Vladimir Guerrero Ready for Fearless 19-Year-Old Son to Steal Family Spotlight

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJuly 27, 2018

Toronto Blue Jays prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., left, looks at right fielder Teoscar Hernandez's bat as they talk before a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays Monday, June 11, 2018, in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Toronto Blue Jays say prospect Guerrero Jr. will miss at least four weeks because of a strained patellar tendon in his left knee. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
B/R

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Upstairs in a small suite just down the way from the enormous "Ferocious Family Fun" sign here at Delta Dental Stadium, the ferocious and loving matriarch of the Guerrero family pushes aside her box of chicken fingers, calls a timeout on the conversation and locks in on the field down below.

How many times has she stopped life in its tracks for something that is happening on a baseball field? Well, it's far too late to start counting now. But it started when her son, Vladimir Guerrero, was just a boy on the dirt-skinned fields at home in the Dominican Republic, and it just sort of kept going. Now it is Vladimir's son, Vladimir Jr., who commands the attention of his grandmother as he steps into the box to torment another Double-A pitcher.

Dressed in a navy top, a long, flowing skirt and thick, plastic-framed glasses, the matriarch's warm and beautiful smile lights up this suite. But she is shy with it. Maybe it's because there is a language barrier. Possibly it's because as her enormous and chaotic clan continues to revolve around the tiny white ball like planets around the sun, Altagracia Guerrero, 65, is the gravitational force pulling it all together, and sharp focus and boundless energy are required.

When Vlad Sr. was young, "a prophet, a priest, told me, 'From now on, because of your son Vlad, you are going to live a baseball life,'" she says with the help of a translator. "I never imagined that would happen to me."

The prophet did not reveal many more details. She could not know then that in one wonderful summer her son would land in the Hall of Fame—Vladimir will be enshrined on Sundayat the same time that her grandson would go viral as the game's hottest prospect. She could not know that this baseball life would take the burgeoning family to places it never could have imagined, from Montreal to Southern California, from this little town in New Hampshire to Cooperstown.

No, she simply trusted in the prophet and in her faith while living with her son, the future Hall of Famer, cooking for him during his entire career, organizing his life and then fulfilling his request that she do the same for his son. So now here she is, living in New Hampshire with a grandson who scrawls "Dios" ("God") into the dirt with his bat handle before each plate appearance, overseeing his banking, dispensing wisdom ("what he did good, what he did wrong, where he could be a better person"), cooking for him and making sure he stays out of the fast food joints to keep his weight in check. In addition to home runs, like many kids of 19, Vladdy Jr. has a healthy appetite for doughnuts and ice cream.

Bring a doughnut into their apartment at your own risk. Her smile turns into a glare that will melt plastic.

"If someone wants to do something to him, I will bring out my tiger claws and become a tiger," she says, sternly.

Downstairs, almost on cue, Vladdy Jr.'s bat strikes like a cobra as he crushes another long ball, further fueling the buzz that has swelled into a roar throughout the game.

In Toronto the other day, a fan hoisted a sign at a Blue Jays game reading "We Want Vladdy!"

Toronto fans have not been shy in expressing their desire to see Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the majors as soon as the organization can advance him there.
Toronto fans have not been shy in expressing their desire to see Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the majors as soon as the organization can advance him there.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, earlier this season, the Double-A Fisher Cats bus drove past a giant LED billboard that screamed, "Vlad Jr. is Coming May 10-13".

"The only guy we've seen anywhere close, in media attention, is Tim Tebow," New Hampshire manager John Schneider says of the Eastern League's marquee player, who plays in Binghamton, N.Y., with the New York Mets' Double-A affiliate.

Prophecies come in various forms, some more mysterious than others. When Altagracia Guerrero first saw her son on a baseball field all those years ago, she had no understanding of the game.

"When I first saw him play as a boy, when I first attended games, I'd see him get a hit, or a double," she says of Vladimir Sr. "But when I got excited was when I saw him get to circle the bases.

"I didn't understand what that was."

Swept up in the thrill of the moment, the phrase "home run" meant nothing to her. So she'd excitedly say that Vladimir "did a circle." Doing a circle was the best.

Now, with Cooperstown (for Vladimir) and the major leagues again (Vladdy Jr.) both close enough to reach out and touch, Altagracia Guerrero and her family have lived this baseball life to its fullest.

And with Vladdy Jr.'s ascent, it is all coming full circle.

The prophet was right.


Autumn 1994, West Palm Beach, Florida

Vladimir Guerrero is 19 years oldsame age as his son this summerand a small group of coaches and scouts are convened on a back field at the Montreal Expos training complex for the Instructional League season. The ugly strike of 1994-95 that wrecked the major league summer is two months deep. Expos manager Felipe Alou is in Florida scouting the organization.

Vladimir Guerrero, who reminded then-manager Felipe Alou of Roberto Clemente, made his way through the Expos system quickly, reaching Montreal three years after signing with the club.
Vladimir Guerrero, who reminded then-manager Felipe Alou of Roberto Clemente, made his way through the Expos system quickly, reaching Montreal three years after signing with the club.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

The coaches and scouts talk, and Alou stops to chat. As they bat around the names of a handful of prospects, the skipper lingers on one of them.

"Guerrero," Alou says quietly, gazing off in the distance. "He reminds me of Clemente."

"We all looked at each other like, huh, OK, that's quite a comparison," says one of the men in the group that day, asking that his name not be used because he is scouting for an organization today that does not authorize him to speak publicly.

"He had just come up from the Dominican," the scout continues. "He was skinny as can be, hadn't eaten much but sugarcane and had bad teeth.

"Looking back...that was special."

Fred Ferreira, currently the executive director of international recruiting for the Baltimore Orioles, signed Guerrero for the Expos for just $2,500. The kid had been in a tryout camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers with two of his older brothers, Wilton and Eleazar. Though the Dodgers signed Wilton, legend has it that they passed on Vladimir because he did not run well and, in their evaluation, neither he nor Eleazar were prospects.

But, oh, could he hit. When both were still amateurs and in baseball academies in the Dominican, Guerrero with Montreal and David Ortiz with Seattle, Ortiz remembers Guerrero leaving briefly to renew his visa, returning and, in a game against Ortiz's team, slamming a gargantuan home run in the first at-bat after he came back.

A mere three years after signing professionally, Vladimir debuted with the Expos in September 1996, at 21. He had spent fewer than three summers in the minors, total. He had started in high Class-A in 1996, then moved to Double-A, then pay dirt.


Summer 2018, Manchester, N.H.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is 19 years oldsame age as his father when the Roberto Clemente comparison was madeand in 53 Double-A games before a strained knee sidelined him, he batted .410/.460/.668 with 11 homers and 55 RBI. He is toying with Eastern League pitchers like a tomcat pawing at mice, and while they beg for his promotion in Toronto, it is a different time than when his father played.

Because of free agency and service-time concerns, phenoms rarely fly through organizations anymore.

Still, for a teenager, "I've never seen anything like it, at any level," says Hunter Mense, the New Hampshire hitting coach. "I coached college baseball for six years, and you see some crazy numbers in college baseball. But I didn't see this in the SEC, in the Big 12, last year with the Padres [where he was hitting coach for short-season Tri City]."

Schneider, the Fisher Cats manager, is equally surprised.

"I've never seen a guy that naturally talented," he says. "To see a guy like that, with command of the zone, hitting to every field, hitting with power, just the natural ability...he's the best I've seen."

Before games, Vladdy Jr. takes extra ground balls at third base. He makes major league plays at times and, like his father, has a canon for an arm. Still, the Jays say he needs to improve on charging balls, going to his left and having the correct angles on plays.

"It's the old adage where his glove is behind his bat," Schneider says. "But when your bat is that good, a Gold Glover would be behind."

His father, like many parents, doesn't focus on what's wrong, but what's right. "I'm very happy to see what my son is doing," Vladimir Sr. says. "I'm very proud of all the work he has done."

As Vladdy Jr. sits for a conversation in the dugout following batting practice in baggy shorts and flowing dreadlocks, he is not concerned about timetables and comparisons on this beautiful afternoon. He is slugging at the plate and trying to improve at third base, knowing he will land in Toronto soon enough.

"I don't have the words to describe this moment," he says through a translator. "It's a blessing that things are happening.

"My dad did his job and made it into the Hall of Fame. I'm trying to do my job over here, and thank God things are going well."


April 2004, Anaheim, California

An early-afternoon clatter near the dugout pierces the mid-day quiet in Angel Stadium.

Vladimir Guerrero, who will win the American League Most Valuable Player award at season's end, is taking his first few tentative steps in Southern California. He has signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels following eight starring seasons in Montreal.

As always, some of his family is in tow, and in a nearly empty stadium, Vladimir brings a toddlerVladdy Jr., 5onto the grass near home plate and begins pitching to him.

"Trust me, when that kid was 5, he looked like he was 12," says Dawn D'Agostino, who was producing Angels telecasts then and now does the same for the Baltimore Orioles.

"It was such a beautiful moment. I didn't know the cousins very well, I had met [Vladimir's] mom, I was doing something by the dugout and here comes Vladimir Jr., like a tree trunk. It was hilarious. He was like a bear.

"Vlad starts throwing, and he starts hitting. ... Then he runs over to the first couple of seats in the stands where some of the family was, grabs a couple of bottles of milk, lays back on the seat like it's a lounge chair, guzzles the milk, puts the bottles back in the bag, runs back onto the field and starts hitting again.

"He was smiling just like his dad. It was the most hilarious moment. Everyone was laughing and having the most wonderful time. That is what I think Vlad's life was like. I'm sure there were conflicts and hard times, but it was like a wonderful old movie. I wish someone had been there to paint a picture. I almost wanted to cry, it was such a nice moment. Blue skies. Green grass. Nothing else existed around them."

Altagracia lived with Vladimir then, cooking, always cookingchicken, black beans and ricefamously feeding her son and sending food to the stadium to feed the other Latin players, tooVladimir's teammates and rivals alike. You will live a baseball life. Her husband and much of the rest of the sprawling Guerrero family came and went, a silky gaggle that always kept Vladimir cocooned. There must have been 15 Guerreros living at the house in those days, says one person who was there at the time.

It helps to have a scorecard handy to keep up with this blended, extended family: Altagracia had three sons from a previous relationship: Eleazar, 44, Wilton, 43, and Vladimir, 41. She and her husband Damian have been married for 43 years, and they have one daughter, Glenny, 40, and one son, Julio, 38. Those five children have produced 22 grandchildren for Altagracia and Damian. Vladimir alone has eight children, with five different mothers: sons Vladdy Jr., 19; Miquea, 16; Vladdy Miguel, 11; Pablo, 11; and Pedro, 6; and daughters Vlaimy, 16; Vleidy, 13; and Sofia, 6. Damian also fathered other children.

Whomever was around, Altagracia would take care of them. They are all brothers and sisters, she emphasizes. There is no such thing as a step-brother or a step-sister. Family, all of them.

So while Vladimir played, Vladdy Jr. had uncles to pitch to him, especially in the Angels' indoor batting cage when the team was on the field for batting practice.

"He swung the bat like he was 30," Jose Mota, the longtime Angels' television analyst and friend of Vladimir's, says. "He swung the bat like a little man."

The Angels would smile and chuckle as they watched this little man perfectly mimic his father's gestures, like reaching up to touch his pine-tar covered helmet before swinging, and taping his fingers. Even today in New Hampshire, many of the gestures are the same, like when Vladdy Jr. points toward the sky upon crossing the plate after a homer.

"You were like, this kid is a baseball fanatic," Mota says. "Who would have predicted that he would be this good so soon?"


March 2018, Montreal, Quebec

The Blue Jays are playing their final exhibition game of the spring, the annual, emotional finale in Montreal's Olympic Stadium. Vladdy Jr. is with them before being dispatched to New Hampshire, and in a nice touch, they issue him uniform No. 27, the same number his father wore during all of those All-Star summers here with the Expos from 1996-2003.

Vladdy Jr. cannot remember much about Montreal, he was so little then, but the first thing he does when he arrives in the clubhouse is go looking for the one thing that's seared into his memory. Sadly, the soft-serve ice cream machine is long gone.

No matter. Now it is the bottom of the ninth, two out, a 0-0 game, and what happens next takes the night from touching to unforgettable: Vladdy Jr. rips a Jack Flaherty fastball over the fence for a walk-off homer. The crowd of 25,816 goes bonkers, coaxing a curtain call from Vladdy Jr.

On television in the moment, Jays broadcaster and former big leaguer Buck Martinez says "there are certain people you think of on a baseball field" and then drops the name of Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. The father gets Clemente at 19, the son gets Griffey.

As Vladdy Jr. does the circle, as his grandmother called it all those years ago, the summers melt away. On this night, Kendrys Morales, once an Angels teammate of his father's, is a Toronto teammate of Vladdy Jr.'s. Talk about a time capsule.

"When I got into the clubhouse, Kendrys was there saying, 'Who would think you'd hit a home run playing with me after I see you running around the clubhouse every day when I played with your dad?'" Vladdy Jr. says, beaming.

His father, who did the circle in the majors 449 times and finished with a career batting average of .318, was not there that night. But Vladimir Sr. glows when talking about it at last week's All-Star Game. Says that as he watched it on video, it reminded him of the time he smashed a walk-off home run against Arizona's Byung-Hyun Kim in 2002 in the same stadium.

It was in this city so many seasons ago that the son first began causing a ruckus with a bat.

"Before he could even walk, he liked baseball, so I bought him a mini wooden bat," Altagracia Guerrero says. "If [family members] wouldn't pitch to him, he'd break everything: plates, glasses, from swinging in the house."

To keep the dishware in one piece, Altagracia and other family members would use wadded up napkins, lemons, any remotely round object they could find that could be fashioned into a ball. Sometimes, Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera, two of Vladimir's Expos teammates, would pitch to Vlad Jr.

"It started in Montreal," she says. "Before I'd go back to the Dominican Republic [for the offseason], I'd go to Wal-Mart and get bags of Wiffle Balls so he could always have balls."

Vladdy Jr. was four when his father, about to enter free agency, played what everyone knew would be his final game in Montreal. It was on Sept. 17, 2003, a Wednesday night against Atlanta. When the game ended, 15 years before this spring's curtain call in the same ballpark, Olympic Stadium fans roared until Vladimir Guerrero came out for a curtain call.

As he ambled out, the crowd's applause suddenly swelled, and Vladimir naturally assumed it was all for him. What he didn't know was that Andres Galarraga had sent out little Vladdy Jr., dressed in a full Expos uniform, behind his father.

Maybe even the prophet couldn't have fully predicted a baseball life this rich.

"I knew he'd follow his dad," Altagracia Guerrero says. "I didn't know he'd get this far.

"Now, I know in my heart, he'll make it big. He's like his dad."


Summer 2018, Manchester, N.H.

Now the prophets are everywhere.

"I have a signed ball and a picture taped up inside my locker," says Andrew Case, a 25-year-old pitcher toiling here in Toronto's system, says of his teammate. "This guy is going to make $300 million and be a Hall of Famer.

"I love that guy."

Maybe it sounds weird, says the gregarious Case, who has taken on a protective mien, shooing away some overzealous adult autograph hounds on the last road trip, but Vlad Jr. is, well....

"Cute is the way to put it," Case says, nodding. "I had my hands full the other day so I asked him to write my name on the pass list [for tickets]. He didn't quite get the letters right. But he always wants to learn.

"His voice, how he goes about his business...he's just like a little boy with a big-man mindset."

To Vladdy Jr., every day there's something to celebrate. He entertains his teammates with his quick smile and fluid shimmying between batting practice rounds.

"I've always been that way," he says. "A lot of people might think I'm happy because I'm doing really well, but if I go 0-for-40, and hopefully that doesn't happen, I'm going to smile and be there for everybody."

In New Hampshire, Guerrero is not alone with his baseball pedigree: Bo Bichette, 20, son of former outfielder Dante, and Cavan Biggio, 23, son of Hall of Famer Craig, are Fisher Cats, too.

"The coolest thing about Vladdy is there is a huge barrier with the language, but since I've met him, we've never miscommunicated," Biggio says.

For example, Biggio plays second base and Guerrero third, and sometimes if the defensive alignment has Biggio a little farther away from the bag, he will holler for Guerrero to throw to first on a ground ball. Vlad will grin from across the way and jokingly say, no, he's going to second base with the throw anyway.

"This life is not easy, and not just our dads, but our families have been through it," Bichette says. "Road trips, not being able to eat what you want, we're ahead of the curve a little.

"The Blue Jays do the best they can with nutrition, but when there's an eight-hour bus trip and we stop at a truck stop and there's McDonald's, Burger King and Dunkin' Donuts for choices...there's a learning curve."

Each morning here, Altagracia Guerrero is in the kitchen cooking by 7 a.m. Chicken, rice, black beans, sometimes plantains. One of Vlad Jr.'s favorite dishes is moro de guandules with goat. As she did with her son, Altagracia sends extra portions to the ballpark with her grandson. It's no wonder he's so well-liked.

"Being here with her is like having the whole family here because I grew up around her," Vlad Jr. says. "It means a lot to me."

"It's great now that I'm not playing," Vladimir Sr. says. "Their relationship is so close. She raised him. It's like his mom."

His birth mother lives in the Dominican Republic and remains a part of Vlad Jr.'s life as well.

"But I feel I'm the mother figure in his life," Altagracia says. "As long as I live, I will take care of him, and not only him, but also all of the family members."

Just as she did with her son, Altagracia Guerrero is taking care of Vladimir Jr. at home, regularly cooking for him and his teammates.
Just as she did with her son, Altagracia Guerrero is taking care of Vladimir Jr. at home, regularly cooking for him and his teammates.Photo courtesy of Sportsnet

No matter how outsized the talent and the earnings—and Vladimir made some $125 million during his 16 seasons in the majors—sometimes the world always feels a few sizes too big, and family having your back is everything. This is what always has comforted Vladimir Guerrero, and it is what continues to do so while he prepares for his big day in Cooperstown and watches his son trace his steps toward the majors.

"He is the kindest human being you ever want to meet," says D'Agostino, who, after producing those Angels telecasts, again worked in Vladimir's world when he finished his career in Baltimore in 2011. "And I know he's got a lot of people to feed. There are a lot of family members around him. I think it comes from love. It is such a good family.

"Vlad Sr. never was comfortable with anyone else. And that's not a bad thing. At the end of the day, you only have family. Money and fame is going to come and go."

D'Agostino, for one, predicts there will be 100 family members in Cooperstown. This number will include Vladimir Jr., who has obtained a weekend pass from the Blue Jays to attend.

"Whether they're all truly blood or not," D'Agostino says. "... But it's like at the end of your life, you wonder how many people will show up at your funeral. They will all show."

      

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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