Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s Debut With The Toronto Blue Jays Captures A Country's Attention

 forbes.com  04/28/2019 21:23:00 

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays flies out as he bats in the sixth inning during MLB game action against the Oakland Athletics at Rogers Centre on April 26, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

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TORONTO -- Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s debut in this city on Friday night was such an occasion that the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was moved to wish him good luck on Twitter.

"Canadians across the country will be watching your first major league swings for the Blue Jays," the PM tweeted.

Canada wasn't the only country watching. People around North America, and in his home country of the Dominican Republic, were paying attention. But this country wanted to make this moment all their own, the debut of a Canadian-born phenomenon who was built like a modern-day Babe Ruth at 6'2'' and 250 pounds.

The comparison is not without merit. Many people might not know that Ruth hit his first ever home run as a professional in Toronto on Sept. 5, 1914. But if you're looking for modern-day comparables, think Miguel Cabrera.

As far as pomp and ceremony, this was reminiscent of the debut of Stephen Strasburg in 2010 or the arrival of Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989. 

Guerrero was discovered as a 16-year-old by the Blue Jays, who awarded him with a $3.9 million signing bonus in 2015. This year, Guerrero was signed to the league minimum $555,000. But much richer contracts await him.

Anticipation about his debut grew when the Blue Jays had him start the season in Class-AAA Buffalo. A guessing game ensued about when he would arrive, and last Wednesday, official word came out. He would debut against the Oakland A's at home on Friday.

This city has seen baseball superstars come and go, from Joe Carter to Dave Winfield to Roger Clemens and Josh Donaldson. But nothing to compare to this, a star who was born in Canada and developed by Canada's team, the Blue Jays, to become the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball with a hall of fame pedigree.

Big and bulky and with gold dreadlocks flowing under his baseball cap, Guerrero sensed the occasion.

With his father, Vladimir Sr. and grandmother in attendance, he arrived at the stadium wearing a big smile and a Montreal Expo jersey with his father's No. 27 to honor his dad, who had a hall of fame career starting in Montreal.

Guerrero jerseys and "Vladdy" signs were all over the stadium. "We're so Gladdy to finally see Vladdy," one sign read.

In batting practice, he was hitting rockets and might have hit a few out of the stadium were the roof not closed.

In the second inning, a crowd of almost 30,000 gave him an ovation for picking up a foul ball. They stood again when he came to the plate for his first at-bat.

Guerrero took the first pitch outside for ball one, and the baseball was taken out of play --  a sure sign of the importance of this coronation.

And with the crowd chanting "Let's go, Vladdy," the 20-year-old got a standing ovation for grounding out to first.

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26: Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo (25) share a laugh during batting practice before a game between the Oakland Athletics and the Toronto Blue Jays on April 26, 2019, at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario Canada. (Photo by Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) photo credit: Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Playing third base, Guerrero showed his fielding chops by short-hopping a ball in the fourth inning and he threw out the runner with a strong arm. The crowd cheered lustily.

In his second at-bat in the bottom of the fourth, Guerrero showed patience. This is a player who doesn't chase. He walks more than he strikes out. The count went to 3-1.

He brought the crowd to its feet with a deep ball to left field and was robbed of a home run by a leaping grab at the wall by Chad Pinder.

In the sixth inning, the crowd rose to watch his third at-bat, and Guerrero flied out to right-center. There was drama to come. You could feel the buzz.

Finally, in the ninth inning, with the score tied 2-2, Guerrero gave the fans what they had come to see. His first major-league hit.

With a count of 2-2, and people pulling out their phones to record the moment, he poked the ball down the right-field line for a double.

He was taken out for a pinch-runner. Two batters later, Brandon Drury was the hero by stroking a two-run walk-off home run for a 4-2 Blue Jays victory.

Guerrero finished 1-4 with one double. On Saturday, he went 1-4 again with two strikeouts as the Blue Jays pounded out a 7-1 victory. But again it was Drury, with a three-hit game, who upstaged Guerrero.

In the final game of the series, Guerrero again went 1-4 but it was Drury, Eric Sogard and Justin Smoak who pulled off the heroics.

Sogard proved to be a revelation, swatting a home run in the first inning to push his home-run total to a career-tying three, less than two weeks after making his Blue Jays debut. Sogard has hits in all 10 games he's played this season.

And in the bottom of the 11th with one out, Drury hit a game-tying, three-run home run to nullify Oakland's 4-1 lead. A few batters later, Smoak gave the Blue Jays another walk-off win, 5-4, by stroking a single into left field to score Freddy Galvis from second.

Performance rarely lives up to hype, and such was the case with Guerrero. He wanted so much to do something special. And the country wanted this for him. He's got broad shoulders, but perhaps the occasion weighed too heavily on him.

But although there were no highlight-reel hits by Guerrero in going 3-12 over the three games, with a double and two singles, the unbridled joy felt by this city's sports fans made this a feel-good weekend for Toronto.

The city's beloved Maple Leafs had crashed out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And before Guerrero arrived, the Blue Jays were stumbling along with an 11-14 record, playing to small crowds at home. With Guerrero in the lineup, the Blue Jays won the three-game series and improved their record to 14-14.

Over this series with Oakland, Guerrero and the Blue Jays reminded this city that the Raptors are not the only game in town anymore.

Guerrero is projected by some to be a consistent .300 hitter with 40-homer potential. Of course, one man can't win a championship. Mike Trout, baseball's best player, is proof of that.

Guerrero may be the biggest star on the Blue Jays, but as Sogard, Drury and Smoak proved, he's not the only star in the lineup, and there are stars on the horizon, like Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette.

Someday soon, Guerrero will get to be the hero. And when he launches his first major-league home run, you can bet it will be the shot heard around the baseball world.

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