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Mike Harrington: Vladdy Jr. creates a buzz in Toronto debut

TORONTO – Blue Jays games are now appointment viewing again. That's because the Vladdy Jr. Show is on stage.

A franchise going through a major rebuild took its first big step forward Friday night with Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s much-anticipated debut. It started with the 20-year-old wearing a replica of his Hall of Fame father's Montreal Expos jersey as he walked into the ballpark.

He met the media 3½ hours before the game against the Oakland Athletics, walking into a press room jammed with more reporters and cameras than were there for many of the postseason sessions in 2015 and 2016. He shook hands with several reporters along the wall before taking his spot on the dais and gave a quick statement thanking God, his family, the Dominican Republic and the Blue Jays organization for the opportunity.

"We have a Canadian-born Dominican baseball player, a son of a Hall of Famer that is coming into Canada to play for this great city and country," marveled Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. "It's such a great baseball story and he's so aware of that with his experiences in Montreal last year (during a spring training series capped by his walkoff home run) and as a young man growing up there.

"He's more aware than most of our young players what it means to play for a city and a country."

Guerrero went 1 for 4, getting his first major-league hit with an opposite-field double to lead off the ninth in a 2-2 game. The Blue Jays pinch-ran for him at that point and he exited to the last of his numerous standing ovations from the Rogers Centre crowd of 28,688 that was the second-largest of the season.

The Blue Jays then won it, 4-2, on Brandon Drury's two-out walkoff homer to right-center. Guerrero got the ball from his double and said it was going to his father.

All the Blue Jays' games are televised from coast to coast in Canada but this one also went live on MLB Network and through the Dominican Republic. It was the Free Game of the night on and Guerrero's at-bats were streamed over MLB's official Twitter feed.

It was baseball's most-anticipated debut since Stephen Strasburg first took the mound for the Washington Nationals in 2010. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter to wish Guerrero well.

Was this strange? Not to Guerrero. He's been followed around by the media ever since he was signed by the Jays three years ago for a whopping $3.9 million as an international free agent.

"It's all the same in Triple-A, big leagues, the same game," he said through an interpreter. "If I control my emotions that way, I'm going to be OK."

The fans cheered just about everything Vladdy related all night.

The gates were opened 90 minutes earlier than normal so fans could see batting practice. There was applause when Guerrero first appeared in the batting cage, hoots when he crushed one ball off the facing of the 400 level in left field by the sign honoring former American League MVP George Bell, and applause again when he finished BP.

Plenty more fans were in the building when he emerged from the dugout with his white No. 27 Toronto jersey to go stretch with teammate Rowdy Tellez. The first real roar came with the Jumbotron display announcing his appearance at No. 5 in the batting order.

"I was probably just as excited as the entire fan base, to be honest with you, getting Vladdy up here," said starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, who threw seven innings of one-hit ball but got a no-decision when the bullpen blew his lead. "It's like having (Duke basketball star) Zion Williamson on your team. It's that once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent. To have an opportunity to play with him is amazing."

"I was concentrating, just trying to do my job," Guerrero said. "But it was exciting."

The fans came to their feet and roared as Guerrero was introduced for his first at-bat, which ended on a ground ball to Oakland first baseman Kendrys Morales  – who corraled a ball shot to the right side at 106.4 mph.

A certain symmetry to the play, too. Morales played with Guerrero's father and has known Guerrero Jr. for many years. They even exchanged texts on Wednesday when the callup from the Bisons became official.

The second at-bat was nearly the first home run, but Oakland left fielder Chad Pinder ruined the party with a leaping snare of Guerrero's drive that was going to fall just short of clearing the wall.

"It was a very good play by the left fielder," Guerrero said. "I'm trying to do my job. They're trying to do their job."

His first defensive play? A short-hop snare of Stephen Piscotty's chopper to third in the fourth, a perfect throw to first and a slap of the hand from Stroman after his momentum carried him by the mound.

"He was comfortable. That's how he plays. I was more nervous than he was," joked manager Charlie Montoyo. "On that roller, that's when I knew, 'Oh yeah, he's relaxed."

Guerrero had numerous family members on hand, including his father and his beloved grandmother, Altagracia. She has followed him to all his minor-league stops, including Buffalo, to cook his Dominican meals.

"If I move to China, she comes with me to China," Guerrero had deadpanned before his first game with the Bisons in July.

Unlike his father, who might be the best bad-ball hitter of all time, Vladdy Jr. is a master of plate discipline. He had 150 walks and just 139 strikeouts during his nearly four years in the minors, remarkable for a slugger who just turned 20. In his 38 games in Buffalo the last two years, the totals were 18 walks and 12 strikeouts.

How did he get away from his dad's approach?

"Nobody taught me," he said, recalling an incident when he was just 7. "One day I swung at a ball and the ball came up and hit me in the nose. So that's why I stopped swinging at bad balls."

Guerrero was 11 for 30 in eight games for the Herd this year, batting .367 with three homers and eight RBIs. He got the long-awaited news about his callup from manager Bobby Meacham after Wednesday's game in Syracuse, a 5-4 Buffalo win secured on Guerrero's opposite-field home run in the seventh.

"Bobby Meacham called me to the office and told me I had to improve my defense at third base," Guerrero recounted. "I told him that was OK and I'll be here early the next day. He said, 'Well, there's a problem. I won't be here to help you. You're going to the big leagues.' "

Hours after win with Bisons, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gets long-awaited call-up to Toronto

Defense at third, and perhaps conditioning, are probably the only question marks surrounding Guerrero. But his play in Buffalo and his first chance here Friday certainly show the defense can be at the level it needs to be.

"He's just so well-liked," Atkins said. "He's easy to pull for, easy to like. He hasn't met the teammate that he doesn't like and a teammate hasn't met him that isn't in love with him."

In all his years, Montoyo was asked prior to the game, had he ever seen a young player seem so relaxed and comfortable about making his big-league debut?

"Never seen it. Not anywhere," Montoyo said. "It's pretty cool to be that cool."

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