MLB Teams
Robert Sanchez 102d

Vlad Guerrero Jr. is trying to live up to his famous name

MLB, Toronto Blue Jays

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's August 21 Fighting Issue. Subscribe today! Read it in Spanish here.

VLADIMIR GUERRERO JR. wedges himself into a plastic seat just outside the luxury suite at Marlins Park, two hot dogs on a paper plate in one hand, a Pepsi in the other. The 18-year-old pulls out his phone, its background set to his No. 27 jersey, and he scrolls through texts. It seems everyone wants a piece of him. Tonight is the first day of All-Star week, and Junior went 2-for-4 with two runs in the Futures Game. He was the youngest player on either roster. The game capped the announcement that he was being promoted to High-A Dunedin, Florida, his reward for the past three months in Lansing, Michigan, where Junior had carried a .409 on-base percentage with seven home runs and 21 doubles. Now Baseball America's new No. 2 prospect, Junior is not only taking the next step up the Blue Jays' ladder, but he's also beginning to burnish his legacy in baseball -- and at home.

From the back of the luxury suite, his father watches him, surrounded by friends and family from the Dominican Republic, California, New York and Florida. Despite the middle-aged paunch and the hair shaved close to his skull, Vladimir Guerrero looks younger than his 42 years. His beard hangs in a tight V off his chin. His arms are thick. When he walks the room, his gait still shows the athlete's high butt, the swaying shoulders, the wiggling hips. He takes a sip from a Corona and glances again at Junior and the tinted dreadlocks that brush against his shirt.

Is Vlad following Junior to Dunedin to watch his first game?

"No," the father says flatly.

Is he excited about his son's promotion?

Vlad shrugs, takes another pull from his bottle. He's proud of his son. Anyone who sees the barrage of celebratory posts on his social media knows that. But there's a competitive edge that keeps Vlad -- and his son -- from reveling too long in any of Junior's accomplishments. The father spent most of this century as one of the game's most dynamic players. So much of everything his son might hope to accomplish Vlad has already done.

"There's still a long way to go," Vlad finally says. "I'll be excited when he gets to the majors."


JUNIOR FIRST SWUNG his father's 32-ounce, 34-inch bat when he was 3. He hit his first home run on a big-league-sized field in his native Dominican Republic when he was 12. Four years later, he was one of the brightest baseball talents on an island overflowing with them, and the Blue Jays signed Junior to a $3.9 million bonus in 2015. Overnight, he became one of the richest teenagers in baseball and easily among its most anticipated.

But since he was a boy, people have wondered whether he could live up to his father's very large footprint. After he signed, even after a coach posted his impressive batting practice on YouTube, critics said his in-game stroke wouldn't be as prodigious as his father's. They questioned his arm -- definitely not like Dad's. They talked about his work ethic, or, rather, imagined the work ethic of a kid who grew up with everything. Could a young man with a famous and wealthy father be hungry enough to carve out a big league career? Would he even care?

In this way, even Junior's backstory is held up against his father's remarkable past. Vlad grew up poor in Don Gregorio, an agricultural town in the D.R. a few miles from the Caribbean Sea. He used lemons wrapped in rags instead of baseballs, drank from puddles because his family's shack didn't have running water or electricity. When a hurricane blew the roof off the house, all six of the Guerreros living in it moved into a single room and shared two beds.

Junior, on the other hand, moved among spacious clubhouses in Montreal and Anaheim and Arlington and Baltimore. When he watched his father work, it was from a fully catered suite. He has never known what it's like to feel hunger pangs, to leave school to help support a family, to have a relief helicopter drop milk and sugar from the sky.

"I can only imagine what my family's life was like when they needed help," Junior says through a translator. "It wasn't easy for them. They made sacrifices. I benefited from that. I got to live my life because of all that came before me."

He was never pushed toward baseball, but ever since Junior picked up his father's bat and swung it, his father knew the game "was in his blood -- just like me." As he got older and spent more time in the Dominican, Junior begged to play baseball every day, sometimes two or three games in a row. "I grew into what my dad was doing," he says.

Comparison was, and remains, inescapable. Over a 16-year career, Vlad hit 449 home runs, made nine All-Star teams and won the 2004 American League MVP. Enshrinement in the Hall of Fame is almost a certainty -- he missed by just 15 votes this winter in his first year of eligibility. Junior is always being reminded of who he is, what his father has done. Whether it's in a stadium or in a media guide or walking down a street, he is Vladimir Guerrero Junior. He will forever be the son -- the second.


JUNIOR STARTED TO understand how much his father meant to the game when he was 10 years old. It was 2009, and the whole family was in Anaheim as Vlad hit his 400th home run. For one delirious moment, the cheers were so deafening it sounded like the place might collapse.

Two years later, at home in the D.R., Junior hit his own milestone home run -- his first out of a big-league-sized field. His father heard about it, and a week or two later he went to a game.

"I didn't want him to see me," Vlad remembers. "I didn't want to pressure him. I didn't want him to have me take away from that. But I had to go to the ballpark to check it out."

He hid off to one side, deep in the outfield, while his son stood in the batter's box and stared down the pitcher. And then, to his father's delight, Junior hit another one out.

As Junior got older, his father sent home game tapes, and Junior studied them, watching his dad swing from his heels -- smacking homers on pitches above the letters, driving a double off a ball just a few inches off the dirt. But even as Junior watched and worshipped his father -- "¿Mi papá? He's my everything" -- he's also been quick to distance himself from Vlad's legacy. "I want to show people what I can do, that I'm not here because of my name." And even as Vlad has insisted that Junior make his own name for himself -- "I never talk to him about expectations; I've told him, 'Don't listen to what people say, play your game'" -- he compares his son's stats, stroke and schedule to his own. They seem to compete against each other and love each other in equal measure.

Junior says he has more plate discipline than his father. Vlad says he had more power than his son. But both have the same swing -- that same hitch and extension through the ball and the same sound off the bat. Junior sometimes even hits without batting gloves like his father used to do. "But," he insists, "I'm not doing it to be compared to my dad. It's how I want to play."

Vlad is very much a paternal figure: This past offseason, he taught his son to lift weights, told Junior the added muscle was necessary for late-season stamina. For three months during the winter, Vlad helped with his son's training program -- at the field by 7 a.m, then five hours of lifting and hitting.

On Saturdays and Sundays, they played softball together, set up in the infield and played as if their reputations depended on it. Junior, Vlad says, is faster and quicker. "But that's because he's younger. Hitting, though? I try to show him I still have it."

In that way and others, Vlad holds himself as a benchmark for his son's burgeoning career. He keeps a running count of Junior's home runs and compares the number to his own minor league total from nearly 25 years ago. Through July of this season -- Junior's second as a pro -- he'd hit seven. Vlad, he will remind you, hit 16 in his second minor league campaign.

While Junior was crushing for the Lansing Lugnuts this year, a story on Bleacher Report compared his abilities with his father's. The Guerreros' business manager and family friend, Jesse Guerrero, emailed the story to Vlad, then talked to him on the phone. "I told him it said Junior might be the better baseball player between the two of them," Jesse says. Maybe as good, but never better, Vlad shot back. "Then he starts going through all his stats. Vlad says he went straight from Double-A to the majors, that he hit a home run in his third major league game. I'm like, 'OK, OK, you've got a point.'"


BACK IN THE D.R., the Guerrero guesthouse -- a tangerine-colored beauty with an enormous honeycomb-shaped pool -- rises high above the Nizao River, atop a hillside adorned with massive white rocks in a "27" formation. The number is so huge that it can be seen from the next town. It is a monument to a family's success and a reminder to the community of the possibilities that can bless even the poorest among them.

Vlad has used his money to support the local economy. He's owned a supermarket, a livestock and vegetable farm, a propane distribution company, a concrete-block factory and a women's clothing store. There are stories of schoolchildren gifted with glasses, of young baseball players getting a surprise shipment of gloves and bats.

His son shares his generosity. The minor leagues are a cutthroat operation, perhaps the easiest place to be consumed with selfishness. You compete not with the other team but with your teammates. Yet in the Lansing clubhouse, where Junior spent part of his summer, he was known for literally giving the shirt off his back to a teammate who needed one. At a mall during a road trip in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he asked which players had young children. He then bought bags filled with baby clothes for each of them.

"When you see that name Guerrero on the back of the jersey, you can make assumptions about who he is," says Cesar Martin, a Dominican native and Junior's former manager with the Lugnuts. "But he never asked to be treated differently. He doesn't just want to talk to the Spanish-speaking players. He goes out of his way to include everyone. He doesn't think he's special. He works like he's trying to prove something. He plays like he's poor."

In Lansing, Junior roomed with his grandmother -- sent by Vlad to keep an eye on him this year -- and a teammate, Yeltsin Gudino, in the apartment complex just beyond left field. Their place had two bedrooms. Grandma got one; Junior and Gudino shared the other. Gudino is a 20-year-old shortstop from Venezuela with a wife and a 6-month-old son who both live in Florida. Gudino missed his wife and baby and was slumping at the plate. He was constantly reading news on his phone, watching as his home country was torn apart by political turmoil. At night, after games, Junior stayed up with Gudino.

On the worst nights, Junior called his father and then handed the phone to Gudino. Vlad explained to the young man that what he could control was what he did at the plate. A hitter could never lose his confidence, Vlad said, because that's all he had. Strike out, ground out, hit a home run. It didn't matter. Always think you're good enough for another chance.

The talks comforted the young Venezuelan. "Senior is a lot like his son," Gudino says. "If you need anything, he will help."


ON FATHER'S DAY, Vlad watches his son play for the first time this year. After surprising Junior in the Lugnuts' clubhouse, Vlad throws out the first pitch to him. After the pitch and the hug, Vlad moves to a team suite to watch the game. On his way to the concrete tunnel behind home plate, fans shout his name, wave and reach toward him with baseballs and pens for autographs.

You're always an Expo, Vladdy!

Vladdy, you're the greatest!

Vlad finds a seat outside the suite, near his girlfriend. They look at the lineup posted on the outfield video board. Junior is the designated hitter against the West Michigan Whitecaps, batting fifth.

In the bottom of the second, while people in the next suite stare at Vlad and search his lifetime statistics on their phones, Junior steps to the plate. He smacks the first pitch to the second baseman. Hard, but an easy groundout. Vlad doesn't move.

In his next at-bat, with the Lugnuts already down 5-0, Junior grounds out to the pitcher. Vlad makes no demonstrative show of frustration. He instead stands up and moves about the suite. He pours a beer into a Styrofoam cup and sits at a table. He watches the game from behind the glass. In the sixth inning, Junior again grounds out to the pitcher. Vlad again shows no emotion, but he's watching his son's body language as Junior moves to the dugout. He's been doing this all night: He's more interested in Junior's response to groundouts than the groundouts themselves. He's looking for signs of a hitter's maturation.

Then someone asks Vlad: "Could you hit this guy?"

Vlad can't help but raise an eyebrow, give a little What do you think? smirk.

The game is a blowout. After Lansing loses 10-1, Vlad hands his first-pitch ball to his girlfriend and he's out the door.

In the team's party room beyond left field an hour later, Lugnuts players surround the shuffleboard and pool tables, playfully taunting one another. Junior sits at the bar with a can of Coke, eyeing a pan of lasagna. His father is on his right, digging into a plate of buffalo wings.

Only recently have the people around Vlad begun calling him Senior. The word sounds harsh, like the past tense of what once was a really lively verb.

Vlad doesn't like it. "It's no good," he says. "Maybe in three years. It makes me sound old. I'm Vladimir Guerrero. I've always been Vladimir Guerrero."

The Guerreros' business manager sets out dozens of photographs to be signed, which will be donated to a pediatric cancer organization in Canada. After the signatures are collected and stacked, 23 of Junior's rookie cards are spread atop the bar, and Junior dutifully signs them. Another card is pulled out. It's Vlad's rookie, from 1996. He was three years older than his son is now. Vlad grabs the cardboard and stares at the photo of his younger self. He's throwing a ball. The moment is preserved in time, an entire baseball career in front of him. Junior watches his father, smiling at his nostalgia. He can't resist. Junior takes the card, flips it over and scans the back. Vladimir does it all: run, field, throw, hit for average, and hit for power. ... The Expos believe he'll be a .300 hitter with 30-30 potential.

"Is that from 30 years ago?" Junior asks and laughs. Vlad laughs too, shaking his head and smirking at his son's jab. "No!" he exclaims.

Junior keeps hold of the card and grows quiet. Even after a game like tonight's, he can almost see it: his father's past melding with his future, Junior stepping into the batter's box in Toronto, ready for the pitch. At the sight of a familiar swing, the crowd roars, and it is still deafening. But this time, Vlad Guerrero is the one watching from the stands.

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