“He can be the best there is. Inside the Blue Jays, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s off-season transformation

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The dust had barely settled over the Blue Jays’ short playoff run and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was already planning his offseason.

After a wildcard series sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays and another year for Guerrero that could be called underwhelming – given the astronomical expectations of a former No.1 prospect – the youngster texted a personal trainer he had only heard stories of.

Guerrero wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for. He just knew he was willing to do whatever it took to get better, and the person on the other end of the phone could help him get there.

“He wasn’t very specific about what he needed or wanted,” said Junior Rodriguez. “But I followed his career and watched videos of him, so with my baseball knowledge, I knew what he needed. “

Guerrero said he trusted Rodriguez. And that’s where the transformation began.

Rodriguez is a personal trainer and performance specialist in the Dominican Republic with expertise in nutrition. His reputation for getting the best out of baseball players was enough for Guerrero to reach out. He has worked with longtime Los Angeles Angels shortstop Erick Aybar, current Baltimore Orioles third baseman Mikael Franco, Oakland Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano, Arizona Diamondbacks midfielder Ketel Marte. and Atlanta Braves outfielder Cristian Pache.

Rodriguez has turned his attention this past offseason to Guerrero. But before he did, he needed to know that this budding 22-year-old Blue Jays star was all-in.

“I was very attached to Vladimir, and I also told him: I need a commitment from you, so that you can do great things,” Rodriguez told The Star in a video interview with a translator. . “Vladimir was very receptive to this and engaged with me. “

So when Guerrero returned home to the Dominican after a short, odd season for the Buffalo-based Jays, it was time to get down to business. Rodriguez typically works at the Isabel Villas Golf and Country Club in Arroyo Hondo, an area of ​​the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo. To maximize their time together, they decided to create the perfect home gym at the Guerrero House in Don Gregorio, the family’s hometown in Nizao County. Rodriguez brought everything they would need to reach their goals over the next three months. And they had big goals.

“The first thing he needed was it was no secret that he needed to lose weight in order to perform better,” said Rodriguez. “Because based on his weight, he was going to be limited to certain things on the baseball field.”

After an initial assessment that included measuring Guerrero’s body and body fat, as well as a baseball session on the field in Nizao to analyze his limitations, Rodriguez could see that his new client was limited to the hips and ankles. “I decided to work in these areas first, for flexibility and mobility.”

But the plan for Guerrero went beyond high intensity workouts, losing weight and improving movement. Rodriguez was determined to work on his mind and make it a lifestyle change, not just a body change. New rules were put in place that have become habits (portion control, eating healthy fats, lots of vegetables, no alcohol, and an early dinner – a difficult task for anyone of Dominican descent) that Rodriguez continues. to cheer on this season. They talk every day to stay on track, and the Jays have supported their working relationship.

“From the start I wanted him to have a new lifestyle, in terms of his health and his diet and his habits. My main goal since meeting him has been to get him to where a professional baseball player should be, based on my experience, ”said Rodriguez, 37, who started playing football at the age of. eight years old but decided to become a personal trainer when he realized he didn’t have what it took to turn pro. “I wanted him to do everything the right way.”

Four days a week, they would meet at the Guerrero gym around mid-morning, enough time for his client to digest a light breakfast and train hard for 90 minutes. The atmosphere was intense.

While the couple fitted in well and developed an “emphatic” relationship – Rodriguez praised Guerrero’s sense of humor – when it came to training it was strictly a dynamic athlete-coach. “No jokes, no friendship, no nothing,” Rodriguez said.

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After the sessions, and before the afternoons spent training outdoors in the baseball fields of Nizao, Rodriguez would save 10 or 15 minutes to sit down and chat. They talked a lot about baseball, checked in with each other, and reviewed their progress to make sure they were on track to meet their goals.

“Every day I took the opportunity to talk to him about what we wanted to do and what we needed to improve,” he said. “We were on the same wavelength, very connected. He has always been very receptive and very humble.

Humble was a word Rodriguez came back to often when referring to Montreal-born Hall of Fame son Vladimir Guerrero. A bond was formed that began with an unwavering commitment and a mutual desire to work as hard as needed to give Guerrero a chance to be the best baseball player he could be.

“He is a decent person, very obedient and easy to listen to. He loves baseball, ”Rodriguez said. “Over the time I spent with him I realized he was a young man who really loves baseball and wants to be the best he can be. I still believe that there is still work to be done and that Vladimir can be the best baseball player there is.

There were days when Rodriguez could see that Guerrero’s body was tired and sore, but he pushed through. He showed up ready to work as hard as possible, honoring the commitment he made at the start, and by the end of the offseason he had a new body to show.

Guerrero weighed 42 pounds lighter and more flexible than ever. The transformation was complete.

“A lot of people maybe underestimated Vladimir because of his weight and maybe thought he couldn’t achieve what he is doing now,” Rodriguez said. “But I have faith. He’s going to be a really good baseball player.

Guerrero is already showing signs of greatness this season.

It features the special offensive presence fans have promised since being signed to the Jays at 16 in 2015. He’s faster, more mobile and more agile at first base. His foot speed has improved considerably. He hit the fourth hardest ball of the season at 116.1 mph and ranks in the top 15 in average release speed. It’s only been 13 games, but his slash is off the charts.

He also did a few role-playing games on both sides of the infield, the kind that believers in Guerrero knew they would see one day.

“Wow. Unbelievable. Unbelievable, ”said Rodriguez after watching a replay of Guerrero stretching to first base, almost in the middle of a division, to receive a throw from Bo Bichette, beating the runner by a split second and sealing a victory for the Jays.

Could he have done this last year? Rodriguez couldn’t help laughing: “I don’t think so. His body was tight and he was too overweight. There was a lot of good in this body, but we just needed to improve it. It was my main objective, it was to see this result. We have made it this far, but we will continue.

A few nights later, Rodriguez watched on TV as his client stood confidently in the batter’s box in the seventh inning. Guerrero has already had two hits in this game. On the first pitch, he effortlessly whipped his body towards the mound, put the stick on the ball and smashed the longest homerun of his young career: a 456-foot lunar shot down center-left in Kansas City.

Rodriguez had one more thing to say.

“He’s in good shape… I told you.”

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