Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is Clutch

When he stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game that would not proceed to extra innings, I turned to my wife and said: “Let’s see if he has it.”

It’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid. Baseball is difficult to begin with. So are fathers. Playing baseball while wearing your father’s number in the city where he started his Hall of Fame career and you were born must be more pressure than most people could handle. To have to do it so young? And then, to add to your trouble, to have people like me, sitting on their couch and deciding that this is the moment they’ll reach a verdict on you? That this will tell them if you have it? Well, that shit must be annoying.


To be fair to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (and myself), I wasn’t pinning everything on this moment. I’d seen him play a few times this spring and had already formed some opinions. I agreed with the scouts who said that he’s one of the best prospects in baseball. While a bit more time in the minors will serve him well, he already looks like he can hang with major league pitching. At his age, that’s incredible. And, if things had of gone differently in tonight’s game, it really wouldn’t have changed my opinion much.

But it would have changed it a little. Baseball is never really fair. Neither am I.

And the one thing I’ve noticed over the years is that numbers might separate the good players from the really good but something else separates the really good from the great. After a certain level, it’s not just the numbers. It’s it. That strange ineffable quality. That touch of genius. That bit of divinity. That thing that you just know it when you see it.

They used to call it “clutch.” We stopped talking about “clutch” because, in a lot of ways, it was a pretty goddamn dumb thing to talk about. Its presence was too often invoked to hype up mediocre players and its absence used to diminish good players. Many of its strongest advocates were the least rational, most panicked and reactive of baseball fans. They were the sort of people who harped on about things like “closer mentality”, “RBIs” and “clubhouse leadership.” They were, in short, a collection of dreary halfwits.

It did not help that we could not find clutch.  Smart people did the math. They discovered that there was no such thing as clutch. Good players are just good players. Whatever the situation, you want your best player in the high leverage situation. That makes sense. That’s how it is.  It’s completely accurate and it’s completely wrong.

You can’t calculate divinity. You can’t look at the sheet music, count the notes per second and figure out why Jimi Hendrix has it and Joe Satriani does not. When you try to do that, you have already made a mistake. You’ve tried to locate it. You’ve put it in a person. Or in a limited situation. But that’s not where it is and that’s not what it is. It’s bigger than that. It’s non-local. You can’t weight it. It won’t fit on the scale.

Baseball, like life, has greater truths than those ones readily available to accountants.

All the greats in all the fields are touched by it. They somehow tap into it. I don’t think it’s a choice. I don’t think it’s a decision. They only thing that they decide, and they must decide it again and again, even when it’s not there, especially when it isn’t, is to be ready for it. They must choose to practice their craft. To show up. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s pointless. They must show up. So that when it finds them, they might be ready for it. But, still, it might never show up. You might never be ready.

But yesterday night, it showed up.

Think, for a moment, how ridiculous and improbable the situation is. For this situation to be what it was, so much had to happen over such a long a period of time. Vladimir Guerrero Sr. had to play for the Montreal Expos. Montreal had to lose their team. He had to remain a beloved figure in spite of that. Then his son, born in Montreal, had get drafted by the one team who plays two of their games a year in Montreal – or by the team playing against them. He had to be good enough to last this deep into the spring. And, after all of that, the game had to work out how it worked out. A zero-zero tie. Two outs in the bottom of the ninth. And who comes to the plate? Him? Of all people? Him? Vladimir Guerrero Jr.? It showed up. Was he ready? Did he have that spark? Was he clutch?

In the last at bat of the spring, he won and ended the game with a solo home-run.

I could hardly believe it. When I turned to my wife and said “let’s see if he has it,” I didn’t actually expect to see it. I knew that I was being unfair. That I was putting too much on this moment and this young man. But I also know that these moments find great players and great players rise to meet them. What I wanted to see was not if he was any good. He is. We all know that. Good players are common. Great ones, not so much. I just wanted to see if he had that little spark of genius that separates the great from the good.

And, well . . . He does.

So count me among the true believers. I hate to make predictions (The Baseball Gods are cruel and capricious as children) but this kid made a believer out of me. He is real. He’s great. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is clutch and he is a Toronto Blue Jay.

Try not to fuck it up.