DENVER – Major League Baseball decked out the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver for the all-star week’s fan festivities, plastering massive decals of its brightest talents on the building’s glass exterior. Staring down from one of the main entrances were four players – Fernando Tatis Jr., Tim Anderson, Jacob deGrom and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
That the Toronto Blue Jays superstar was featured so prominently in the league’s marketing at its central hub for fans, and on banners hanging from light posts all around Coors Field and the downtown core, is a clear demonstration of his growing importance to the sport.
Between his ruthless power, deliberate discipline and infectious joy on the field, Guerrero is everything the sport wants to highlight. Both commissioner Rob Manfred and union boss Tony Clark shouted out his emergence as a key development during their conversations with the BBWAA on Tuesday morning, and in an all-star game largely built around two-way wonder Shohei Ohtani, the 22-year-old demonstrated that he’s a transcendental talent, too.
Whether it was disarming the usually snarling Max Scherzer with a hug on the mound after his line drive nearly decapitated the Washington Nationals ace, launching a 468-foot home run off Corbin Burnes or professionally cashing in Teoscar Hernandez with a groundball to the right side, Guerrero’s imprints were all over the American League’s 5-2 win over the National League.
In doing so, he became the first Blue Jays player named all-star game MVP, the youngest to accomplish the feat, and once again proved to be a young man of his word.
“I can’t wait to get back to hear what Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and George Springer have to say about this,” Guerrero, speaking through interpreter Hector Lebron, said afterwards. “Before I left I made a promise to them that I was going to win the MVP and they said, 'You better win the MVP. If not, don’t come back.'”
No worries there, even if Hernandez quipped about deserving half the prize for setting up Guerrero’s second RBI. Either way, it was a strong Blue Jays showing in the contest, as Marcus Semien’s infield single in the second brought home Aaron Judge with the game’s first run, while Hernandez doubled and scored in the fifth, Toronto hitters responsible for the game’s first three runs.
Bo Bichette, subbing in for Xander Bogaerts in the bottom of the fifth, made a nice play on a deflected Adam Frazier grounder to end that inning and then took his trademark big swings against Mark Melancon in the eighth in a three-pitch strikeout.
"That's my first time coming off the bench I think in my whole life," Bichette joked. "I didn't really know what to do, just swing as hard as I can.”
Ohtani went 0-for-2 on a pair of groundouts at the plate but considering that he became the first player ever to start an all-star game on the mound and as a hitter, his night was still remarkable. Roughly 24 hours after an electric showing at the home run derby, when Juan Soto eliminated him after an extra round and a swing-off, the Los Angeles Angels superstar topped out at 100.2 m.p.h. and averaged 98.1 on seven fastballs during a clean 14-pitch first.
Just awe-inspiring stuff that impacts far more than his team.
“I appreciate what he’s done for our game and our fans,” said AL manager Kevin Cash. “There's a lot of stuff that we are coming out of, obviously, with the pandemic, and for his talent to get baseball going again, he's been a big part of it. So the appreciation goes to him and similar to Vlad Guerrero Jr. Those guys have so much on their plate and the way they handle it with such humility, class and go about their business, that’s probably the thing that stands out.”
Guerrero delivered an example of that right out of the gate when he ripped a fastball down and in right up the middle. Scherzer just barely whipped his head away from the 111.1 m.p.h. rocket that went for a loud groundout to second.
On his way back to the dugout, Guerrero turned wide toward the mound and warmly hugged the fiery righty, his amiability on display the moment the competitor shut down.
"At the home run derby, we had a conversation and he was just joking with me, he said, 'Hey, take it easy with me tomorrow.' That's what he told me,” Guerrero recalled. “After the line drive, I just wanted to give him a hug.”
Scherzer described the line drive as “a pitcher’s worst nightmare,” and added that he’s “just grateful I still have a blue eye and a brown eye.”
“I’m alive and I didn’t get hit by a ball,” he added, “that’s the success story.”
The home run the next inning was majestic, unloading on a lazy 1-1 slider that hung middle-middle and launching it deep into the darkening Rockies sky at 110.2 m.p.h. As he skipped up the line he cracked a smile, revelling in his accomplishment before throwing down his bat, circling the bases and engaging in some interplay with Tatis.
"When he hit the fly ball to left (in the first inning), I told him, ‘Hey, you just missed that one,’” Guerrero explained. “And when I hit the homer, he told me that I should have stood at the plate a little longer.”
Waiting for him outside the dugout was Bichette for the pair’s traditional post-homer hug before his elaborate handshake with Hernandez.
"He's so amazing that we almost kind of expect him to do that," said Bichette. "It was definitely cool to see him do it on this stage. "His personality, being his teammate, that's so infectious. He has fun every day and it's tough not having fun with him."
In the fifth, he made it 3-0 with his chopper to second allowed Hernandez to scoot home, delivering a productive out on a 98.8-m.p.h. fastball at the top of the zone from Trevor Rogers after swinging through a pair of heaters in similar spots the previous two pitches.
Guerrero came out of the game after the inning but hung around until the end, being among the first players to greet Jared Walsh after he made a sliding catch on a Kris Bryant liner to bail Matt Barnes out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth and preserve a 5-2 lead.
"A lot of people hadn't seen it and now they have," said Semien. "Everybody watches this game. If I'm not an all-star, I'm sitting there at home watching it with my kids. He did it against the best in the game. Hopefully he carries that into the second half and we win some ballgames."
Major League Baseball can definitely sell that, and the fact there were 42 first-time all-stars in the game and so many compelling young talents – even in the absence of the recently injured Ronald Acuna Jr. – speaks to the opportunity the game has in the years ahead.
Leveraging that, of course, will require labour peace beyond the expiration of the current collective bargaining and more labour talks are upcoming. Both Manfred and Clark were especially tight-lipped about how much, if any, headway was being made but the lack of sniping after last year’s disconcerting back-and-forth is surely better than the alternative.
While there’s certainly lingering distrust, Manfred chafed at the notion of there being any spillover, saying “this whole relationship thing gets overplayed and misinterpreted.”
“If you're in a collective bargaining relationship, you're going to have points in time where you have disagreements and sometimes they get public,” he continued. “I don't think that's a good thing but it happens, OK? It just is the way of the world. Agreements get made or not made based on the substance of what's out there. The fact that you have a period of time, which we admittedly had last spring, where we had serious disagreements that became public, I don't think is really an indicator of whether you're going to get an agreement.”
A labour stoppage just as the sport is re-emerging from the pandemic would seem asinine, but there are fundamental issues in both the game’s economic structure and the way it’s played that are up for debate.
Manfred essentially said seven-inning doubleheaders and runners on second to begin extra innings won’t be back once health and safety concerns ease, saying “they are much less likely to be part of our permanent landscape,” than non-radical rules that tweak play.
Among them could be regulating defensive shifts by stipulating that two infielders must begin on either side of second base, something he said “is not change, it’s restoration.”
No matter how it’s spun, implementing any adjustments is better done in conjunction with players, especially with the opportunity to reset the sport for rapidly changing times.
At the forefront of it all is a remarkable collection of generational talent taking control of the game, and on a night for baseball’s best to shine, Guerrero outshone them all.