Jesse Sanchez

Vlad Jr. following in father's, family's footsteps

Son of former big league star a top international prospect, next in long line of swinging Guerreros

Vlad Jr. following in father's, family's footsteps

DON GREGORIO, Dominican Republic -- The lonely dirt road that leads to the famous iron door is named after legendary Dominican general Maximo Gomez, but hardly anyone calls the narrow street to the old ballpark in this country town by its official name anymore.

Locals say the iron door is a five-minute walk to Vladimir Guerrero's modest childhood home and an eight-minute walk to the monstrous house he built years ago, the one with a large "27" in front of it. It's a couple of blocks from Guerrero's supermarket, clothing store and gym on Duarte Street, they say. And no, you don't need a car to get around here, because a motorcycle or a moped will suffice.

The landmark is a must-see in Don Gregorio, because it opens to baseball paradise, a gateway to opportunity and a better future.

On the other side of the iron door is Don Gregorio's ballfield, known locally as "El Play," and recognized nationally as the baseball home of the Guerrero family. Brothers Eliazar, Wilton, Vladimir and Julio walked through the door as kids, and all became professional baseball players. Now, the next generation of ballplayers, led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is coming through, and they are poised to carry on the family tradition.

"We are Christians, and God has blessed us with ability to play baseball to survive and make a living for ourselves," said former Major Leaguer Wilton Guerrero, who trains Guerrero Jr. "We were all born with the love of baseball in our heart, and I truly believe it comes from the heavens. It's our blessing and we are very grateful for it. Baseball is all I saw growing up, and our kids see it early in their lives, too."

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. -- a 6-foot-2, 220-pound outfielder -- is considered one of the top prospects for the international class of 2015, and the 15-year-old is expected to command a large signing bonus when he becomes eligible to sign on July 2.

Scouts love the teenager's power and natural ability, and his swing is reminiscent of his father's. There is some concern about Guerrero Jr.'s body type and his larger lower half, but he projects to grow and shed what is most often described as "baby weight." He's also a Guerrero, and that means something in the Dominican Republic.

"To me, God has given him double the talent that his father had," Wilton Guerrero said. "He also grew up watching the game and he's mature for his age. I really hope he can develop and do what he has to do. I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the big leagues at 19 or 20. He's going to be that good."

Wilton should know. He babysat Guerrero Jr. as an infant and has been working with him since the prospect was 5 years old. Wilton said Vladimir Sr. advises his young son, but not does not coach him.

"Wilton means a lot to me," Vladimir Jr. said. "He's my uncle, he's my trainer and he's my agent. He's my family and I'm very grateful for him. Family means everything."

Wilton also trains nephews Gregory Guerrero, 15, Josue Guerrero, 14, and Jose Guerrero, 18, who recently signed with the Mets. He worked with nephew Gabriel Guerrero, a Seattle prospect who played in the Futures Game in Minnesota in July.

"We want the name of God to come first and be grateful and then think of our name," Wilton said. "I feel like if I talk and brag about what we have done in baseball, then God becomes silent. If we lose our humility, we lose our blessing, and we don't want that, so we get up every day and go to work."

The field where Guerrero Jr. and the other members of Wilton's Guerrero Family Baseball Academy train is modest by all accounts, decades old with an infield made of dirt and an outfield of tattered grass. On most days, there is chattering in Spanish and the distinct cracking sound made when a baseball is being smashed by a wooden bat. The popping noise made when the neighborhood children scamper across the crushed rocks behind the backstop is ever-present.

There are always spectators inside this neighborhood park, adults leaning against the faded green cinder block walls with their bicycles and motorcycles parked next to them. Others, mostly teens and children, rest in the shade provided by the building next to the dugout -- call it a makeshift concession stand. Some sit in the stands built by the Guerreros, watching the young ballplayers catch fly balls and laughing at the goats patrolling the outfield with them.

On occasion, Vladimir Guerrero Sr. will show up at the field, but primarily to play softball. Wilton is there every day, flanked by Matthew Marotta, 22, who is officially listed as the academy's assistant to baseball operations. But he's also known as a recent college grad who left a 9-to-5 job in Virginia to pursue his dream of working in baseball. Marotta's YouTube video of Guerrero Jr. went viral and brought international attention to the Guerrero Academy. He's also teaching the prospects English.

"Vladi Jr. works harder than any other player in the academy and wants to live up to father's legacy and family name," Marotta said. "It's all about the family and Guerrero name."

The Guerrero baseball legacy will continue for years to come. Wilton Guerrero Jr. is only 5 years old, but his father says he's been swinging a bat for two years.

"This is what we do and this is what we are," Wilton said. "My son will play baseball like all of the Guerreros, and he will be grateful to God for the blessings he has given us. He's part of the next generation, and they will be even better than the one now."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.