Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Is Here

It’s April 27. The Blue Jays may not be dominant — their roster has been decimated by injuries — but they are getting by, at least so far. They have just taken a rare series from the Rays in St. Petersburg; after a lengthy road trip, they now return to their home away from home in Dunedin, with Max Scherzer awaiting them on the mound.

On a bullpen day, the Nationals quickly take a 3-0 lead: two home runs from Trea Turner, another from Yadiel Hernandez. Scherzer erases singles in the first and second on double plays. But in the third, things start to happen: back-to-back singles from Alejandro Kirk and Cavan Biggio. A Bo Bichette walk loads the bases for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 

Guerrero hit into the double play that ended the first inning — just the second time he’s grounded into a double play this season, a ball he scorched into the dirt at 109 mph. He’s 1-for-11 over the past few games. He fouls off Scherzer’s first pitch, a slider in the zone; he watches two that miss. The fourth slider stays up. A grand slam, and the Jays lead.

Leading off the bottom of fifth, the lead he gave the Jays still holding, Guerrero adds another one.

And in the bottom of the seventh, this time against Kyle Finnegan, another: 

And the small crowd in the Dunedin stadium — where, four years ago, he delighted the people gathered to watch the Jays’ rookie ball affiliate — are all the more delighted now. They could have told you this was going to happen: that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — one of the most-hyped prospects of this generation, whose minor-league numbers were comical and his skills beyond description — would, at the age of 22, be one of the best hitters in all of baseball. That he was exactly the player who had been promised.

***

Guerrero was so hyped, indeed, that anything less than the stellar start to the season he’s had this year would have been considered a disappointment. The son of a charismatic Hall of Famer, power that reverberated through airwaves and speakers: Guerrero’s debut in April 2019 was a matter of national attention. The world-beating 2018 debuts of Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto — the former at age 20, the latter at 19 — had set the sights for Guerrero perhaps even higher. There seemed to be every expectation that he would step up to the plate and immediately become the Blue Jays’ answer to Bonds, the kind of hitter who could carry an entire team on his shoulders.

That didn’t happen, not exactly. Guerrero had, by any objective standard, an excellent season for a 20-year-old in his first year in the majors. He was an above-average hitter, and his defensive struggles were neither disastrous nor unpredicted. The overwhelming majority of the discourse consisted of urges not to worry, reminders of how young Guerrero was. Yet the argument was always framed around the idea of disappointment — whether Guerrero was one, whether people should be feeling it, whether such feelings around him were likely to continue. The aura of unmet potential hovered over every plate appearance, every ball rocketed into the infield dirt for a groundout. The Blue Jays were pretty terrible in 2019. In 2020, Guerrero was better, and so was the team. But he was no superhero. After the future that had been imagined before his arrival — the legacy of his father (who, like his son, whose own breakout season came at the age of 23), the sky-high evaluations, and the role he was expected to fill as the savior of a struggling team — almost any outcome would have carried that weight. He appeared, not as a figure larger than life and fully realized, but as someone — an extraordinarily talented someone — who still had things to figure out.

***

The fundamental, gut-deep level of fandom that makes its fire burn so bright for so long in so many is a level of identification with something — with someone — that seems impossible. A child sees a person on TV, wearing the same colors they wear, achieving an incredible feat. They see themselves, at the same time, reflected in the glass, watching as the hero rounds the bases, as his pitch perfectly lands in the catcher’s mitt. And outside, their own cheap plastic implements are transformed into the tools of a champion, they repeat the same motions as the hero. When they hit their Wiffle ball homer, it’s their hero rounding the bases, the hero’s name on their shirt — but it’s them, too, hitting the homer, living that fantasy, the mundanity of whatever life they lead becoming something huge and beautiful. They become the hero, and the hero becomes them.

For a kid, this identification can be transformative. It can create the drive to pursue the life you want, or simply add joy to days that might otherwise not have had much joy to be found. But it changes, as an adult, as one’s identity coalesces into something more solid, the desire to find heroes and saviors on a sports field becomes something harder, more complex. Adults don’t directly identify with the people on the field who wear their colors in the way that a kid does. But they find other ways to map themselves onto professional sports and the people who play them. Why else would adults bother sending hate to underperforming athletes, as though they had done some kind of personal damage? Why would a person with a full life, with all the real problems and responsibilities that life entails, allow themselves to care so much about the outcome of a sporting event that it could genuinely disturb their emotional state? Too old now to pretend to be the player whose exploits might have carried such magic long ago, held down too much by reality to indulge in flights of fancy, the mapping of the self onto these distant other people occurs by different means, mediated through other desires. For control, for certainty, for expectations to be fulfilled at least in this one place — no matter how unlikely it might be, no matter how human the people on whom all these desires are projected.

***

It’s May 13. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. stands at first behind Jordan Romano. It’s the bottom of the ninth; the Jays, coming from behind, have a comfortable lead thanks to a pile-on in the top of the inning. It was a pile-on in which Guerrero was not a part: he contributed a groundout, nothing more. In fact, aside from a 3-for-5 walloping of Atlanta on Tuesday, he’s been slumping in May. The ball still explodes off his bat, but fewer of them have been in the air.

As Romano does his trademark elaborate windup, Guerrero echoes his movements: an arm behind the back, the rocking side-to-side. And, of course, the squat — dropping down nearly to the dirt, and then back up again. He plays it perfectly.

Romano sends them down in order. The game is over; the Jays win. Guerrero points to the sky. When he goes down the high-five line with his teammates, he laughs.

***

It’s September. Down on the line in front of the home dugout — down there, standing with this team’s future Hall of Famer — a tiny figure stands for the national anthem. He goes up perhaps to the knee of the players, but he is dressed to blend in among them: a full uniform in toddler size, complete with a hat he holds over his heart. 

The music plays. There are just over 10,000 people here on a Sunday; Atlanta is in town, headed to the playoffs once again. The home team is not. Come next season, the home team might not even be here anymore: they will be somewhere else, with a different name, playing for an entirely different group of people. For now, though, the loyalists remain, even though there is no hope of the postseason, and even though Atlanta wins 6-4. They have their Hall of Famer, who this year will play in all but one game, who will fall just a homer short of a 40-40 season. They have a baseball team — and as long as it remains, as long as there is joy to be found in it, there is reason to stay. The future is uncertain — for the team, with its dwindling crowds, its old stadium, its corrupt, careless ownership, and for every person there in the stadium. Everything is temporary, and everything can be lost; in a moment, your entire world can turn. 

And the little kid down there, dressed in his little uniform like he’s already part of the team — who knows what he’ll do? He could be anyone. He could decide to do anything.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Thank you RJ, very cool!