The Short Man in Long Shadows

Posted on February 4, 2011

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                When Omar Vizquel arrived at his first professional baseball tryout, in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela in 1983, he found plenty of competition. He wanted badly to be a shortstop—in fact, he was too small to play any other position on the field. But at that first tryout, there were four third basemen, four second basemen, three first basemen and 15 shortstops, by Vizquel’s recollection.

                At that time, in that place, it was shortstop or nothing. Venezuelan baseball was a shortstop’s world: Pitchers and hitters and base-runners and umpires (when they had them) merely moved within it. Luis Aparicio was halfway through a Hall of Fame career when Vizquel was born in 1967, and he would be inducted into Cooperstown in 1984. Coincidentally, Vizquel signed his first professional contract that year, with the Seattle Mariners.

                Dave Concepcion helped ensure the stability of the legacy of Venezuelans at the position: He did not make it to the Hall of Fame, but he did win six Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers. Concepcion wore 13 on his back, so when Vizquel signed on with Seattle, he donned 13, too.

Sidebar: Baseball Cultures           

Baseball players’ hometowns and home nations ought to be considered an official statistic. If they did, they would rank ahead of batting average or ERA in predictive validity of player performance, and would be more helpful scouting tools than fastball velocity or time from home plate to first base. Consider: Japanese pitchers do not throw 95 miles per hour, not because they cannot, but because it is not how one does things in Japan. Instead, pitchers are considered prototypical and manly if they can baffle hitters with an array of six or seven different pitches. There is no premium placed on embarrassment; they pitch to contact.

                In Texas, meanwhile, a pitcher is not worth the time and effort to look into unless he can ratchet up his fastball at least into the low 90s. Masculinity is measured by raw power, and by the willingness to throw inside.

                Japan favors fleet, defense-first outfielders. The Dominican Republic places a premium on the ability to hit home runs. In Florida and in California, ballplayers are taught that the only path to big-league success is to be good at everything. And in Venezuela, they play shortstop.

                It took five long years, though, for Vizquel to reach the big leagues. At every level of minor-league ball, he had to overcome the expectation of many that his small, slender frame would fail to produce sufficient arm strength or bat speed or durability to keep climbing the ladder. When he finally made it, he remained a short man in long shadows for a long time. He made his big-league debut on April 3, 1989, as the starting shortstop in Seattle. Some 300 feet away, Ken Griffey, Jr. made his as well.

                In five seasons as a Mariner, he batted just .252/.309/.303, and even a 1993 Gold Glove did not save him: He was traded after the season to Cleveland to make room for a shortstop named Alex Rodriguez, whom the team had drafted first overall in June of that year. There, he played alongside developing hitters Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga and Kenny Lofton.

Aside from Vizquel, the only below-average hitter Cleveland tolerated as a regular in 1994 was a 38-year-old Eddie Murray, and then only because Murray was a sure-fire Hall of Famer who the organization knew would bounce back. Even as Vizquel emerged as a better and better hitter, he remained in the shadow of the giants with whom he played. When Baerga’s career soured, the team acquired Roberto Alomar. When Belle turned into a head case, they added David Justice. Vizquel was perennially the worst offensive player on one of baseball’s best offensive teams.

Still, he had tremendous value to the Indians of those years, who won two pennants and ought to have won a World Series. He played shortstop alongside Jim Thome for years, allowing the Indians to cycle through a number of useful first basemen while Thome slowly lost whatever viability he had at third base. He also provided extra speed to a lineup of lumbering loggers and, as they say, did the little things well.

This is perhaps the most common compliment paid to Vizquel: He was master of the little things. Of course, saying a guy does the little things well is an awful lot like saying his apartment makes great use of space, but both compliments reflect the same intended message. Absent any tangible proof of exceptionalism, the commenter in each case feels compelled nonetheless to express their appreciation for something.

Of course, for all that was and is intangible about Vizquel, he also has rather a lot of the more obvious things going for him: He has 11 Gold Gloves and might well be the best defensive shortstop ever. He also has 400 career steals and over 1,400 runs scored. If his fans came for all of that, they stayed for the show off the field: Vizquel was a flashy dresser and drove a fast, bright yellow car in his younger days. He painted, and in fact, he did so quite well.

He also showed no fear of speaking his mind, which led to a famous public feud with Jose Mesa. Mesa, in Vizquel’s estimation, cost the Indians the 1997 World Series. The loss was bitterly painful for Vizquel, as it was for all of Cleveland, and the sentiment is more than understandable. In his co-authored autobiography, CVizquel would later write this about that night:

The most important asset for a major league baseball player is not speed or size or strength. It’s mental toughness … The eyes of the world were focused on every move we made. Unfortunately, Jose’s own eyes were vacant. Completely empty. Nobody home. You could almost see right through him.

Indians fans adored Vizquel for his honesty, his humility and his grace on and off the field. If the team were a bit more inclined to work within the paramteres of free agency, Vizquel might have played his entire career there, but Cleveland felt they could no longer afford the aging shortstop.

A half-decade after ending his decade-long tenure in Cleveland, Vizquel is still going. He will breeze by 2,800 hits this season, now as a member of the Chicago White Sox. Along the way, he became the first shortstop to win Gold Gloves in both leagues, with San Francisco in 2005. He did it again in 2006. He also became the oldest shortstop to win the award in 2005, and solidified the record the next year. In 2008, he took (from Aparicio) the record for most games played at shortstop in big-league history.

In 2009, he went to the Texas Rangers. He mentored the next great Venezuelan shortstop there, a Vizquel/Aparicio clone named Elvis Andrus. Vizquel also broke Aparicio’s record for hits by a Venezuelan-born player that season.

He came to the White Sox thereafter, and now will enter his second season playing for manager Ozzie Guillen—a Venezuelan shortstop and the bridge from Concepcion to Vizquel in the nation’s shortstop lineage. Guillen wears 13, in honor of Concepcion. Vizquel, with permission from its sometime owner, wears the formerly retired number 11 for Chicago—the number that belonged to Aparicio himself. Last year, at 43, Vizquel had his best season since 2006, and helped keep the White Sox in contention long after they deserved to be fighting for a playoff berth.

He is the active leader in sacrifice bunts, with 251, and second place on the active list—teammate Juan Pierre—has fewer than half as many. History will not remember quite how good Omar Vizquel was, and the fact that he played so selflessly is one big reason. Another is that he played alongside so many of the era’s best players, and looked a bit less magical in comparison. Still another is that, not unlike Brett Favre, he played fully a decade past the peak of his powers. Perhaps more. Probably more.

All that said, Omar Vizquel belongs in the Hall of Fame. He is as good or better than Rabbit Maranville, Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. The fact that (arguably) none of those men deserved enshrinement ought not to bar Vizquel from joining them: In this case, the affront to his legacy that would be perpetrated by placing him on a lower plane than these would far outweigh the issues of the Hall’s integrity that his induction could raise.

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