It may have made the news a few thousand times over the last two days, but it is worth repeating. Wunderkind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been promoted to the major leagues. This is fantastic news, not just for player and team, but for fans and the sport as a whole. However, while everyone else deservedly celebrates, there is another side to ponder: what happens if he fails?
What If Vlad Guerrero Jr Fails?
Vlad Jr isn’t the type of prospect that fails. But “can’t miss” prospects miss all the time. Scouting and projections are an inexact art. Anything can derail a prospect’s career arc, to the point that it is almost miraculous when even a can’t miss prospect succeeds. Injuries, births and deaths, depression or other mental health issues, bullying, racism, and a plethora of other issues stand between even the best prospects and success.
Baseball is often imagined as this bucolic game, a throwback to the halcyon days of yore. In so many ways, it is. History is vital to the story of the game. There is a great deal of beauty in baseball’s past, both on and off the field. The game was woven into the very fabric of American society for decades. However, therein lies the problem.
With baseball and culture so closely entwined, America’s problems became baseball’s problems, too. As America had a racism problem, so too did baseball. As America struggled to integrate, so did baseball. Baseball was a microcosm of America itself. Her successes were baseball’s successes, and where she failed, so did baseball.
The Rise of Youth
Times changed. The NFL and NBA experienced surges in popularity and baseball’s status as the pastime of America was lost. However, America and baseball cannot be separated. Their past is too deeply interwoven to imagine them as separate entities.
Somewhere along the way, music and culture lost their way. Young became the trend in music, and reality became the trend in television. So baseball moved younger as well. This was a mistake.
The mistake was not in the sudden value of prospects. It was in the exposure of prospects. Once allowed to toil, struggle and grow in relative anonymity, now their faces were known the moment they signed. Their games, their skills, their lives were dissected even as teenagers, and every prolonged slump or season of struggles gave cause for fans and pundits everywhere to rip them apart.
Some still made it. Some always do. But for every failure, the question grows: is it baseball that broke these prospects? It wouldn’t be the first time. Hitting a baseball remains the toughest thing in sports. Young players have been failing more than succeeding since the beginning of the game. Millions of young men and women have seen the dream die long before they ever played a professional game. There’s no shame in not being the best.
But what if the problem isn’t baseball? What if the problem is the fans, the writers, the hecklers, and the internet trolls ever hastening to tell someone they aren’t good enough from the moment they are 16 years old?
A Tale of Two Players
As the Atlanta Braves played the Cincinnati Reds this week, Reds announcer Chris Welsh stated that Ozzie Albies might not know the difference between 35 and 85 million dollars.
Albies made the All-Star team in his first full season. He also spent the second half of last year mired in a dreadful slump. He’s one of the youngest position players in baseball, with plenty of talent, but he’s also experienced one potentially career-threatening injury already. It seems like he might regret his contract extension, but it was always his decision to make. It’s refreshing to see someone value his family and their security over greed. Contrary to popular opinion, greed has harmed far more people than the lack of it ever has.
Yet Albies and his agent are being excoriated for the deal. The Braves are being accused of ripping him off. The narrative consistently reads that Albies is stupid.
Chipper Jones, as in “Hall of Famer Chipper Jones,” consistently took team-friendly deals to stay in Atlanta. Tom Brady has done a similar thing for the New England Patriots. Both were hailed as team players, not idiots.
On the other hand, there’s Dansby Swanson — former first overall pick, the centerpiece of a major trade, and the shortstop with a career OPS+ of 86. Dansby has been raked over the coals for his performance. People have consistently said that he sucks, he should be traded, he should be demoted, or asked how long until he loses his job. Yet for all his struggles at the plate, the narrative has remained about Swanson the baseball player, not Dansby the person.
What Happens Next?
Ronald Acuna Jr.was a fellow wunderkind. He slashed .235/.290/.388 in his first full month in the show. Eloy Jimenez has slashed .231/.286/.372 so far. (Yes, those numbers are eerily similar. Brighter days may come quickly for Jimenez.)
Everyone will struggle at some point. Probably even Vlad. Obviously, it would be fantastic if he took the game by the throat from the first pitch and never looked back. It almost certainly won’t happen that way though.
That’s the new cultural problem we’ve arrived at. How do you measure success when the standard is set at transcendent? What is failure for someone who has spent years under a microscope?
What happens if Vlad, or Eloy, or Ozzie, or Dansby never lives up to the hype? Did baseball break them? Or did we? How can anything be quantified when a young black player is called an idiot for taking a team-friendly deal, but all-time great white players are hailed as heroes for doing the same?
Vlad Jr’s ultimate success or failure won’t be based on his OPS, his home runs, or his glovework. It won’t be based on his race or religion. It won’t be found on the back of his card. All he needs to do to succeed is to play this game with the same infectious joy he inherited from his dad.
What happens if Vlad Guerrero Jr fails? Let’s hope no one ever finds out, because if he does, it’s likely the blame lies with us. To Vlad, to Ozzie, to Eloy and Dansby and Moncada and every other over-analyzed, over-hyped, over-scrutinized prospect out there — don’t let anyone take your joy.
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