Ten years after his father left Anaheim, fans welcome the stranger in Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

·MLB columnist

ANAHEIM, Calif. — They came to welcome the stranger, barely more than a child.

I saw your daddy, they would say. I saw him and he was special. He was different. Covered in pine tar and calluses, crackling with power and ferocity, otherwise awash in felicity, he was just different.

But you know that.

I wore a jersey with his name on it, they would say. Your name. Imagine that. Sat in these very seats and watched him top-spin balls into gaps, backspin them into forever, and watched him chase baseballs with uncommon, loping audacity. And even, they would say, watched you toddle behind him, lugging a life-sized bat in your tiny arms when I could get to the ballpark early enough to see.

That was you down there behind the backstop, head bobbing, jersey billowed, eyes so big, no taller than a dugout rail. I remember you, they’d say. I remember wondering what you’d grow into, if your legs might someday be a little too long too, if you’d have his perfectly gluttonous swing, if your eyes would light when they dared test your arm. If you’d be a ballplayer at all.

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gestures as he leaves the baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels during the ninth inning in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. played his first game in Anaheim on Tuesday. (AP Photo)

Oh, how your daddy would laugh, they’d say, and point his crooked finger to the sky, that finger wrapped with one narrow strip of white tape. I never missed an at-bat, they’d say, because his were unlike any of the others. He would swing at near anything and hit most, and the farther from the strike zone they threw it, the longer his arms would get. Pitching to your daddy, oh man, like trying to walk a cup of water through two-a-days.

They came Tuesday night to Angel Stadium to welcome the stranger, the son of a friend, grown into a man. Remember us?, they’d ask. They’d cheer his name, so familiar. They’d recognize his gait, not as long, but just as sure. I miss those days, they’d say, the days when your daddy was part of something, a part of winning, a part of a robust franchise that knew what it was and got after it. The Angels, their Angels, hadn’t quite been the same since, even with the man who took your daddy’s number and made it even better. And so they’d long for the fall nights of your daddy, when Octobers were a given and not a memory, when your daddy led the charge, No. 27 led the charge, and others followed.

But, then, you know that. You were here for those six glorious summers, growing strong in the batting cage in the afternoons and on your grandma Altagracia’s cooking at night, leaping from one of your daddy’s footsteps to the next, feeling the rhythms of the game, learning the language of the clubhouse, waving a bat that might as well have been a lamp post.

So here you are, 10 years later, wearing No. 27, and they’d feel a part of what you have become, what is to come. Part of the lineage. Part of the education. Why you love the game like your daddy did. They’d take an ounce of credit for that, for making him feel loved in a place so far from home. Maybe you could feel it too.

Your daddy would not be here Tuesday night with them. You have his strength. You have his swing. You have his pedigree. But, the future, that is yours alone. His weekend in Toronto, if you can believe it, was harder on him than it was on you. You did all the talking, the smiling, the waving, the hitting. He stood and watched. His boy, for whom he wants more than he ever wanted for himself. His boy, that little kid from, like, yesterday. You remember.

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. smiles for a television camera looking into the dugout in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics in Toronto, Saturday April 27, 2019. (Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press via AP)
Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. smiles for a television camera looking into the dugout in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics in Toronto, Saturday April 27, 2019. (AP Photo)

“As much as I would like to be at Angel Stadium … at such a special place for me and for my entire family, I totally respect that he is now a major league player and has a responsibility to the Toronto Blue Jays, to his teammates and to the city of Toronto. It is his moment, not mine, and I respect it wholeheartedly.”

That’s what your daddy said today. He knew you’d be safe here. Knew you’d find your way. All those strangers up there in the right-field bleachers, beneath the wall where No. 27 will one day hang, see, they’re not strangers at all. They know you. Or enough of you.

I came to honor the father, they’d say, by honoring the son. I saw your daddy, they’d say, and he took my breath away. And now maybe if you could hold off on becoming great, just for a few days, I’d appreciate it, they’d say. And if you couldn’t wait, if you had to get on with it, well, I’d probably understand, they’d say.

Go ahead, they’d say. Be you. Be special. Be different. Be Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Because now, they’d say, I saw him, and there’s something there. I can just tell.

But you know that.

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