“I knew your name before I met you,” the Spanish voiceover on the video begins. “My first son was always going to be Junior.”
A famous name can be both a blessing and a curse, something Vladimir Guerrero Sr.—and now that suffix is needed—knew when he named the boy who would follow him into the business that had made him successful and wealthy beyond imagination. “There’s pressure with that,” he continues in the video addressed to his son, Vladimir Jr., on the day of his major-league debut, “but the name was my choice. The rest were yours.”
A little over 20 years later, all those choices added up to one of the most anticipated debuts the game has seen in a good long while. In front of just under 30,000 fans in Toronto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.—baseball’s No. 1 prospect, a force of nature that tore through the minors, and the son of one of the sport’s best pure hitters—was finally here, in the flesh, an honest-to-God major leaguer. “Happy Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Day!” tweeted Blue Jays righty Marcus Stroman, that night’s starter, earlier in the day.
You’d be forgiven if you thought it was never going to arrive, or at least not any time soon. The hemming and hawing from the Blue Jays had gone on for nearly a calendar year, full of constant deflection and excuses as to when Guerrero would be deemed ready after he had already proven, over and over again, that he was. It never had anything to do with his skills or development, though; it was always about the money, and how much of it Toronto could save if it squeezed out every last day and hour and minute of his time in the minors.
But finally the talent won out, and here finally was Guerrero, wearing a Blue Jays uniform and blasting home runs in batting practice that fell like missiles all over the Rogers Centre’s furthest reaches. There he was, striding to the plate for his first MLB at-bat against A’s righty Mike Fiers, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” blaring from the speakers. There he stood at third base, the recipient of chants and standing ovations and about a thousand camera cutaway shots throughout the night.
As the anticipation rose, so did the questions. Could he meet the gargantuan expectations placed upon him as baseball’s best prospect and the man bearing the name of Vladimir Guerrero? Could he equal the hype created by a collective .331/.413/.531 line in the minors, and the comparisons to Manny Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera and, yes, his own father, and all the praise from all the scouts and analysts? What kind of performance could equal that? Maybe launching four home runs, and also hitting for the cycle, and also collecting all the Infinity Stones and undoing Thanos’ snap. (Guerrero does share the Mad Titan’s physical build, though hopefully not his Malthusian beliefs.)
As unfair as it was for Guerrero to sit and waste his time in a league he had all but destroyed while the Jays dithered and stalled, it’s perhaps just as unfair to expect him to come to the majors and easily and quickly conquer the game’s hardest level. It’s not unheard of, and given how advanced of a hitter he is and how absurdly talented he is, it didn’t seem like a crazy idea. But prospects, no matter how good, tend to break and bust and fail and struggle. Mike Trout’s first season, the baseball equivalent of John Lennon and Paul McCartney playing skiffle as the Quarrymen, saw him hit .220/.281/.390 in 135 plate appearances. No one’s path is linear or visible from start to finish. You didn’t have to look far to find an example in his own debut: Oakland second baseman Jurickson Profar, the game’s No. 1 prospect six years ago but now on his second team and with a career OPS+ of 84. Profar couldn’t miss until he did.
That isn’t to say that Guerrero is fool’s gold. On Tuesday, he looked like the true steel, scorching the balls that he hit, missing a home run by only a few feet in his second at-bat, executing a couple of tough defensive plays at third base, and knocking a double down the rightfield line in the bottom of the ninth for his first hit. He didn’t swing and miss once and showed an excellent eye (better than that of home plate umpire David Rackley, who twice called strikes on Guerrero that were outside the zone). That leadoff double started the game-winning rally for the Jays, though Vlad Jr. didn’t score the winning run. After reaching second, he was promptly pulled for a pinch-runner, Alen Hanson, who touched home plate on a two-run homer from Brandon Drury—ironic, given that Drury was the player keeping Guerrero’s spot at the hot corner warm throughout April.
The moment, in other words, didn’t faze him, even with the pressure piled so high that you could see it from space. But Guerrero invited it, and all the comparisons to dear old dad. He showed up to the ballpark wearing his father’s Expos jersey (and bearing his father’s No. 27 on his back as a Jay), took all of his at-bats with his father watching from up high in a stadium suite. (On Junior’s near home run, Senior could be seen doing his best Carlton Fisk impression, trying to will the ball out and yelling, “Vete, vete”—“Go, go” in Spanish—before cursing as it landed in the outstretched glove of Chad Pinder in left.) And it’s hard not to see the father in the son at the plate, with the same stance and swing, bashing balls just like Vlad Sr. did.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, on the first day of what is hopefully a long and brilliant career, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. stood tall in the spotlight. He is, after all, the son of Vladimir Guerrero Sr., who knew exactly what kind of hopes he was placing on his newborn son when he gave him his name. He also knew something that everyone else would and will learn in due time: There would be far more to his child than just being Junior. As his electric debut showed, his future—and that of Toronto, and the game as a whole—is blindingly bright.
“That’s why you’re here, and that’s why you’ll stay,” Senior says in his video. “Not for my name, and not for my swing, but because of your choice, every day, to play.
“I knew you were special the moment I met you,” he finishes. “And now the whole world will know it, too.”