By: Brian Frank
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s baseball career will forever be linked with the city of Buffalo. The Queen City was not only the setting for his time dominating Triple-A baseball, but it’s also where he helped the Blue Jays clinch a playoff berth in 2020 and where he starred as one of baseball’s best all-around players in 2021.
Guerrero first came to Buffalo as one of the most highly anticipated prospects to ever play for the Bisons. He was the consensus number-one rated prospect in all of baseball when he joined the Herd in late-July of 2018.
Vladdy as baseball's number one prospect. Photo Credit, Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Baseball fans from Western New York and Southern Ontario flocked to Sahlen Field to watch the young slugger in action with Buffalo. Bisons jerseys and t-shirts with his name on the back filled the stands and fans cheered the young phenom’s every move, giving him ovations when he’d come out to stretch before games and when he stepped into the on-deck circle.
As the son of a Baseball Hall of Famer and a highly rated prospect since the time he signed with the Blue Jays in 2015 as a 16-year-old, Guerrero was used to receiving a lot of attention. Although some young players may have been crushed by the pressure of being baseball’s number one prospect, he viewed his status and all the attention that came with it positively.
“Being the number one prospect was a lot of motivation – not pressure,” Guerrero said through translator Hector Lebron in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “Of course, when I got to Buffalo, I just wanted to do well there. I played very, very hard in Buffalo in order to get to the big leagues.”
Guerrero led MiLB with a 1.073 OPS in 2018. Photo Credit, Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He lived up to all the hype in his time with the Herd. He slashed .336/.414/.564 with six home runs and 16 RBIs in 30 games for the 2018 Bisons. In mid-August, he homered in four consecutive games, just one game shy of tying the Bisons’ modern-era record. Counting his time in New Hampshire, and a brief rehab in stint in Dunedin, he led all of minor-league baseball with a .381 batting average, .636 slugging percentage, and 1.073 OPS. He was named Minor League Player of the Year by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America, making him the first Bisons’ player to ever win either honor.
Guerrero returned to Triple-A for a brief time to begin the 2019 season. After suffering an oblique strain in spring training, he reported to the Bisons in April and slashed .367/.441/.700 in nine games. He received the news he was being called up to Toronto to make his major-league debut when Buffalo was visiting Syracuse in late April.
“I went out to dinner with Lourdes Gurriel and Richie Ureña,” he remembered. “I got a call that they needed to talk to me back at my room. So I went back there and they gave me the news.”
Making his big-league debut at just 20 years old, he collected a hit in his first major-league game, a double down the right-field line. A few weeks later, he became the youngest Blue Jay ever to hit a home run at just 20-years and 59-days old. He went on to win a pair of American League Player of the Week Awards during his rookie season and wowed fans during All-Star Game festivities by belting a record 91 home runs during the home run derby, despite falling in the final round. He finished the season slashing .272/.339/.433 with 15 home runs and 69 RBIs in 123 games.
In an extremely unlikely turn of events, he returned to Buffalo the very next season when the Covid-19 pandemic caused the U.S.-Canada border to be closed. Unable to play at Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays used Buffalo’s Sahlen Field to play their home schedule.
“Of course, it was kind of difficult at the beginning,” Guerrero remembered about the 2020 season. “It was tough for everyone. But at the same time, we adapted – and we adapted pretty quickly. I took advantage of the situation and got to know my teammates better and spent more time with my teammates. I think we have a better relationship as a team because of it. So it was tough, but at the same time it was a year to adapt.”
In downtown Buffalo with the Blue Jays. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
On September 24, 2020, the Blue Jays beat the Yankees 4-1 in downtown Buffalo to clinch a playoff berth. The moment was extra special for Guerrero and many of his teammates because it was their first-ever trip to the postseason. As the team celebrated on the field, Guerrero joyously walked around with a GoPro camera strapped to his head to document the scene.
“It was a wonderful moment,” he remembered. “One of the best. I mean, my second year in the big leagues and we already made the playoffs. When you look back at the way it happened, especially that year when everything was kind of tough for everyone, it was just wonderful making the playoffs. I was very, very excited.”
He finished his second season in the big leagues slashing .262/.329/.462 with nine home runs and 33 RBIs during the truncated 60 game schedule.
Celebrating clinching a playoff berth at Sahlen Field. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
The U.S.-Canada border remained closed to begin the 2021 season. The Blue Jays started the season playing at their spring training stadium in Dunedin, Florida, and returned to Buffalo to play from June 1 until July 21, when they were finally able to return to Rogers Centre. This time, the experience in Buffalo was quite different, as fans were allowed to attend games. Pandemic safety restrictions were gradually eased as the summer went on, allowing attendance to gradually increase.
Guerrero put on an absolute show for Buffalo baseball fans in 2021. In 23 games at Sahlen Field, he hit .321/.418/.762, posted a 1.180 OPS, belted 10 home runs and had 20 RBIs. In July, he was named the starting first baseman for the American League All-Star Team after leading all of baseball in fan voting. After drilling a solo home run and leading the A.L. to victory, he was awarded the All-Star Game MVP, becoming the youngest player to ever win the honor. He finished the season hitting .311 and led all of baseball with 48 home runs, 123 runs scored, and 363 total bases, and led the A.L. with a .401 OBP, .601 slugging percentage, 1.002 OPS, and a 167 OPS+. The accolades poured in at season’s end. He won the Hank Aaron Award, which is given annually to the top hitter in each league, a silver slugger, and finished second in the A.L. MVP voting to two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani.
Taking BP under the watchful eye of George Springer at Sahlen Field. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
One memory that stands out for Guerrero about his amazing ’21 season is the fact that fans were able to return to watch games again. Despite large contingents of Yankees and Red Sox fans invading Sahlen Field when Toronto played those respective teams, Western New York baseball fans overwhelmingly embraced the Blue Jays as their own and filled the ballpark to support their adopted team. Guerrero appreciated the support the Blue Jays received while calling downtown Buffalo their home.
“To tell you the truth, it felt like we were back here in Toronto,” he said. “I mean the fans were amazing. I am very, very grateful for the fans in Buffalo and the support that they gave us all during the time that we were there. It was unbelievable and I’ll never forget that. It was great. I am very grateful for that year.”
Guerrero won the 2021 Hank Aaron Award as the A.L.'s best offensive performer. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles