero was taken under the wing of fellow Dominican Pedro Martinez. “I just saw a very naïve young man that didn’t know where he was standing away from the field,” Martinez remembers. “A very easygoing guy, mild-mannered, someone very shy. Someone who without someone like me would be really confused. He didn’t even know how to order food. He didn’t even know English. Imagine French. I was used to the area. I was used to everything he needed to get help with. How to get money out of the bank. Where to go to get the food and how to dress. When you’re in the minor leagues, you dress however you can. When you are in the big leagues, there’s a sort of protocol you have to follow. How to put on a suit and put on a tie. He was reluctant to do that. I got him some suits. Right away we clicked. He was like my younger brother.”

After Martinez was traded to Boston, Altagracia moved to Montreal to look after her son. She stayed with him for the remainder of his big-league career, to keep house and cook the meals that are to Dominican ballplayers what spinach is to Popeye — simple stuff, pork or chicken or fish served with rice and beans, not too spicy, and always plantains on the side. (In every big-league and minor-league town, it seems there’s someone who does the cooking for the Dominicans — Edwin Encarnacion, for instance, has his brother, Julio, as his chef. Often meals arrive in the clubhouse in takeout containers, and away from the park Dominican opponents on the field happily break bread together.)

Guerrero and his then-partner, Riquelma Ramos, had their first child while living in Montreal. The baby was given his father’s name, and from the time he could walk he was a fixture around the Expos’ clubhouse. Among those who saw him running around the tunnels inside the Olympic Stadium was a local kid who had abandoned his family’s heating and air conditioning business to begin his baseball career as an unpaid intern: Alex Anthopoulos.

“We all heard about Vladdy. We knew he was good. I was on deck when he hit his first homer off one of the best closers in the league. He took him oppo off the foul pole. I thought, ‘Wow, this kid’s for real.’”

By the time Guerrero played his last game at the Olympic Stadium in 2003, Expos fans had long resigned themselves to his inevitable departure. He was 28, at the height of his powers, about to become a free agent, and there was no way the team could compete for his services on the open market. A story written later analyzed the attendance in Montreal during Guerrero’s peak years and made a convincing case that he was watched by fewer fans than any other truly great ballplayer in the game’s history. But at least in his last home game they gave him a send-off.

Standing on the field, Guerrero doffed his cap and acknowledged the crowd. Then he sensed a surge in the applause. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in full, miniature Expos uniform, had been encouraged by Vladdy’s teammates to run out onto the field and join his dad. “He walked up to me,” Senior remembers. “I took my hat off and everyone was still clapping. When I looked back, there was my son with his hat on. I told him ‘Now, take it off and salute the crowd.’”

And so he did, producing an iconic image.

Not too many years later, the kid would be back in the same building, on the same diamond, bringing another crowd to its feet.

It is the foundational truth of Dominican baseball.

“One hundred per cent of the players that come out of the Dominican Republic are from poor families,” Pedro Martinez says. “No one that is in a wealthy position would be willing to take the amount of adversities that you have to overcome and the amount of work that you have to put in to get to the big leagues. All of us had to go through struggles. That number — zero wealthy persons to make it to the big leagues — it is for real.”

Well perhaps not quite zero. Jose Bautista, for one, grew up in upper-middle class comfort. So did Alou, the son and nephew of major leaguers. And now this guy.

Manchester, New Hampshire is about an hour’s drive north of Boston’s Logan Airport. The home of the Toronto Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliate, the Fisher Cats, it is an old mill town just now edging towards the kind of hipster renaissance that has transformed many a former industrial wasteland. These lofts, for instance, in an imposing brick building that was an early 20th Century warehouse, with exposed beams and roughed out interiors, would be just the ticket for young urban professionals. Or, in this case, for a young Dominican ballplayer and his grandma.

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Altragracia is the constant — with her son in Montreal and Los Angeles and Arlington and Baltimore; with her grandson for the minor-league stops in Bluefield and Lansing and Dunedin and here, and soon enough on to Buffalo and Toronto. “We went up to Los Angeles with Wilton, and then later God sent us grace, and he got signed together with Vladdy in Montreal,” she says through an interpreter. “The brothers met in Montreal, and I ended up staying with Vladdy. I stayed with him, and I thought my mission was over, but apparently not. I’m no longer with the dad, now I’m with the son until God wills it, and for as long as He gives me strength and health to help him. I think I still have plenty of both.”

She stands over the stove stirring a pot of thick fish stew, as Vladimir Jr. leans in to look at what will become his pre-game meal.

“Baby, come here and help me serve,” Altagracia says.

“Hugs and kisses, Grandma,” Junior answers. “Don’t get burned.”

As a term of endearment, she calls him “El Negro.” Back in Don Gregorio, everyone calls him that. It’s a nickname that will no doubt be lost between the Dominican and the big leagues, and that would surely make North Americans squeamish, but it speaks to a place where skin colour is deeply tied to social and economic standing, where the lighter, more Spanish-looking segment of the population dominates the political and business elite, and where the very dark-skinned Haitians are regarded as the lowest of the underclasses. Vladdy Jr. is dark, so he is “El Negro” — or simply “Negro.” It sounds benign in the loving voice of his grandmother, but in a larger sense it is not.

“Junior has always liked baseball. He always had the enthusiasm. I never forced him to play — that was all him.”

Just before lunch hits the table, Vladdy Sr. and his entourage — including Eleazar — arrive. They’re in town to watch Junior’s game that night, and to make a few deals on the memorabilia market. With the announcement of his Hall of Fame induction, Senior’s signature on bats and balls and photographs has suddenly become a whole lot more valuable.

The natural warmth and intimacy so obvious between Junior and his grandmother seems to evaporate when his father enters the room. Father and son barely acknowledge each other, circling around and keeping their distance until Junior leaves for the ballpark. It was the same in the summer of 2017, when Junior played in the Midwest League all-star game, and Senior came to watch him in the home run derby. The father largely silent; the son deferential, but a wariness there — less like the dynamics of a family than the dynamics of a pack where long-held assumptions of dominance are suddenly in question.

Junior’s parents split when he was very young. His mother moved to the city of Santiago, about a three-hour drive from Don Gregorio. His father continued with his major-league career, in Los Angeles and Texas and Baltimore. Junior visited him in the United States during summers when school was out. The rest of the year he split between Santiago and Don Gregorio, where he was coached in the fine points of the game by his uncle Wilton. “I think everything I’ve learned in baseball has been from him,” Junior says of Wilton, “I’ve been practicing with him since I was five. He’s the one who taught me to practice well and guided me to where I am.”

On one point, everyone agrees: from the beginning, the kid had a passion for the game. There was no economic imperative. Baseball was not imposed upon him. When he was taking 300 or 400 swings a day, every day, in batting practice, it was because he wanted to be there. “I never told him to play,” Senior says. “He’s always liked it. He always had the enthusiasm to play. When I signed with Anaheim, he used to spend holidays with me and I always took him to the stadium. I have another son and he never liked playing, so I never made him. I never forced him to play. [With Junior], that was all him.”

Father and son together on the field for Vlad Sr.'s final game in Montreal.

Alex Anthopoulos has plenty of stories to tell about his visits to the Dominican Republic to scout Guerrero Jr. for the Toronto Blue Jays. It was a courtship, really, because unlike North American-born ballplayers, who are subject to the MLB draft, the Dominican is part of the sport’s great free market. Players are eligible to sign on their 16th birthday, and the best of them can command multi-million dollar bonuses.

Anthopoulos first saw Guerrero Jr. in a professional capacity at the Blue Jays’ Dominican complex, where he was part of a group of 14-year-olds working out on a back field, while the 15-year-olds commanded most of the attention. “The swing was loose and easy, and he was hitting balls to centre field off the batter’s eye,” Anthopoulos remembers.

“Who is that?” he sked Ismael Cruz, then the Jays’ director of Latin American scouting

“That’s Vlad Guerrero’s kid.”

“He has never said this to me, but Vlad Jr. idolizes his dad. You could tell he really wanted to emulate everything his dad did.”

There were certainly questions about him — his defensive position, to start. In the outfield, his arm seemed shockingly weak. They asked him where he liked to play. “Third base,” Guerrero answered. And there, for some reason, his arm seemed plenty strong. “But make no mistake,” Anthopoulos says, “we were buying a bat.”

Body type was also an issue. His father, when young, was long and lean. Junior, by contrast, was stocky, especially through the butt. “We thought that maybe because of the ‘high pockets’ and the long legs, maybe there’s a baby fat component to this,” Anthopoulos says. “Maybe he’ll slim out.”

Junior’s pedigree they liked — not so much because he was the son of a major leaguer, but because of his atypical Dominican biography, though at first glance that seems counterintuitive. “There have been plenty of guys who have been related to major-league players or sons with bloodlines who haven’t worked out,” Anthopoulos explains. “I think there’s value to it. He had an appreciation of what the life was like and what was involved. But skills are skills and ability is ability. He wasn’t his father. It wasn’t the same body. They weren’t the same guy at all.

Vlad Jr. celebrates with the crowd at Montreal's Olympic Stadium after hitting a ninth-inning home run in preseason action with the Blue Jays.

“But what we really liked was the fact that he grew up with money. We liked the fact that playing baseball for him wasn’t about getting off the island and feeding his family. He played baseball because he loved it. Everything he did, his love for the game, was really authentic. He was going to will himself, drive himself, because he really loved playing.”

The price, though, remained to be determined. Anthopoulos knew that they’d have to dig deeply, to spend beyond their international allotment for the year. It would be both costly and risky, like emptying your savings account, borrowing a bit more, and putting it all on one number at the roulette table. There were more scouting trips to watch Junior, including one to the Guerrero family diamond in Don Gregorio, which is found at the end of a long, bumpy dirt road on a hill above the town, where feral dogs fight for scraps under the makeshift stands, and cows from nearby farms regularly wander into the outfield.

Senior was present for only one of those visits. It was clear from the outset that Wilton was doing the coaching, while his younger brother sat at a distance and watched silently. “I sat with [Senior],” Anthopoulos remembers. “I had been around him when I started with the Expos. He was hands-off with his son. He didn’t say much. Even if you engaged him, he deferred to Wilton on a lot of things.”

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In the end, the Jays got Guerrero because they were willing to pay more than anyone else: his signing bonus was $3.9 million. But Anthopoulos likes to think the little things mattered as well, like the trip they took to Santiago to meet Junior’s mother, who was excited to be able to converse with the executive in French and who proudly showed him Vladdy’s Quebec birth certificate. (The document held more than sentimental value. It meant that unlike many a Dominican prospect, they could be sure that 16 was really 16.)

On that long drive to Santiago, the kid sat silently in the back seat, staring at his phone. Attempting to make conversation, Anthopoulos leaned over from the front passenger seat and asked him what he was watching.

“He was watching highlights of his dad,” Anthopoulos says. “He has never said this to me, but he idolizes his dad. He was so proud to show me some of the highlights — the defensive plays, the hits. You could tell he really wanted to emulate everything his dad did.”

The Guerrero family compound in Don Gregorio features a mammoth No. 27 built into a hillside above town.

Senior and his crew don’t quite manage to see the first game during their visit to Manchester. Apparently, they have other things to do. The next night they make it to the park — or, at least, to a hotel bar that sits just beyond the left-field fence. It’s a lot like the scene at Colmado Brayan, minus the dominoes, but with the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball performing remarkable feats a few hundred feet in front of them. Hitting more than .400 for the season, regularly stroking tape-measure home runs, Junior is one of the biggest stories in the sport, though he is still two levels below the majors.

There will come a time when, even though they are namesakes, the comparisons will seem beside the point, when the son, if he’s as good as so many believe he can be, will have carved out his own identity, when there will be room for two Vladimir Guerreros in the Dominican baseball pantheon.

Right now, though, the elder doesn’t seem inclined to cede his place, even to a worshipful son. Monarchies work like that, and from the outside it can seem kind of cold.

But there is another way to look at it.

“Don’t let that confuse you,” Pedro Martinez says. “Vladdy is really someone that doesn’t want to expose his private life that much. He isn’t interested in cameras. He is just a human being that did what he had to do without expecting to be seen by anybody else. You drop him in the field, he knows what to do right away. He’s wide awake and he will tell you, ‘Get me a bat and I know what to do with that ball; get me a glove and I know how to catch.’ But for him to go out there and explain it — I don’t think so. No. Vladdy did it his own way, a very unique way, and he is the same way in his life. Nobody would know unless you get to know him really well and you spend a lot of time with him.

“Vladdy is like those lions that have a lot of lionesses with a lot of babies around. And sometimes the lion will be lying on the sofa and all of the little lions will be munching on his tail or his ears, and all of a sudden he goes — growl — and everybody gets quiet. That’s Vladdy. But the most important part that people don’t see is that when those kids, including Junior, jump on him on the sofa, it’s the most loving moment that you can find. When grandma is there, and Vladdy is being the big male that controls the pack. Yes, he allows the kids to run all over him and pinch him and hug him and bother him. Then it gets to a point where Vladdy goes, ‘Be quiet,’ and everybody is quiet.

“He is quiet in every aspect, including giving love. He does it in a quiet way.”

Photo Credits

Design and illustrations by Drew Lesiuczok.
Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images; Paul Chiasson/CP Photo; Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images; Courtesy “Namesake” by Sportsnet.