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Sports Long game pays off for Blue Jays as Vladimir Guerrero gears up for major league debut

After dominating the past couple of seasons in the organization’s minor league system, Guerrero is set to make his major league debut with the Blue Jays on Friday night.

Christopher Dolan/The Associated Press

It was New Year’s Eve in 2014 and Alex Anthopoulos, the former general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, was playing host to a family gathering at his home in north Toronto when the telephone rang.

On the line was Ismael Cruz, the Blue Jays former director of Latin America operations, with an urgent request. He needed Anthopoulos to get to the Dominican Republic and fast.

Other major league teams were about to swoop in and start wooing a teenaged baseball-playing phenom by the name of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cruz needed the GM on hand to make sure the Blue Jays were well represented.

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“I remember just looking at my wife and saying I’m not going to be able to be here for New Year’s Day,” Anthopoulos said over the telephone on Thursday. “So on New Year’s Day I got on a plane, went to the Dominican, Ismael picked me up, we went to see Vladdy work out at his father’s field.

“And then the next day we all drove together to go have lunch at Vladdy’s mom’s place, about a three-hour car drive.”

Guerrero was only 15 at the time, but the effort the Blue Jays went through to convince the baseball player and his family that Toronto was the place to be proved to be worth it.

About six months later, Guerrero opted to sign with the Blue Jays for US$3.9-million, the most lucrative contract the organization has handed out to an international prospect.

The American League club was banking heavily that Guerrero’s strong baseball pedigree – he is the oldest child of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero Sr. – would make it a worthwhile investment.

Four years later, they are about to find out.

After dominating the past couple of seasons in the organization’s minor league system, the big-bodied third baseman, who packs a powerful bat, is to make his major league debut with the Blue Jays on Friday night.

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The presence of MLB’s top prospect should generate plenty of buzz for a team in a rebuilding mode and not expected to be a factor in the AL East this season. The club is counting on Guerrero to be its cornerstone when the team is ready to be a playoff contender, optimistically two or three years down the road.

“I’m excited for him, excited for the fans, excited for people like Ismael Cruz and Paul Beeston [the Blue Jays former chief executive officer] who put a lot of time and a lot of work into the signing,” said the Montreal-born Anthopoulos, now the GM of the Atlanta Braves.

“Hopefully it’s the beginning of a long, great career.”

The Blue Jays are starting a three-game series at Rogers Centre against the Oakland A’s and the anticipated presence of the 20-year-old in the starting lineup is generating plenty of hype.

MLB-TV has contacted the Blue Jays to clear the way for it to pick up Sportsnet’s broadcast for its predominantly U.S. base.

And the club is anticipating what one insider described as a “significant bump” in walk-up ticket sales for the game, which could easily push attendance to more than 30,000. Through 12 home games this season, the club has been averaging just shy of 20,000.

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The gates at Rogers Centre usually open at 5:30 p.m. for a 7 o’clock game. On Friday, the gates will open an hour earlier. The team is expecting a larger-than-usual crowd, and two of the stadium’s gates are shut down because of construction.

The earlier opening will allow curious fans the opportunity to take in the last half hour or so of the Blue Jays’ batting practice and perhaps witness Guerrero taking his mighty practice cuts.

The Blue Jays and the rest of baseball began to take notice of Guerrero when he was just 14 and beginning to display the raw talent that would eventually lead to his being crowned as the game’s top prospect.

With Cruz as club’s point man in Latin America (he is now the international scouting director for the Los Angeles Dodgers), the Blue Jays were one of the first teams to actively court Guerrero in his home country

Anthopoulos said he made four or five trips to the Dominican to scout the player in person and lay the groundwork that would eventually help persuade Guerrero to sign with Toronto.

He said one trip he made earlier in 2014 was in the summer when an outbreak of the chikungunya virus, a nasty infection spread by mosquitoes and which can lead to hospitalization, was sweeping the country.

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Anthopoulos said nobody within the Blue Jays organization was willing to make the trip with him apart from Andrew Tinnish, who was in the Jays scouting department and now Toronto’s vice-president of international scouting.

“Before we left I went over to the local hardware story and picked up a bunch of mosquito repellent and hats and all that kind of stuff,” Anthopoulos recalled.

Nothing would deter him from seeing Guerrero.

Guerrero was born in Montreal when his father was starring for the Montreal Expos and his mother, Riquelma Ramos, learned to speak French while she was living there. She now lives in Santiago, and it was there, early in 2015, where Anthopoulos made his courtesy call.

“She brought out his birth certificate from Quebec,” Anthopoulos said. “A lot of the time in the Dominican, age identification can be a bit of a problem, but that was never an issue with Vladdy.

“It was pretty surreal just to be in a Dominican household speaking French and talking about Montreal.”

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The expectations on Guerrero are already immense.

Anthopoulos said he sees similarity between Guerrero and Ronald Acuna Jr., the Braves left fielder who was one of baseball’s top prospects when he finally was promoted to the big leagues in late April of last season.

Just 20 at the time, Acuna went on to win National League rookie-of-the-year honours.

“I can only speak to when I was around Vlad a bit in 2014 and 2015,” Anthopoulos said. “But when he was 15 and 16 he was just not fazed by anything. He didn’t have a care in the world, in a good way.

“Acuna’s very similar in that respect. I think you could put 500,000 people in a stadium with Acuna and he would be fine just going out and playing baseball.”

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