About an hour ahead of Saturday’s Toronto Raptors playoff game, an unusual thing happened.
Down in the arena dungeon where they pen the NBA media, a ripple went through the group. People were tapping other people on the shoulder and telling them to turn around. The Blue Jays game was on TV. Vlad Guerrero Jr. was up to bat.
All these basketball lifers – even the Americans, even the ones who had work to do – were turned around to watch a guy who, at that point, had eight major-league plate appearances. It got quiet for a moment. Guerrero struck out gruesomely. Someone actually groaned.
Professional cynics, some of whom do not care about Toronto, or the Blue Jays, or baseball, were hanging on an April at-bat as though it meant something.
The shiny-new-object syndrome surrounding Guerrero is so disorienting, it’s difficult to find a point of comparison. John Tavares didn’t excite anywhere close to this much interest when he joined the Maple Leafs and, as we know, Toronto is the World Capital of Hockey™.
Just for the moment, Guerrero has transcended sport. The kid is a cross-cultural phenomenon.
Like most of those, notoriety has been bestowed upon him rather than earned. He may yet come to regret the gift.
There are three factors at play here – Guerrero’s advance press (close to impossible to live up to), the inscrutability of the individual (a pose that is difficult to maintain) and the general desperation of the average Jays fan (that, at least, is a constant).
Toronto general manager Ross Atkins likened the scale of the welcome to the Stephen Strasburg gong show in Washington a decade ago.
Like Guerrero, Strasburg was billed as a generational talent. Like Guerrero, Strasburg was (for baseball) impossibly young. And like Guerrero, Strasburg’s arrival was a drawn-out affair because there is no more powerful aphrodisiac than anticipation.
It’s the next step that Atkins probably didn’t want to draw an imaginary line toward.
Ten years into his major-league career, Strasburg is good, but not great. Not a bust by any other measure, but certainly one in Strasburgian terms. He got hurt early, missed most of a season and everyone lost interest.
Though he has become a very viable major-league starter, Washington didn’t win anything with him. You see where I’m going with this.
People lost interest in Strasburg not only because he wasn’t the Fastball Jesus they’d hoped for, but because he was boring.
Guerrero does at least have a little charisma going for him. He appears to have chosen the No hablo Ingles route when it comes to public comments – though, of course, he speaks passable English. That shows good sense. Why talk if you don’t absolutely have to? The rest of us should try it for a while.
Because all he does is smile – and he’s got a kind smile – people can project their fondest hopes onto Guerrero. If you want him to be a puppy dog, he is. If you’d believe he’s a baseball assassin, then by all means do that. As long as Guerrero stays mum, everyone is free to continue in their delusions.
Combined with the fact that all of Toronto’s perpetually sad fans will want to believe he is Ted Williams’s head on Barry Bonds’s body (which, come to think of it, is still theoretically possible), Guerrero’s golden no matter what he does.
For one season. Not two. And most definitely not three. However often the people in charge say there is no timeline for Guerrero’s emergence, there is a timeline. That’s the downside to all the hype.
If Guerrero fails, he’ll be portrayed as a fraud, and all the people who backed him as complicit in that crime.
In his first weekend in the majors, Guerrero went 3-for-12 with a double. A couple of ninth-inning hits, but no homers and no runs batted in. He was pulled for a pinch runner in Sunday’s game and played no role in the Jays’ wild, 5-4 extra-inning comeback.
Afterward, there was the first nibble of criticism in the questions. How did he feel about being lifted from a tie game with one out? Was major-league pitching a little more than he’d expected? How did he judge his own performance thus far?
“I feel good. I’m good,” Guerrero said through his translator.
Smiling Vlad was no longer very smiley. His posture was no longer one of outrageous ease. He may be pleased with how it went. He certainly didn’t look so.
Nobody expected the kid to light the world on fire straight off, but let’s be honest – everyone expected the kid to light the world on fire straight off. Fair or not, the beginning of the Vladdy Era has been a bit of a letdown.
The highlight-reel hitting will come. It’s the other stuff you worry about.
Guerrero plays a serviceable third base, but he’s too big a man to ever be nimble. If you’re not nimble, 140-or-so games at third in 180-odd days will wear your body down like a pencil eraser.
Everyone – the GM, the manager, his father – banged that drum hard upon Guerrero’s debut. Vlad Sr. called it “his health.” Atkins called it “his process.” They all tacitly acknowledged that an inexperienced, geeked-out 20-year-old this hefty is a blown knee waiting to happen.
With that in mind, there is a conceivable progression in which Guerrero goes from third base to first base to designated hitter in just a few years.
But, hey, maybe Guerrero is what people want him to be. Maybe he is Adrian Beltre at his peak, only younger and better. It’s a difficult ask, but possible.
Maybe he has the maturity and perspective to shrug off the attention. Guerrero is already special in one way, which suggests he might also be so in others.
All we know for now is that he is a promising young person in a truly bizarre situation and, hey, that’s never ended up badly.
A very few prodigious, oversold athletes – Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Wayne Gretzky – hit that barrier and exploded out the other side.
A lot of others didn’t. But you wouldn’t remember any of their names.