DUNEDIN, Fla. — The second hop is the unpredictable one, the devilish one that demands whole commitment before plotting its escape.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on Friday morning shook his glove at the beast. He jabbed at it, sassed it, made amends, caressed it, cradled it, glared at it and then into the sky.
Nearing noon, his shadow beginning to pool beneath him, he stood at third base and introduced himself again and again to the second hop, the darting, top-spinning, infield lip-seeking evil that, for all we know, brought the protective cup to the masses.
The fungoes drew him to his backhand side, to the bag, and he hung back or he charged, and the second hops stayed down or came up depending on their mood, and young Vladdy asked his eyes and feet and glove (and cup) to be sure.
He is 19 — 20 in a week — a prodigy with the bat and stuck himself between staying down and coming up, the choice not his and, besides, beyond the bounds of gravity or the game. If there is a baseball person outside of Toronto who believes Guerrero may require another month or two — or 15 days — of minor-league ball, he or she has not been heard. Anyway, Vladdy’s bat says otherwise.
The young man amidst the latest service-time drama meets the debate with a shrug and a tilt of his head, currently adorned in ropes of flaxen and magenta.
“I always try to bring my head to controlling what I can control,” he said through a translator, “and just remind myself that’s what I need to do.”
Asked where he acquired such wisdom, Vladimir Jr. smiled and said, “Mi Papa.”
The game must only be authentic. The rest is ground rules.
It’s not on us to believe. It is on the game to remove all doubt, that what we watch and buy into is the truest version of the sport today. That it is our best 25 against your best 25, every day.
It’s why we are disappointed in the half-assed trot to first base, when we know the outcome as well as anyone. We have to believe that every second, every inch, is sacred and meaningful. It is why the world stops for a moment when Derek Jeter, of all people, allows that for some the experience counts for more than the outcome and, for now, that might have to do. And why we applaud the young man who risks his career at an outfield wall for a single out of 27, for a single game of 162, because we are reasonably sure it matters. That they all do. And why the very notion of losing today for the sake of tomorrow, while theoretically not entirely unwise, still levels a sledgehammer to the kneecap.
So the Blue Jays arrive at the place where the super prospect and the future meet, which is not the day the player walks onto a major league diamond, but at the intersection of a handful of early season games in what is likely a rebuild season and tomorrow.
Ross Atkins is general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays and entirely capable at it. He has answered the Vladdy question since last summer, when Guerrero was batting .402 in Double-A, then .336 in Triple-A. Before Guerrero went hitless in three at-bats Friday, Atkins patiently answered again.
“It’s just early to make any decisions, especially for someone that is just now turning 20,” Atkins said. “The development curve and learning curve is so steep for someone that age. For us, until we have to make a decision we don’t, and continue to focus on how we can help him to get better.”
He continued, “It’s not just play. It’s everything around his game. It’s everything in how he prepares and how he recovers and he’s done an exceptional job to date given how young he is and how quickly he has moved through this process already.”
If that sounds like a no, it’s because it might be a no. And if the loophole in the collective bargaining agreement says 15 days now equals a year down the line, well, a few months of roundabout questions aren’t too heavy a lift. The shame of it, perhaps, is that the CBA puts the Blue Jays — and others, and for that matter Kris Bryant’s grievance against the Chicago Cubs from four years ago remains active — in a position to choose.
Except, in the meantime, the Blue Jays will have real games to play soon, and there’ll be an argument to be made that without Guerrero they aren’t at their best 25, and still it’s not the Blue Jays’ responsibility to take up for the health or reputation or conscience of an entire sport.
So, between it all, Vlad Jr. goes home late every afternoon to his grandmother, Vlad Sr.’s mom, who he calls, “Mama,” who calls him by his childhood endearment, “Negro,” which he explained is a common nickname in the Dominican Republic. She cooks, as she did for Vlad Sr. And sometimes it seems most of the team is in her kitchen, which, it seems, is Mama’s preference.
Vlad Jr. said that when he reads, it is the Bible, and otherwise plays video games with friends. Mama taught him to be humble and work hard, he said, and so he returns early every morning to the ballpark, often when the sky is still dark. He eats and prepares, prepares and eats, and promises he is satisfied with allowing the adults to make the decisions on what is next, and even when that will be.
What that looks like for now is a sharp two-hopper to his right and that meanest read of the day: Stay down or come up? It’s not that difficult, he insisted.
“No,” he said. “But sometimes that’s where people make mistakes. That’s why I’m working hard on it.”
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