ONE SURE SIGN of true charisma is a multitude of nicknames, and along with the legendary name he inherited, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Toronto Blue Jays’ powerful first baseman, also answers to Vlad Jr., Vladdy and Vladito. Then there’s Plákata, which is more of a synonym for Guerrero than a nickname, the same way Beast Mode is just another way of saying Marshawn Lynch. Plákata is slang born in Caribbean baseball for the kind of barrel contact that typically results in a long home run — an adjective, in other words, not a noun. But who cares? It’s a perfect fit, both for Vlad Jr. and for what he does to baseballs: plákata.
Not all generational sluggers slug the same way. For every Pete Alonso with a short, lumberjack hack, there’s a Manny Ramirez, whose swing was loose and easy, like he was tossing out a fishing net. Guerrero’s swing, meanwhile, has a rare, whipping violence the game hasn’t seen since peak Gary Sheffield, who had one of modern baseball’s two most terrifying swings, and peak Vladimir Guerrero Sr., who had the other. Their bats were huge, and they swung them so hard it was as if the bat swung them. Vlad Jr.’s swing is a mirror image of his father’s — it’s the first thing everyone notices about him. His frame very much is not — that’s the second. Junior looks like Senior if you wrapped Senior in dough and let it rise for an hour.
Vlad Jr. is also blessed with a preternatural plate discipline that, suffice to say, he did not inherit from his father. Senior’s most iconic base hit was an otherwise inconsequential single against the Orioles in 2009. The pitch bounced in front of the plate, but Senior swung anyway and knocked it into left field. Junior is far choosier. He’s got such a good eye and such a flawless swing path that he exposes the fundamental unfairness of pitching vis-a-vis hitting, which is that the ball has to go past him first. He dropped a ton of weight before the 2021 season, and now his wrists are so fast there’s nowhere safe to pitch him. Your best bet is inside, on the hands — like really inside, really in on the hands, where it’s too risky for both of you. Anywhere else, and he plákatas it to the moon.
Guerrero is one of four baseball scions in the Jays’ relentless lineup, along with shortstop and fellow All-Star Bo Bichette (son of Rockies slugger Dante), left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (son of Cuban league legend Lourdes Sr.) and third baseman Cavan Biggio (son of Hall of Famer Craig), and with the exception of Biggio, who has struggled so far, they’re all ripening at once. Stir in free-agent center fielder George Springer, who’s spent half the season injured and the other half raking, plus a career year from free-agent second baseman Marcus Semien, and the result is a historic offense hiding in plain sight. Over a single 24-hour period in early September, spanning three games in Baltimore — a Saturday doubleheader and a Sunday matinee — the Blue Jays scored 44 runs (and the first two games were only seven innings). During one four-inning stretch that weekend, they scored a MLB-record 27 times.
At the center of all of it is Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., who matched his father’s career best in home runs (44) on Sept. 12, and beat the mark a day later with No. 45. If the younger Guerrero’s Statcast chart were a high school report card, he’d get beaten up in the cafeteria. Average exit velocity: 99th percentile. Hard hit percentage: 97th percentile. Expected weighted OBP: 97th. Expected slugging percentage: 98th. Did you know he might win the Triple Crown this season? Here we are with three weeks left in the season, and it is very much on the table. In 2012, when Miguel Cabrera won baseball’s first Triple Crown since 1967 (at age 29, by the way) he quite naturally won the AL MVP award as well. Guerrero will not. Even if he becomes only the second Triple Crown winner in half a century, he is all but assured of losing the MVP to Shohei Ohtani.
Somehow this feels apt. All season long, Guerrero and the rest of the ball-murdering Toronto Blue Jays have been doing their damage almost entirely off the grid. If they’ve eluded your attention so far, though, don’t be too hard on yourself. The entire city of Toronto — heck, all of Canada — had to miss most of it, too. Because thanks to Covid, while the rest of the baseball world was getting back to normal-ish life, Vlad Jr. and the Jays were stuck in a place where you’d never think to look.
Buffalo, New York
IN NORMAL TIMES, Sahlen Field in downtown Buffalo is home to the Bisons, the Jays’ top minor-league affiliate, but for a good stretch of the first half of the 2021 season, it has enjoyed the unique distinction of being the only MLB stadium where home plate is within blast radius of a freeway interchange. Interstate 190, to be specific. I-190 runs north from Buffalo along the Niagara River, past Niagara Falls, until it bisects the border and turns into General Brock Parkway on the Canadian side. From there it merges with Queen Elizabeth Way, and then it’s a quick leafy loop around Lake Ontario to the Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto, where the Jays have not played a baseball game since September 29, 2019. Today is July 16, 2021. Friday. The first day of the second half. The All Star Game was Tuesday. Jays manager Charlie Montoyo has described the odyssey as “a 600-day road trip.” This is Day 658.
The end, though, could be nigh. The Rogers Centre has received two of the three blessings it needs from the Canadian government in order to welcome back the Blue Jays — knock on wood — in two weeks on July 30. Which means that these next five games — three against the triple-A Texas Rangers, two versus the Red Sox — could well be the Jays’ last stand here at Sahlen Field.
One last chance, in other words, to park a ball on the I-190 interchange. From the batter’s box it looks like a landing strip — a 100-foot tease of asphalt up a small grassy knoll beyond the power alley in left center. It’s 371 feet to the wall out there — Sahlen’s dimensions match the Rogers Centre’s almost precisely — but the exit ramp is farther than it looks, especially with that knoll. At least 480 feet. Maybe 500. And this isn’t thin-aired Coors Field, where a trio of Toronto All-Star sluggers just returned from half a week of marveling at the omnipresent mob surrounding Toronto’s fourth All-Star, Vlad Jr. He finished it off by becoming the youngest MVP award winner in the history of the All Star Game, largely thanks to a third-inning home run so sudden and pulverizing that it caused Joe Buck’s voice to crack.
So if anyone’s reaching the I-190 interchange, it’s Guerrero. He’s far too disciplined a hitter to target it during a game. “Demasiado lejos,” he says. Too far. But during BP, it’s on. How could you resist? He hasn’t reached the ramp yet, though, and he’s running out of Sahlen Field BPs. A light rain softens the infield dirt as he waits his turn in the cage. He lets his chewing gum tumble from his mouth then takes a mighty swing as it drops. Foul tip. The weakest contact he will make all night.
Today’s pre-game stretching has a first-day-of-school vibe. While Jays rotate through the batting cage, a few coaches gather by the dugout and chit-chat about their All Star Game MVP, and the Home Run Derby that he notably sat out, citing the need for a single solitary day of rest. Alonso, the Mets’ first baseman, had exuberantly defended his crown at Monday night’s Derby, bobbing his head and egging on the crowd as he crushed homer after homer — 74 total — into the Coors Field bleachers and beyond. During the post-Derby trophy ceremony, Alonso had declared himself “the best power hitter on the planet,” and that claim is now the subject of much merriment among members of the Jays coaching staff, who do not seem to concur. One of the coaches bobs his head, Alonso-style, and they laugh.
It’s worth noting that Alonso hit an MLB rookie record 53 home runs in 2019, the same year Guerrero was a rookie and hit 15, and Alonso beat Guerrero that summer to win his first Derby. But this spring Guerrero bloomed into the hitter that the Jays organization, its fans and the entire nation of Canada had been promised since the franchise paid $3.9 million to sign him at age 16. That’s why the Jays coaches are talking such boisterously indiscreet smack. The best power hitter on the planet? That kid over there is the planet’s best hitter, period.
For a year now stretching back to last summer, the Blue Jays have done their sincere best to act like being marooned here is no big deal, even though it meant some of them have had to live out of an Embassy Suites across from the ballpark. Months away from family, friends, their own beds. This isn’t much of a baseball town, either; it’s a Bills town first, a Sabres town second, and even though the Bisons play here, even though New York City is 500 miles away, seven hours by car, it’s a Yankees town third. At least the Yankees are from the same country. It means, though, that the Jays have spent the season as a division rival in their own ballpark.
Now, a word about Buffalo, because cities like Buffalo always take it on the chin in stories like these, and it’s no stretch to say that baseball’s long-term health depends on team-less cities like Buffalo adopting superstars like Guerrero. Buffalo is not some lonely outpost on the far western frontier of New York State. You don’t go over Niagara Falls and vanish off the map. It’s a major tourist center, near two airports and a billion colleges. Voters here seem poised to make India Walton, a 39-year-old Black female democratic socialist, their next mayor in November, which, whatever your politics, is probably not what you saw coming from Buffalo. Frederick Law Olmsted, the guy who designed Central Park, considers Buffalo — Buffalo! — to be his urban landscaping masterwork. Chicken wings were invented here. Show some respect.
It is also a city whose sports history is best known for a disgraced NFL hero who was accused of double murder, four consecutive Super Bowl losses and the words “wide right.” City Hall is six blocks from Sahlen Field, down broad avenues with no cars, no people, just blocks of vacant Art Deco buildings with breathtaking red marble lobbies and a thick layer of dust.
But now the Jays can go home.
Cavan Biggio bursts out of the clubhouse tunnel with a big smile. “We got approved!” he announces to the SportsNet crew, the coaches, anyone within earshot. It’s official: five more games here in Buffalo, then a seven-game road trip, then back, finally, to Toronto.
This is one of those situations where you can’t be too openly jubilant lest you offend your dedicated host, but the fact is the Blue Jays need this. They’re tired. Guerrero is tired. “If I’m being honest, I’m not 100% right now,” he had said during his first post-break Zoom availability with reporters earlier in the day. The Jays are in third place, eight games behind the Sox, 6 ½ behind the Rays, right on the brink of too far back. And yet their +80 run differential tells a far different story: that they could as easily be in first place, that they’re budding World Series contenders whose bullpen keeps fumbling away games and whose rotation, despite a Cy Young-caliber season from grunting lefty Robbie Ray and his extremely snug pants, is too thin for an AL East this deep. With the trade deadline looming on July 30 at 4 p.m. ET, and homecoming night at the Rogers Center just a few hours later, the front office has a pivotal decision to make. The potential X factor here is the city of Toronto. The cathartic 11-game homestand that could, perhaps, propel them back into the race. It’s clear already that July 30 will be one of the biggest nights in Toronto Blue Jays history. Attendance will be 13,500, less than a sold-out Sahlen, but all 27,000 eyes will be wet with tears.
The Blue Jays give the city of Buffalo an early parting gift on Friday night, a 10-2 drubbing of the Rangers, featuring not one, not two, but five Jays home runs. In the first inning, Vlad somehow turns on a low-and-away breaking ball, hitting it off the end of his bat and flicking it over the left field fence for his 29th homer. Then in the sixth inning, with two on and the Jays up 7-0, he plakatas No. 30 over the left field wall, over the 20-foot chain link fence beyond the Canadian Honda sign, over the 30-foot net above the chain link fence and out onto some long-abandoned lot beyond Sahlen Field, a few yards shy of the I-190 interchange. Drat.
Saturday is a downpour, and so the team closes out its final weekend in western New York with a Sunday doubleheader under a storybook sky. Toronto will sweep both games by a combined score of 15-0. Before the gates open to fans that morning at Sahlen Field, though, the grounds crew had peeled off the TORONTO BLUE JAYS logos from the home dugout roof and replaced them with ones that read “THANK YOU BUFFALO.”
FAR TOO MUCH has been made of the 42 pounds that Vlad Guerrero Jr. lost in a matter of months before the 2021 season — like he’s Robert de Niro in “Raging Bull” or something — and simultaneously it hasn’t been discussed nearly enough.
Here’s what happened: heading into the spring of 2020, Guerrero weighed around 250 pounds — a soft 250, but still 250. Ish. Then Covid struck. Like most of us, he assumed the season was lost, and so, fueled by his abuela’s cooking, he grew a size or two. XXL, maybe even XXXL. Then, uh-oh, the 2020 season didn’t get wiped out, and Guerrero showed up for spring training (in July) weighing three solid bills, with no hand speed and muscles made of carne de res guisada (Dominican beef stew). Over the 60-game foreshortened season he hit just nine homers and batted a pedestrian .262. He looked slow. He felt slow.
It’s not like he was guzzling chicken wings, or doubling up on dessert at the Cheesecake Factory. He was just being a good grandson. During Vlad Sr.’s playing career, his mother, Altagracia, lived with him in Montreal and Anaheim and she cooked all his meals. Now she’s doing it for her grandson. Her food has swiftly become part of Blue Jays lore. Everyone in the organization — from the GM to the social media director — has tucked into at least one plate of Altagracia’s food. This is who Vlad Jr. was marooned at home with through those early months of Covid. And as anyone with a grandmother knows, there are two rules when it comes to their food: one, you stop eating when they say you stop eating, and two, you never stop eating. If you stop, it means you don’t love them.
The Jays squeaked into the playoffs in 2020, but then they got swept out by the Rays, and what should’ve been an upbeat offseason for Toronto was blunted by Guerrero’s failure to launch. So when it came time for the Jays front office to present a diet plan, they met with Vlad Jr. first, and then they met with Altagracia. It was a two-person conversation, and a two-person commitment.
“She’s part of the team, she’s part of the plan,” Vladdy says, through a translator. He sinks into the padded bench of the visitors dugout at Fenway Park at the end of July like it’s a soft barco-lounger. He just got a massage, but this is also his resting level of chill. “She agree, and she understand.” The issue wasn’t her food, he is quick to say. It was his portion control. It was Guerrero blowing through one helping, then two, then sometimes three. He and his abuela bought into the Jays’ plan, and the proof is in the uneaten pudding. By Opening Day, the weight was gone. He worked his butt off until those preternatural hands got back to acceptable Guerrero family standards.
In Vlad Sr.’s youth, the cliche about baseball in the Dominican Republic was that you don’t walk off the island. So he swung at everything, and no matter where they threw it, he hit it. He crushed homers on eye-level fastballs and he golfed pitches two feet outside into the cheap seats. In every aspect of the game, he played with total abandon. He almost made the 40/40 club in 2002, one of his most dominant seasons with the Expos, but he came up one homer — one homer — short. You exhaled every time he took a pitch, and you did not, under any circumstances, challenge his arm in right field. He retired in 2011 at age 36 after posting the worst batting average of his career: .290.
His son didn’t have to walk off the island. He didn’t even have to leave his house. The big leagues came to him.
“It’s really tricky to get to, actually,” says Andrew Tinnish, Jays VP of international scouting and baseball operations, who made his first pilgrimage in 2014.
The Guerrero compound is an hour southwest of Santo Domingo, past a tiny town called Nizao, where Senior was raised. “Really off the beaten path — like, in the middle of nowhere,” Tinnish says. “You go through the town, and then you’re on kind of these dirt roads through the woods and it winds down along a river, and then all of a sudden, OK, here’s this field.” Several fields, actually. A glistening, sprawling baseball complex, with a gargantuan “27” etched into the side of a hill. Vlad Jr., Tinnish recalls, “was out there all the time, just hitting, nonstop.” He and his younger brothers and his cousins would come and go on ATVs — picture teenaged Vladdy, plump cheeks, goofy smile, zooming across the outfield grass on a four-wheeler — and they’d play all day long under the watchful eye of Wilton Guerrero, Senior’s brother and Junior’s uncle, who had a modest MLB career of his own and who everyone around the Blue Jays, including Vlad Jr. himself, credits with being Vlad Jr.’s baseball mentor.
It was Vlad Jr.’s ability not to swing, in fact, that most impressed the Jays scouting department. “It became very evident, very early on, that there was a different level of plate discipline,” Tinnish recalls. “And not facing kids throwing 85.” No disrespect to homering off eye-level fastballs, “but laying off a 95 mph fastball that’s three inches inside or outside, at 15 years old — you know, that’s crazy too.”
Tinnish remembers Senior as silent and watchful during that first visit, off to the side, out of the way. To be honest, he doesn’t remember Senior much at all. He remembers Wilton. In a 2018 profile of the Guerreros by Stephen Brunt for SportsNet Canada, Pedro Martinez, who is Vlad Jr.’s godfather, memorably describes Vlad Sr. as “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.”
The son, meanwhile, is all lion cub.
When Vlad Jr. steps into the box for the first time each game, he greets the umpire and the opposing catcher with a friendly compatriot hand on the shoulder. “¿Está bien? How’s it going?” And before every turn at the plate, he flips his bat around and uses the handle to acknowledge God, writing “DIOS” in the dirt. All season long, the Baby Jays have been really, really fun — baseball’s best kept secret, which no one blames at all on Buffalo — and Guerrero is the jovial ringleader.
During pre-game stretching, Jays center fielder George Springer emerges from the dugout wearing a T-shirt featuring Vlad Jr. crushing a pitch on the front and the word “DEFCON” on the back above Guerrero’s 27. Springer has no idea who made the shirt, what it means, or how it came into his possession. “I just like it because it’s got Vlad on it,” he says, smiling.
“He’s like a brother to me at this point,” says Bichette, whom the Jays drafted in the second round in 2016, a year after they signed Vlad Jr. “I mean, we’ve been around each other so much. We’ve grown up together since we were 18, 17 years old.” And then, as if it’s the first thing that occurs to him when he thinks about his pal, Bichette adds: “He’s happy all the time.”
After dropping two of three to the Mets in New York, the Jays lose two of the first three here at Fenway, leaving them 9 ½ games in the AL East — even further back than where they started the second half. They’re also in fourth place now, behind the Yankees. It’s July 29. The trade deadline is tomorrow at 4 p.m. This would be a tough call for the front office even under ordinary circumstances. Now add the theatricality of the Blue Jays sprinting out onto the field at the Rogers Centre in Toronto just four hours later. Do you deflate the building by doing nothing? Or do you turbo-charge it with a daring mega-deal?
As if answering with their bats, the Jays close out their 600-day road trip across the continental U.S. with an eruption against the Sox. For the second time in less than two weeks, Guerrero crushes a pitch clear out of a big-league stadium, this time over the Green Monster and onto Landsdowne Street. That makes it 9-0. Then the rest of the Jays pile on four more runs. “Come on,” the Jays whispered. “We’ve got Vlad. Do it.”
You know he’s Canadian, right? Vlad Jr. was raised in the DR, but he was born in Montreal in 1999, as Vlad Sr. was entering his prime with the Expos. He has a Canadian passport. Multiple Blue Jays team officials mention off hand that he could play for the Canadian national team, you know, if he ever wanted to. Every Jays fan has seen the photo of Vladdy, age 3, beaming in an Expos uniform, standing beside his dad on the field at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, like an origin story captured in freeze frame.
The fact that Vlad Jr. wound up playing in Toronto, in Canada — it’s hard to describe how much it means to Canadian baseball fans. The history of the Expos and the Blue Jays, the Expos versus the Blue Jays, is thorny and bitter. But over the last decade or so, as the passage of time has turned the Expos from a sports tragedy into a hipster signifier, a bond has gradually formed, and what sealed it was this shared family line of generational hitters. What sealed it was Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
A pocket history of MLB in Canada
IN THE BEGINNING, the National League created the Montreal Expos.
This was 1969. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation TV carried their games from sea to shining sea, from the puffin islands of Newfoundland to the marijuana fields of British Columbia, and for a time, everything was good. The reason things are getting biblical right away is because most American sports fans think of the Expos and the Blue Jays as a pair of intrepid baseball pioneers, striking out north of the wall, hoping against hope that one of them will survive. Nope. The truth is more of a Cain and Abel story, only this time Abel wins.
The name Expos was a nod to the Expo 67 World’s Fair, hosted by Montreal two years earlier, and the National League awarded them the franchise on one condition: the city had to build a domed stadium, tout de suite. Immediately. Eight years later, the Expos finally got their dome: Olympic Stadium. “The Big O.” Strange place. A cavernous multi-purpose sports complex with the flat murmur of a public library, and a suspension dome that looked more the top of a circus tent. The underside was gleaming white. Fly balls vanished against it. The Big O could seat 56,040, but it never did. Not for Expos games, anyway.
And then a year after the Expos moved in, before they’d even unpacked, the American League christened the Toronto Blue Jays. This was 1977. With one stroke, the Expos’ TV audience was cut in half. Everything west of Toronto — TROC, “the rest of Canada” — became Blue Jays country. Quebec’s French-Canadians already enjoyed rolling their eyes at the Expos, and now the English speakers had another option, too. The Montreal Expos hung on as a franchise until 2004, but their fate was sealed at least a decade earlier. And while it’s not entirely fair to say the Blue Jays killed them, it’s not entirely unfair either. If we’re scoring the fight, there were four decisive blows.
1989: The grand opening of SkyDome in downtown Toronto. Cool dome, Montreal. We’ll see it and raise you a retractable dome.
1992: In just their 15th year of existence, the Blue Jays win the World Series in six games over the Atlanta Braves, becoming MLB’s first-ever champion from Canada.
1993: The Blue Jays become MLB’s first back-to-back World Series champion since the Bronx Zoo Yankees of the late 1970s, and this time they clinch the title at home, at SkyDome, over the Philadelphia Phillies, on Joe Carter’s three-run walk-off home run to left field. This is the greatest moment in Canadian baseball history, and it will never be topped.
1994: The Expos strike back! On August 11, they own baseball’s best record, 74-40, and a six-game NL East lead. Their roster is stacked. Larry Walker. Moises Alou. Pedro Martinez, age 22. Then on August 12, a players’ strike wipes out the rest of the season, including the World Series, which the 1994 Expos definitely would’ve won. It was a fatal deus ex machina for the Expos. A World Series title could’ve saved the franchise. Instead, the anti-climax crushed it.
By the time Vlad Sr. arrived in Montreal in 1997 as a 22-year-old rookie, Pedro already had one cleat out the door. They only overlapped for one full season, and that winter Pedro accepted the Red Sox offer to make him the highest-paid player in MLB history. In 1999, when Vlad Sr. hit .316 with 42 home runs and 131 runs batted in — the season Vladdy became Vladdy — average attendance at the Big O hovered around 10,000. The Expos were a dead team walking, and even he couldn’t save them.
Let’s spare ourselves the protracted serio-comic denouement — the backroom deals, the smear campaigns, the desperate late push to replace the Big O with a new ballpark in downtown Montreal, and when that failed, two sad surreal seasons of “home games” at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. By 2005, the Expos were in Washington, Vlad Sr. was in Anaheim and the Toronto Blue Jays had Canada all to themselves.
For the subsequent decade, embittered Expos loyalists went underground and regarded the Blue Jays and their pan-Canadian fanbase with the suspicion of an occupying force. Of late, though, it’s taken a turn toward peace and reconciliation. And once Vlad Jr. showed up, something about watching that familiar swing, seeing that number 27, hearing that name — it was hard to avoid the sensation that some invisible hand had steered him here, making it possible to forgive and forget.
The Vlad Jr. who arrived in Toronto in 2019, though, six weeks after his 20th birthday, was “just an average human being,” says essayist and Canadian baseball historian Andrew Forbes. “He wasn’t Hank Aaron.” Junior’s rookie slashline — .272/.339/.433 — was promising, but Canada had been promised by his father. Jays fans weren’t mad, they were just disappointed. Then came the weight gain and the step backward in 2020. But now he’s back and seemingly impossible to get out.
One remarkable statistic from Vlad Jr.’s first half, courtesy of Jays chronicler Drew Fairservice’s all-Vladdy-all-the-time Substack, “Vlad Religion”: he played every game, and he went 0-for-5 just three times. While every other MLB franchise got back to playing in front of baseball-starved capacity crowds, Vlad Jr. was putting up a first-half slashline of .332/.430/1.089, and doing it in near total silence.
“It’s incredibly frustrating that we can’t watch this,” Forbes says, lamenting the raucous standing ovation Vlad Jr. would’ve gotten had the Jays been able to return to Toronto post-All Star Game, as opposed to the respectful golf clap he got at Sahlen Field. The night of July 30 won’t just be the first time in two years that Toronto fans get to watch Guerrero in their own country — it’ll be the first time they’ve seen him since he started living up to the hopes and dreams of both Jays fans and Expos cultists. There will be two franchises’ worth of pent-up emotion. They’re gonna blow the roof off the Rogers Centre.
But first: breaking news! Hours before the MLB trade deadline, minutes before the players take the field on actual Canadian soil, the Jays front office announces a blockbuster deal. Minnesota Twins ace righthander Jose Berrios, who is under contract through the 2022 season, the additional elite arm that the Jays’ middling rotation was missing, is headed to Toronto. The price is steep — the Jays’ second and fourth best prospects — but the message from on high is clear. Our future is already on the field. Our future starts right now.
THE HIGH SCHOOL football entrance is the best part, hands down. Is it a little goofy? Sure. It is gooftastic.
For the big moment on July 30, the Rogers Centre grounds crew throws open the gate in the centerfield fence, then all of the players and coaches, led by Montoyo, come charging through an 25-foot blue-and-white balloon tunnel, blowing past Montoyo and out onto the field. Propped up on the dirt around second base, giant letters in Blue Jays typeface — H O M E — greet the 13,446 openly weeping fans, all shrieking “LET’S GO BLUE JAYS, LET’S GO BLUE JAYS!” At least 20% of them wear Guerrero 27 jerseys. The number of days the team was away, 670, is plastered on every scoreboard. Home Plate Lady is here! They got Home Plate Lady!
After a pre-recorded video plays on the Jumbotron of Jays fans on the street talking about what the Jays coming home means to them (more tears), the Jays’ four All Stars — Guerrero, Bichette, Semien, and DH Teoscar Hernandez — catch four first pitches from four Toronto-area front-line workers (tears). Vlad is misting. Bo is misting. Montoyo is straight up crying.
Toronto wins the game, 6-4. Of course they do. It would’ve been a cosmic injustice for them to lose tonight. Hernandez starts it off with a second-inning solo blast. Bichette finishes it off with a seventh-inning two-run blast. Closer Brad Hand, the Jays other notable deadline acquisition, doesn’t exactly slam the door, but eventually he jams it shut. The Jays settle in for an 11-game homestand, which they will finish 9-2. They become the team no one in the American League wants to play.
And Guerrero runs out of gas.
His batting average sinks from .371 for the month of June, to .286 in July, to .267 in August. After three 0-for-5s all first half, he goes 0-for-5 three times in less than two weeks. He’s never actually played a full season of Major League Baseball, and it’s starting to show. He’s transformed himself into a nimble 250 pounds — multiple Jays officials point out that his foot speed on the base paths now grades out to above average, which seems preposterous until you remember the genetics — but no one in the organization would say he’s tight as a drum, Vlad Jr. included.
“He knows,” a team official says. “He realizes that what he did — it really is paying off for him big time. So it will be stupid for him to not to continue it. He needs to get better. He wants to lose more weight.”
“It was the key,” Guerrero says simply.
A frequent player comp for Vlad Jr. is Prince Fielder, another burly power-hitting scion, whose body broke down at 29 and who was out of baseball by 33. If Vlad Jr. ever hopes to dethrone Pete Alonso in the Home Run Derby, wearing down is not an option. (For the moment Vlad says he’s keeping his options open: “I can’t sit right here and say, ‘Yes, I’m going to do it,’ because I don’t know how I’m going to feel next year at that moment. Now, I’ll say this: I want to do it again. I don’t know when, if it’s next year or the following. But that’s my intention, to try it one more time.”) He’s got grander ambitions than a Derby crown, though. Vlad Sr. only reached the World Series once, in 2010, with the Texas Rangers, and the Giants wiped them out in five games. Guerrero managed just one hit all series. So in a household where bragging rights will be hard to come by, Vlad Jr.’s ringless father provides a narrow opening. But the son understands that bloodlines only get you so far.
“I know it sounds weird,” Vlad Jr. says, “but I don’t think it makes any difference. In my case, for me, it doesn’t make any difference. We got to trust ourselves. I mean, they did what they did, our fathers. Now it’s my turn.”
Even if his Triple Crown chase comes up a category or two short, even if the Jays can’t slug their way into the playoffs next month, he’s already started rewriting the Guerrero family record book. On Monday night, he clubs his 45th home run of the season, breaking his father’s single-season record for home runs by a Vlad Guerrero, and he does it with 18 games left to play. It is more than just a milestone, though. The homer puts him one ahead of Ohtani for the AL lead, and it finishes off a 8-1 victory over the first-place Rays, giving Toronto a full game lead in the wild card standings.
It is more than just a home run, too. Once again, Guerrero goes viral for hitting a ball with Sheffieldian power, but this was an altogether different species than his blast during the All Star Game. This one was a low screamer that left the park like a javelin, clearing the left field wall by a matter of inches. The launch angle was just 15 degrees — basically flat. “I think the third baseman jumped,” Montoyo says. “I saw that, and I thought it was gonna hit the wall. There’s no way that ball’s going out. And then when it went out, I went, ‘Oh my God.'”
A little less than three weeks ago, the Jays’ postseason odds stood at 4.6%; heading into Monday’s game, it was 70.1%. With the Rays having sewn up the division weeks ago, the playoff race is now a three-way sprint to the finish for two wild card spots. Boston has bungled away a commanding postseason cushion, and after the Yankees ripped off 13 straight wins in August, Toronto answered in early September by ripping off four straight at Yankee Stadium. It was the Baby Jays’ Matrix moment — an epiphanic uprising during which the lumbering Yankees never once led. Now the Jays get to control their own fate. It’s their turn. They get to play 10 of their final 16 games against lowly Minnesota and lowlier Baltimore — the fat baby calves of the American League — and Vladdy Vladito Plákata Jr. is getting hungry again.
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