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Angels

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. showed glimpses of greatness as a boy in the Angels clubhouse

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. watches from the Buffalo Bisons dugout during a minor league game last season.
(Jeffrey T. Barnes / Associated Press)

The prodigy known as “Vladito” was still a boy when his father approached Dino Ebel more than a decade ago. Ebel was the third base coach of the Angels, where Vladimir Guerrero was burnishing his legend as a unique star. His children were a constant presence inside the clubhouse. Guerrero asked Ebel if he could hit fly balls and grounders to his son, Vladimir Jr.

Ebel considered the request an honor. So Ebel wielded his fungo bat and tested the kid’s instincts. He watched how Vladimir Jr. studied balls off the bat, how he gripped the baseball, how he handled the bat. Before the boy was a preteen, his polish was apparent.

“You could see, at a young age, that he had a clue what he was doing,” said Ebel, now the third base coach for the Dodgers.

The intuition from Ebel was not misplaced. Guerrero grew from a short, stocky boy into a strapping slugger, from a child running around big league clubhouses to a player who belongs inside one. At 20, Guerrero entered this season as the No. 1 prospect in the game, according to Baseball America, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus. He will lose that status when the Toronto Blue Jays call him up for his debut Friday.

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The promotion ends months of speculation about Toronto’s intentions for Guerrero, who merited a call-up last September after hitting 20 homers with a 1.073 on-base plus slugging percentage as he rose from Class AA to triple-A. By waiting until this weekend, the Blue Jays delayed Guerrero’s free agency by a year, from 2024 to 2025. The service-time manipulation made sense for an organization that intends to compete in the American League East in 2019. Guerrero figures to be a cornerstone of its future.

“It’s a big moment for the Toronto Blue Jays,” Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo said this week. “Hopefully, he becomes what everybody thinks he’s going to become.”

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The schedule features a fortuitous stop for Guerrero and the Blue Jays. After a series this weekend at home, the team flies to Anaheim for a three-game set against the Angels, where Guerrero’s father spent six seasons, four as an All-Star. Guerrero will return to Angel Stadium on Tuesday as part of a lineage of players who followed their fathers into the major leagues, a lineup that includes Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds and Prince Fielder.

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Vladimir Jr. was 5 years old in 2004 when his father left the Montreal Expos to become an Angel. He grew into adolescence while Vladimir Sr. solidified his resume as a Hall of Fame outfielder. As the father accumulated hits, the son learned through osmosis inside the clubhouse. On the eve of Junior’s arrival in the majors, Senior’s former teammates chuckled at the passage of time and the resemblance between the two.

“It just seems like he has that same flair, and that same unbridled passion for the game,” said Tim Salmon, who played with Vladimir Sr. from 2004 to 2006. “That’s just really cool, when it’s more than just talent being passed down. It’s also that same fire.”

A player like Vladimir Guerrero Sr. could not be created on an assembly line. His skill with a bat was uncanny. Torii Hunter recalled facing Guerrero in double-A in the summer of 1996. Guerrero punished pitches outside the zone with impunity. It did not matter if the pitch was not a strike. Guerrero could still slash it for extra bases — and he kept doing so after he reached the majors.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. dives for a ground ball during a game for the Buffalo Bisons last summer.
(Nathan Denette / Associated Press)

Hunter joined the Angels in 2008. He marveled at Guerrero’s ability. Guerrero wore no batting gloves. He swung with abandon. Hunter called him “Caveman,” as in, “Man, that Caveman can hit.”

As Hunter considered the difference between Senior and Junior, he pointed to the sophistication of the son. Junior plays third base and tips the scales around 250 pounds. Senior was a bit taller and much leaner, especially in his early 20s. But the biggest gap between the two stems from their approach at the plate.

“I see Vladimir Jr. swinging at pitches in the zone, the pitch he’s looking for,” Hunter said. “Vladimir — if it was from his eyeballs to his toenails — he could hit all those pitches.

“I played 19 years and watched it before that. I still don’t know anybody like Vladimir Guerrero. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame. He deserves it, because he was one of a kind.”

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Hunter suggested that Junior developed his maturity as a hitter through years spent following his dad around the clubhouse. Hunter can see the same process unfolding with his own son, Torii Jr., who plays in the Angels organization. The lessons are more philosophical than mechanical, Hunter explained. The children saw how to build a daily routine and how to carry themselves as professionals.

“Vladimir was always there for the fans, signing autographs, shaking hands, having a conversation — and kept a smile on his face,” Hunter said. “And you look at Junior, he’s doing the same thing! And he probably perfected it. Because that second generation is usually better.”

Members of the Guerrero family formed a persistent presence at Angel Stadium during Senior’s tenure. His mother, Altagracia Alvino, cooked traditional Dominican meals of pollo, carne guisada, habichuelas (soupy beans) and rice for the players. Junior, his siblings and his cousins roamed the outfield during batting practice, diving for balls in front of the big leaguers.

Senior threw batting practice to the kids. So did Ebel. Years later, the coach recalled how Junior understood how to deliver a four-seam fastball and displayed his instincts in the field.

“There’s just something about the sons of major league players being around the club, around the guys all the time,” Ebel said. “They just watch. They learn. They listen.”

Vladimir Sr. retired in 2012. The Blue Jays signed his son three years later for $3.9 million. He debuted in Class A as a 17-year-old. His power ticked up as his teenage years drew to a close. Guerrero hit eight homers in 2016 and 13 in 2017.

The next spring, the Blue Jays brought him up as an extra player during a few Grapefruit League games. He was husky and still sharpening his fielding, but at the plate, “you never felt like he was out of place,” said Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, who spent the last four seasons with Toronto.

“Just a natural hitter,” Martin said. “A good sense of the strike zone. I didn’t see him play defense that much, but he just seemed really advanced for a young kid as far as plate discipline, contact and power ability. You don’t really see that too often.”

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Last summer, Vladimir Guerrero was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Salmon attended the ceremony at Cooperstown, N.Y. Junior approached Salmon and introduced himself. Salmon had not seen Junior in almost 12 years. Now he saw him on the verge of manhood, preparing to follow in his father’s footsteps into the majors.

“It’s so bizarre to see this kid, this little boy, who grows up to be this big man,” Salmon said. “And they really take the torch. The torch is passed to greatness. And that’s what you’re seeing with Vladdy.”

andy.mccullough@latimes.com

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes


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