It’s a quarter past ten at Dodger Stadium when I enter the corridor on the dugout level. It’s lined from wall-to-wall with trophies from triumphs past. Many of them earned by legendary players in baseball lore, some of them enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but this story isn’t about them.
As I approach the elevator, I see Dodgers’ third base coach Dino Ebel standing alone. His weathered face reveals decades of playing baseball beneath the bright sun. He reminds me a bit of Yoda, and maybe he was using the force, because before I speak, he already knows who I was here to talk about.
“I saw you’re playing the Blue Jays in August,” I said.
“Boy, I sure hope he’s still on the team by then,” he replied.
We’re both referring to the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Ebel has a long history with the wunderkind they call “Vladito,” and an even longer history with the organizations that helped make him one of the game’s brightest young stars.
As a player and coach, Ebel has spent the last 31 years with the Dodgers and Angels organizations. Therefore, he’s vastly familiar with the trophies that line the corridor outside the elevator at Dodger Stadium, and he knows what type of player it takes to earn them.
After signing a minor league contract with the Dodgers in 1988, he spent seven years climbing up the ranks before becoming a full-time coach in 1995. Ebel joined the Angels a decade later, and it was there he met Vladimir Guerrero Sr., and his six-year-old son of the same name.
Guerrero Jr. was born in Canada, during his dad’s early playing days with the Montreal Expos. He grew up in the Dominican Republic, but by the time he was five years old, his father had signed with the Angels, and so he spent every summer with his dad in Anaheim between the ages of 5 and 10.
It was during one of those early summers, that Ebel got his first glimpse of the child prodigy, when Guerrero Sr. asked him to hit fly balls and grounders to his son, as well as throw him batting practice.
“He told me to grab the bat,” Vladimir Jr. said through an interpreter of those early days with his dad at Angel Stadium. “I swung the bat like my dad did, and I just did it. I was very comfortable.”
Longtime Angels’ broadcaster Jose Mota was in the infancy of his announcing career when he first saw Ebel hit fly balls and grounders to Vladito. Ironically, Mota also has ties to both organizations. He spent time with the Dodgers in the mid 80’s and his father was highly respected Dodgers’ outfielder Manny Mota.
Now in his 17th year with the Angels, Mota remembers the days when Guerrero Jr. served as the bat boy, and how the short, stocky kid had difficulty dragging his father’s 34-inch, 32-ounce bat back to the dugout.
As Guerrero Jr. grew into a teenager, and out of that short, stocky frame, Mota began to see memories of his father flash before his eyes.
“He just had a natural ability to hit,” Mota told ESPN last week. “And being fearless.”
Both Mota and Ebel’s intuitions were correct, as Guerrero Jr. went from an untamed pony to a full blown thoroughbred by the time he was a teenager. At 16 years old, Guerrero Jr. was ranked the top international free agent entering the 2015 season, a winter that tied together both LA-based teams, sending the young star down a path similar to his father’s.
After watching Guerrero Jr. prowl the outfield during batting practice for six years, the Angels were seen as the likely favorite to sign the son of their first ever Hall of Fame player. However, a precarious move by then general manager Jerry Dipoto destroyed any chance of the Halos bringing the prodigal son back to Anaheim.
In December of 2014, just one year before Guerrero was eligible to enter the international pool of amateurs, Dipoto spent the franchise’s entire international signing bonus money (and more) on a 20-year-old Cuban shortstop named Roberto Baldoquin.
Dipoto believed at the time, that Baldoquin would become a better Major League player than Guerrero Jr., and banked much of the Angels’ future on it. He gave Baldoquin an $8 million signing bonus that knocked them out of contention for Vlad’s son and any other star international player for the next two signing periods.
Meanwhile, Baldoquin has dwindled in the Angels’ farm system ever since, reaching no higher than Double-A in five years in the minor leagues.
With the Angels out of the running for Guerrero, ironically, it was the Dodgers who helped Guerrero Jr. return to the same country that he was born in, the same country that greeted his father when he made his MLB debut.
In the summer of 2015, the Dodgers sent the Toronto Blue Jays over $1 million in international slot money in exchange for Chase De Jong and Tim Locastro. The Blue Jays used that money to sign Guerrero, giving him a $3.9 million bonus. The Dodgers traded De Jong in 2017 for two prospects and designated Locastro for assignment last November.
So Guerrero Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, making his MLB debut in the Great White North as the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus.
Since then, Guerrero Jr. has returned to his father’s old stomping ground at Angel Stadium where current Halo first baseman Albert Pujols, and former Angel Tim Salmon got their first glimpse at the younger Vlad in the big leagues.
“It just seems like he has that same flair, and that same unbridled passion for the game,” said Salmon, who played with Vladimir Sr. from 2004 to 2006. “That’s just really cool, when it’s more than just talent being passed down. It’s also that same fire.”
Pujols remembered meeting Guerrero Jr. as a 12-year-old during the 2007 Home Run Derby at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
The then eight-year-old Vladito followed his famous father around the field, eyes-wide, mouth agape, as he watched in awe as “Bad Vlad” hit home run after home run into the seats in left field.
Pujols was also in that derby, and joined the Angels a year after Guerrero Sr. retired and witnessed both Guerreros taking batting practice on the field in 2012.
“He was strong, man,” Pujols said. “Swung just like his dad.”
So far, Guerrero Jr. has struggled to start his MLB career. Through his first 11 games, he’s batting .186/.286/.495 with eight hits, no home runs, and one RBI.
“Nobody’s slightly worried about him, to be honest,” said Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman of the younger Guerrero. “Everyone knows he’s going to figure it out.”
His father struggled at the start of his MLB career as well. After his first nine games with the Montreal Expos in 1996, the elder Guerrero batted .185/.296/.481 with five hits, one RBI, one home run, and two runs scored; nearly identical numbers to his son over the same span of games.
In his first week in the big leagues, Guerrero Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps by making his MLB debut in Canada, playing at Angels stadium, hitting without batting gloves, and swinging at whatever pitch he sees.
“Basically, I don’t make adjustments,” Guerrero told NBC LA while in Anaheim. “I just see the ball and hit it. If it’s a good pitch, I will swing.”
On Saturday, Guerrero Jr. became the youngest player in Blue Jays franchise history at 20 years old, to reach base safely four or more times in a game.
Fans should be excited for Guerrero Jr.’s career, and interested in the Dodgers and Angels imprint on his path to the Majors. If Vladito remains patient, humble, and continues to follow in his father’s footsteps, he too will be in Cooperstown delivering a Hall of Fame speech one day.