The Greatest Summer Ever: Omar Vizquel
Steve Eby | On 24, Apr 2013
This story originally ran on July 14, 2012, but in honor of Omar Vizquel’s birthday today, we re-posted it from our vault.
Each week through the 26 weeks of the 2012 regular season, DTTWLN will profile and break down the roster of arguably the most exciting sports team that Cleveland has ever seen; the 1995 Cleveland Indians. The ’95 Tribe won 100 games in a strike-shortened 144 game schedule, won their first Central Division title and made the playoffs and World Series for the first time since 1954. Six players made the American League All-Star team, eight players batted .300 or better, and the pitching staff had the lowest ERA in the American League. The players have been ranked from the most important to the Tribe’s success to the 26th. This week breaks down #12 Omar Vizquel.
The trade history between the Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians has been a bit one sided in recent years. On June 30, 2006, the Indians sent old man first baseman Eduardo Perez to Seattle in exchange for shortstop and future All-Star Asdrubal Cabrera. A month later, the Tribe shipped Ben Broussard to the Mariners in exchange for Shin-Soo Choo and a player to be named later. Choo emerged as the Indians best position player for the next few years and Broussard…well…Broussard plays a mean acoustic guitar. In a “not quite as big of a steal” trade in June 2010, the Tribe sent another old man, Russell Branyan, to Seattle for Ezequiel Carrera and Juan Diaz. Carrera and Diaz may or may not be solid contributors to the Indians one day, but at the time of the trade, everyone in Cleveland was pretty stoked that the Tribe got anything for Russell Branyan.
Those trades were all great and they all helped the Indians incredibly, but they were nothing compared to heist that GM John Hart pulled off prior to the 1994 season.
When the Indians finalized the trade for shortstop Omar Vizquel on December 20, 1993, they pulled off one of the biggest lopsided trades in franchise history. The Mariners had a young shortstop with power named Alex Rodriguez on the way, so it seemed okay for the M’s to trade the all-glove/no-bat Vizquel for peanuts.
The Mariners got a return package of Felix Fermin, Reggie Jefferson and cash from the Indians for a player that would dazzle baseball people for almost two more decades, become an all-time Cleveland fan favorite and make a strong case to be inducted into Cooperstown.
Seriously…why do the Mariners make trades with the Indians?
Vizquel won his first Gold Glove Award in 1993 with Seattle and his spectacular fielding continued away from the Kingdome turf. Vizquel would create “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” nightly with his magic in the field, often not using his glove to field grounders.
Omar grew up in Venezuela and often played baseball as a kid on fields that were littered with rocks. Practicing in those fields helped Vizquel develop lightning quick hands. By walking around his town bouncing a rubber ball and catching it, he became accustomed to the barehanded catch, which became Omar’s signature move during his tenure in Cleveland.
Vizquel was not blessed with the strongest throwing arm, but it was deadly accurate and his transfer and release on the ball was a blur. He would make amazing diving catches both to his glove side and up the middle, get to his feet in the blink of an eye and fire a strike across the diamond to get the unlucky base runner by a step. His extensive studying of each runner on the opposing teams gave Vizquel’s internal clock the perfect sense of the amount of time that he had before the runner was safe. Omar would backhand balls that other people wouldn’t, he would turn his back to the plate and catch pop-ups over his shoulders to shield his eyes from the sun, and on the rare occasions when he did make an error it was usually on a ball that no other human being would have even gotten too. Omar was simply the best defensive shortstop that has ever put on a Cleveland uniform…or quite possibly any uniform.
When Vizquel played in Seattle, the Mariners were not really any good and the world did not know much about Omar outside of the state of Washington. Vizquel was known by Mariner fans as “Omar the Outmaker” and you don’t have to be a baseball genius or a rocket scientist to figure out what that meant. In five years for the M’s, Omar batted .252 with six homeruns and 131 RBI. These numbers were even inflated a little bit by Vizquel’s solid 1992 season in which he hit .294, the only time that he went high above his career average.
When Vizquel got to Cleveland and was sandwiched in the lineup behind Kenny Lofton and in front of the 90’s version of Murderer’s Row, Omar suddenly became a productive hitter by being disciplined and taking what the pitchers would give him. Vizquel batted a solid .273 in ’94 and fit perfectly in the second slot in the lineup. He won his second Gold Glove and instantly became a core player in the Tribe lineup.
In 1995, Vizquel still didn’t have very much raw power nor did he drive in a ton of runs, but Omar still made huge contributions to the Indian offense. Vizquel became a very important run producer and a sparkplug for the Indian lineup…a sort-of second leadoff batter behind Lofton. This importance was evident in a July 22 game in Oakland when the Indians were red-hot and were getting production from every corner of the lineup.
It was a windy but mild 70° that Saturday afternoon around the bay and the Indians were sitting atop the AL Central and winners of seven of their last eight games. Rookie Chad Ogea was the starter for Cleveland and Oakland countered with former-phenom Todd Van Poppel.
Van Poppel set down the Indians 1-2-3 in the top of the first, and Ogea matched him by setting the A’s down scoreless in the bottom half. The Tribe went without a run again in the top of the second, but Oakland was able to break the shutout in the bottom of the inning.
Right fielder Ruben Sierra led off the inning for the Athletics with a single on Ogea’s first pitch of the inning. Second baseman Brent Gates followed Sierra’s single with a single of his own, putting runners at first and second with nobody out. Ogea got two big outs by getting Craig Paquette to pop out and Stan Javier to strikeout, but loaded the bases with two outs when he walked catcher Eric Helfand. After playing with fire, Ogea finally got burned when third baseman Scott Brosius lined a single into left field scoring both Sierra and Gates and giving the A’s a 2-0 lead.
Van Poppel and the Athletics held the 2-0 lead into the top of the sixth inning when the feisty Indian offense came to life. Wayne Kirby, who was playing for an injured Lofton, led off the inning with a walk and stole second on the first pitch to Vizquel. Omar worked the count full and lofted the payoff pitch to centerfield. Not knowing whether or not it would be caught, Kirby held at second and scampered to third when the ball fell to the ground. Vizquel raced into second base for his 14th double of the season, but did not get an RBI because Kirby was still at third. Regardless, with two runners in scoring position and nobody out, the table was set for the thunder in the Indian lineup.
With Van Poppel up to 94 pitches for the game, A’s manager Tony LaRussa went to his bullpen and right hander Rick Honeycutt to face Carlos Baerga. His strategy worked at first, as Baerga lined out to the shortstop, but Honeycutt proceeded to walk Albert Belle to load the bases with one out. Jim Thome followed by hitting a sacrifice fly to deep right-center, scoring Kirby and moving Vizquel to third. With the score now 2-1, Manny Ramirez grounded a single through the left side of the infield, scoring Vizquel, and tying the game.
Ogea, meanwhile, had really settled in and set down the Athletics scoreless again in the bottom of the sixth. With the game tied entering the top of the seventh, the Tribe looked to go ahead for the first time that day.
The inning started poorly for Cleveland, as reliever Carlos Reyes retired both Sandy Alomar and Kirby on grounders for the first two outs of the inning. That brought up Vizquel who was 1-3 on the day. With two outs and Brosius playing back, Omar dropped down a perfect bunt on the third baseline and beat it out for a single. Baerga followed by lifting a high fly ball to right that should have ended the inning. With two outs, Vizquel was running on the crack of the bat, and Omar was able to score the go-ahead run when Sierra dropped the ball for an E-9. Unfortunately for the Indians, however, this was not the only costly error that an outfielder would make on that windy afternoon.
Julian Tavarez replaced Ogea in the bottom of the seventh and shut down the A’s that inning. He worked into the eighth, but that’s when things got a little ugly. Tavarez started the inning by walking future Indian Geronimo Berroa. Sierra lined out to Belle and Gates grounded into a fielder’s choice that moved Berroa to second. Tavarez then got a pinch hitter, former Indian Mike Aldrete, to sky a ball deep to left. Belle was unable to make a play as the winds were swirling off of the San Francisco Bay and the ball fell to the ground for an error. Oakland tied the game on the unearned run and Aldrete moved to second.
Pinch runner Ernie Young came in to run for the slow-footed Aldrete, and Tavarez’s first pitch to Javier skipped away from Alomar. With Young running to third, Alomar picked the ball up and fired it into left field for the second Indian error of the inning. When Young touched home plate, the Indians were suddenly losing 4-3 with another former Indian, Dennis Eckersley, ready to come in for the ninth.
Eck started his career two decades earlier with the Indians as a starting pitcher. He even threw a no-hitter as a member of the Tribe in 1977. Since he went to the A’s in 1987, Eckersley had moved to the bullpen and had become the most dominant and most celebrated closer in baseball, and many would argue that he was the best closer of all-time. On this day, he carried a one run lead into the ninth, facing the top of the Tribe order.
Kirby led off the inning by striking out on three pitches, bringing Vizquel to the plate to start a one out rally. With Lofton hurt, the Indians were counting on Vizquel to be the catalyst for the offense and Omar came through with a single through the left side. If there was one thing that Eck didn’t do all that well, it was hold runners close and Vizquel exploited this weakness by stealing second to put the tying run in scoring position. With Baerga at the plate, Eck hit Carlos with a pitch, now putting the go-ahead run on base but also setting up the double play. Belle followed by popping a ball high in the extensive foul territory of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and Helfand grabbed it for out number two. This brought up Thome as the Indians last hope and Jimmy did not disappoint. Thome lashed Eckersley’s 3-2 pitch into right field for a double, scoring Vizquel and Baerga to give the Tribe a 5-4 lead. Ramirez followed with a walk and then Paul Sorrento tacked on an insurance run by singling home Thome on a liner to centerfield.
Jose Mesa came into the ballgame for the bottom of the ninth. He was already a perfect 24-24 in save situations on the season and Joe Table was amped up to make it a perfect 25. Mesa struck out pinch hitter Rickey Henderson swinging to start the inning, then got Brosius to swing and miss at strike three for the second out. Jason Giambi followed suit by striking out on three pitches, swinging and missing at the last one to end the game.
The Indians record (by far the best in the Majors) now stood at 55-22. They were in first place and winners of eight of their last nine. The Tribe would go on to win their next two games as well, running their winning streak to seven in a row and 10 out of 11.
Vizquel was the offensive player of the game that day in Oakland, even though he did not drive in a single run. His final line score included three hits in five at bats, three runs scored with a double and a stolen base. His defense, as usual, was outstanding and Omar won the game his way. “Omar the Outmaker” had become an offensive force that could beat teams in different ways than the rest of the Indians thunderous lineup, but in a way that was just as effective.
Vizquel continued to put up solid numbers throughout 1995. He finished the season with a .266 batting average and hit six homeruns, the same amount that he totaled in five years with Seattle. He stole 29 bases that summer and won his third straight Gold Glove Award.
Omar played superb defense through the playoffs, but his offensive numbers were not as pretty. Vizquel hit only .138 in his first trip to the postseason but he did end up scoring seven runs, driving in seven and stealing five bases in October. Even though the Tribe lineup was full of guys that could mash, Vizquel still found his niche as the perfect number two hitter in the lineup.
Omar Vizquel played for the Indians for the next nine seasons after 1995. He won a Gold Glove every year from ’96-2001, giving him eight total as an Indian. Omar made the American League All-Star team in 1998, 1999 and 2002, with the best season of his career coming in ’99 when he batted .333. After Thome and Charles Nagy left via free agency in ’02, Vizquel was the last remaining piece of the magical 1995 season. Vizquel played two more seasons with the Indians through 2004 and was cherished by the fans. He stayed positive and was a leader and role model for the next group of Indians as the young but talented group struggled to compete. In a very unpopular move, Vizquel was let go by the Indians in favor of young shortstop Jhonny Peralta after 2004, with the Indians indicating that Omar was getting too old to contribute at a high level.
Vizquel signed a free agent deal with the San Francisco Giants for the 2005 season and since then has also spent time with the Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox and is currently still contributing with the Toronto Blue Jays. In June of 2012, Vizquel announced that this season would be his last as he will retire following the season.
Omar has defied all odds. Eight seasons after the Indians thought he was too old; he’s still getting the job done at age 45. Over his career, Vizquel has accumulated more than 2,800 hits, 400 steals, 450 doubles and 11 Gold Glove Awards.
Not a bad career for a guy that Seattle traded for peanuts.
Next Week: Charles Nagy
#26 Dave Winfield
#25 Mark Clark
#24 Wayne Kirby
#23 Alan Embree
#22 Alvaro Espinoza
#21 Herbert Perry
#20 Ken Hill
#19 Jim Poole
#18 Chad Ogea
#17 Sandy Alomar
#16 Tony Pena
#15 Eric Plunk
#14 Paul Sorrento
#13 Paul Assenmacher
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland.com