Vladimir Guerrero Jr. craned his neck over a crowd of reporters and gazed at the Angel Stadium batter’s box. For six summers as a child, he tagged along with his father, Vladimir Sr. Now he had arrived in the visitors dugout as a 20-year-old wunderkind with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I used to stay right behind the cage and watch everyone,” Guerrero said through his interpreter, Hector Lebron. “That way, I could pick up something from them.”
About an hour later, Guerrero offered a glimpse of what he learned. He unsheathed a tan piece of lumber from the bat rack and bounded up the dugout steps, his bleached-platinum dreadlocks shaking over his 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame. His cherubic grin and portly physique veiled his menace at the plate.
In his first round of batting practice, Guerrero sprayed line drives with ease. His power can be frightening; during spring training, he doubled off the wall while holding the bat with only one hand. He offered a more obvious display of his strength with the second swing of his second round, cranking a screamer into the left-field seats. Half a dozen red-clad fans scrambled for the souvenir.
The second stop on Guerrero’s tour of the major leagues, which began with an entire nation’s worth of hoopla last weekend in Toronto, served as a sort of homecoming. Guerrero returned to the ballpark where his father spent more than half a decade. Guerrero went 0 for 2 with two walks in his fourth big league outing.
Guerrero Sr. was not in attendance Tuesday. He watched from a box at Rogers Centre over the weekend but declined to make the trip to Anaheim. Guerrero indicated in a statement that he did not want to distract from his son’s career, as “it is his moment, not mine, and I respect it wholeheartedly. I thank God for the many memories that I shared with Vladi Jr. while in Anaheim. I’ll always be there for him in spirit and in all support.”
The ballpark still opened its arms to Guerrero Jr. He recognized the clubhouse attendants. He caught up with longtime Angels broadcaster Jose Mota for a pregame interview. Guerrero embraced and bumped fists with Albert Pujols during batting practice. The crowd showered Guerrero with applause before he struck out in his first at-bat against Griffin Canning.
“I feel very good about this,” Guerrero said. “But all I want to do is work hard and help my team to win.”
Guerrero began the season as the consensus top prospect in the sport. His performance merited a call-up last September, but the Blue Jays declined to promote him. He suffered an oblique injury this spring that kept him off the opening-day roster, and permitted Toronto to delay his free agency until 2025. The service-time commotion obscured the excitement of his eventual promotion.
Toronto bench coach Dave Hudgens spent four seasons as the hitting coach of the Houston Astros. He witnessed the growing pains of top prospects like Carlos Correa and George Springer. Their talents were prodigious, but they needed to adapt to the contours of big league competition. He expected a similar path for Guerrero, who hit .381 with 20 home runs and a 1.073 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the minors last season.
“He’s going to be fun to watch,” Hudgens said. “I’m looking forward to watching him, that’s for sure.”
In time, Hudgens explained, Guerrero would learn that big league pitchers do not make mistakes like pitchers do in the Eastern League. Guerrero shrugged when asked before the game about how he might adapt.
“Basically,” Guerrero said, “I don’t make adjustments. I just see the ball and I hit it. If it’s a good pitch, I will swing at it.”
In that moment, Guerrero echoed his father. Tim Salmon played with Vladimir Sr. from 2004 to 2006. Salmon recalled his teammate being coy about his approach.
“He always downplayed it, he would always say ‘See the ball, hit the ball,’” Salmon said. “But if you watched him every day, you saw Vladdy had a fantastic mind for hitting. He set guys up.”
Guerrero Jr. may not possess the hand-eye coordination of his father. Few humans do. But he wields an elevated level of maturity at the plate. Hudgens described him as “pretty advanced.” Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo credited Guerrero for his commitment to patience, which Guerrero displayed with a sixth-inning walk against Cam Bedrosian.
“That’s the good thing about Vladdy,” Montoyo said. “For being 20 years old, he doesn’t mind taking a walk.”
On Tuesday, Guerrero could not top the heights of his first weekend. Against Oakland on Friday, he hit a leadoff double in the ninth inning of his debut. Toronto removed him for a pinch-runner, who scored the winning run three batters later. His teammates drenched him in a celebratory — in theory — bath of beer, chocolate milk and shaving cream.
Guerrero tried to ignite a similar rally Tuesday. He took a leadoff walk against closer Hansel Robles. Into the game came a pinch-runner — who was promptly out when Rowdy Tellez grounded into a double play.
So there were no heroics in Guerrero’s homecoming. But Toronto’s manager expected plenty in his future.