Befitting kings: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. reach All-Star Game exceeding lofty expectations

Befitting kings: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. reach All-Star Game exceeding lofty expectations

DENVER — Fernando Tatis and Vladimir Guerrero carry the Juniors that follow their names with grace and dignity, knowing their mere bloodlines will reset expectations and perceptions before they can so much as step in a batter’s box.

For a time, as Tatis’ body failed him, and Guerrero’s packed on too many post-pandemic pounds as his stat line generated satisfaction but not superlatives, it was fair to wonder just when and if they’d reach the greatness projected for them.

Oddly enough, this week should be their coronations. As Major League Baseball gathers for its All-Star Game, Guerrero and Tatis arrive with identical distinctions befitting young kings. They received more All-Star fan votes than any player in their respective leagues. They’ve each slugged 28 home runs.

Yet Tatis, the San Diego Padres shortstop and Guerrero, the Toronto Blue Jays first baseman and son of the Hall of Famer, must cede the spotlight. This is Shohei Ohtani’s arrival week, and rightfully so.

That puts them both, at 22, in a unique position of soaking in their first All-Star Games from the perch of experience, their three seasons in the major leagues gradually yielding the expected greatness.

Seizing it was as much about knowing themselves, inside and out, as anything on the field.

It is a lesson Tatis’ mentor in the Padres infield, Manny Machado, has driven home.

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What’s a better version of Tatis, Machado often asks him, than being you? Bring it every day. Even at 50%, 70%, you’re better than everyone else out there.

Lesson learned. Tatis leads the National League in homers (28) and stolen bases (20), along with slugging (.656) and OPS (1.020). He has bloomed while accepting preemptive strikes from the likes of Gatorade and the Padres themselves, the former making him their baseball ambassador even before he’d played 150 career games, the latter guaranteeing him $341 million.

It appears a portion of that sum has gone for a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

Believe it or not, most of the time I just don’t even pay attention, Tatis said Monday in the searing heat outside Coors Field. When you’re one of those guys, you can’t pay attention.

You can’t live your life by what people say or expect you to do. Every time I go out there to the field, I’m just the same kid playing the game I love and just enjoying it every single time.

While his 19 errors are cause for some concern, the elan with which he plays, along with his remarkable coiffure and the chain that reflects his nickname — El Niño — make him baseball eye candy. His production makes him the meat and potatoes of the Padres, whose fans have poured aggressively into Petco Park since attendance restrictions were lifted.

Yet his biggest fan may be on the other side of the country.

I love his entire game, Guerrero says through an interpreter. The energy that he brings, the way he plays for his teammates. I love the entire game.

That’s what we want: We all want to have fun. I’m sure everybody here wants to have fun and we try to do that and that’s what we’re doing. We’re going to continue to have fun.

When you see Vladito cutting up with his American League teammates, swinging firmly but wildly for Coors Field’s vast expanses Tuesday night, know that this fun was well-earned.

Catching up to the hype
When COVID-19 shut down the baseball industry, it set Guerrero on a wild 15-month course. He showed up for his sophomore season in July heavier, his bat slowed, his effectiveness dulled.

So Guerrero turned in a vicious winter of training, proudly touting his gains — and losses — on Instagram. He dropped 42 pounds in all, he said, though spring training is filled with so many cheery self-help tales.

Guerrero, who hit nine homers with a .791 OPS in a 60-game 2020, was ready to back it up.

There was a lot of hype. There is a lot of hype, says Blue Jays second baseman Marcus Semien, who joined the club this year. Last year, when you say he had a down year, I’m pretty sure his OPS was like .780. OK, so he had a down 60 games and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, no.’

Now, he comes back this year and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what they were talking about.’

He is punishing baseballs, leading the majors with 45 balls struck at least 110 mph. The results reflect that: He’s leading the major leagues in batting average (.332), on-base percentage (.430) and OPS (1.089).

Semien and teammate George Springer call Guerrero’s smoking, low line drives two-irons, in the way they explode off the blade, er, bat, and just keep carrying. He hits two-irons off the center field batters eye and it’s like, I couldn’t do that if I tried, says Semien.

It is, perhaps, nothing anyone didn’t expect from the vaunted international signee. Yet the toil to get there instill no shortage of pride.

In the offseason I worked very, very hard. It means a lot to me to be here, says Guerrero.

He’s also leaving footprints beyond those of his Hall of Fame father — whose career high of 44 homers may not last beyond this year in the family record book. The elder Guerrero was the 2004 AL MVP, a distinction that may soon be matched by his son.

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