Catching Up With Omar Vizquel
Steve Eby | On 21, Jun 2014
There certainly is a special connection between Omar Vizquel and the Cleveland Indians fans.
Not since Rocky Colavito in the 1950’s and 60’s have Tribe fans gravitated toward one player in the way that they did to Vizquel during his tenure in Cleveland that ran from 1994-2004. The slick-fielding, always smiling shortstop had an amazing, special connection with the Cleveland faithful. The connection is still strong even nearly a decade after Vizquel was traded away from the franchise that he gave so much to for over a decade.
“I feel really strange,” Vizquel said of his warm, heartfelt receptions he still gets in Northeastern Ohio. “I stopped playing in Cleveland in 2004. To this day, fans still treat me very, very special. It’s almost like just yesterday that I left the team. It’s great, I have a Twitter account on my phone and almost all of the people that follow me are from Cleveland. It’s crazy. Everything they want to talk about is from the 90s.”
Vizquel credits the team success more than anything when trying to explain his connection with the fans, claiming that he is just one of dozens of players that get the royal treatment when they reappear at the ballpark that was known as Jacobs Field.
“It doesn’t matter who you mention from those 90’s,” Vizquel said, “the people go crazy. They still talk about Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Charles Nagy, Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga and all those people that played in the 90’s…I could go on and on.”
Vizquel was an integral part of the most successful stretch of baseball in Cleveland’s long history. During his time with the Indians, the team won six American League Central Division titles, played in three ALCS series’, and won two American League Pennants. With the Browns jettisoned to Baltimore and the Cavaliers stuck in neutral for most of those years, the Indians were the toast of the town and had a rock and roll attitude that Cleveland fans ate up.
“What we gave (the fans) in the 90s, it was really amazing,” Vizquel remembers. “The first game when we opened Jacobs Field, all those playoff games, all those come from behind, all the great nights that happened around here, all those things were reflective of the support that the fans gave us. The fans and the players made a connection somehow.”
Originally signed by the Seattle Mariners as a non-drafted free agent in 1984, Vizquel made his Major League debut with the M’s on April 3, 1989. He quickly became known for his defensive prowess, but also for his inability to produce runs. In Seattle, Vizquel became known as “Omar the Outmaker.”
“When I came to the big leagues, I had only been switch hitting for one year,” Vizquel recalled. “I knew it was going to take me a while to feel the groove of being a switch hitter. I knew it would take some time.”
Vizquel continued to improve as a hitter, having his batting average improve to an impressive .294 in 1992. Despite having it drop back down to .255 for 1993, Vizquel remained an everyday player throughout his time in Seattle because of his amazing defensive abilities. Vizquel dazzled the Pacific Northwest almost on a nightly basis by fielding big bounces off of the hard Kingdome turf with his bare hand, then firing across the diamond with a lightning quick release to rob the poor batter of an infield hit. The barehanded grab eventually became Vizquel’s calling card in Cleveland and he credits his time growing up in Venezuela for making him such a defensive magician.
“I think playing back in my hometown, playing without a glove, on really rough fields with a lot of rocks and stuff,” Vizquel said. “We used to have a field that was close to my house, and we made balls out of tape. We played with no gloves, so you had to catch the ball barehanded all the time and I think that’s how everything started. I developed the feet coordination and the hand-eye coordination to field the ball. So, when you get to (a Major League field) and you make a play like that, people say ‘how did you do that?’ I always answered, ‘I don’t know.’ Coaches hated it. The coaches always said if I ever drop a ball that they were going to punish me.”
Vizquel won his first Gold Glove Award in 1993, his final season in Seattle. On December 20 of that year, Indians General Manager John Hart pulled off a heist of a trade when he acquired the defensive wizard from the M’s in exchange for Felix Fermin, Reggie Jefferson and cash. Vizquel seemed to be the perfect complement to the Indians lineup filled with budding sluggers and superstars. Vizquel was excited for the opportunity to come to a team on the rise.
“I thought my career was about to take off,” Vizquel remembered. “When I took a look at the roster that they put together for that year, I saw guys like Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser, Eddie Murray and some other guys that came a little later, I knew we were going to have a chance to win.”
And boy, was he right.
Starting in Vizquel’s first season of 1994, the Indians took Cleveland by storm in a way that they had not since their last championship in 1948. They finished the strike-shortened ’94 season one game out of first place and then steamrolled the competition in 1995 to make their first World Series in 41 years. All the while, Vizquel continued to improve with his bat hitting behind Indians Hall of Famer Kenny Lofton and in front of another Indians HOFer Carlos Baerga.
“Coming here and being—and sticking—in the middle of that lineup was going to give me an edge,” Vizquel said of hitting in the second position. “I was able to take advantage of just moving the ball around. Hitting the ball the opposite way, just trying to find those holes that Kenny left when he got on base. I also got the opportunity to get a lot of fastballs with Carlos and Albert Belle hitting behind me. It kind of developed my hitting a little quicker and made me believe in myself as a hitter. I think it went well after that.”
Did it ever.
The Indians continued to roll through the AL Central, winning the next five division titles through 1999 and then another in 2001. The Tribe also made a second visit in three seasons to the World Series in 1997, although they lost a heartbreaking Game Seven to the Florida Marlins in extra innings. Throughout all of the team success, Vizquel continued to improve with his bat and stayed remarkably consistent with his amazing glove.
“I felt that we were unbeatable, really. There were a lot of people walking with a swagger,” Vizquel remembers of his old team. “You could hear it and you could feel it from other teams. When you talk to other teams and they say ‘oh my God here we go again’…you could feel it. You could feel some kind of intimidation just by the way we took the field and the way we approached games every day.”
Well, nearly every day. When asked which individual games stick out in his mind, Vizquel’s answer was certainly surprising. He remembers back to April 16, 1994 and an early-season 12-9 loss to the Kansas City Royals.
“It was the day that I made the three errors. That was a game that I will never forget,” Vizquel said. “I learned so much from that game. It is a hard moment to forget. After that, it was 80-some games until I made another error. It was truly a wakeup call. I can’t believe I made three errors in one game. There was a season where I played 155 games and I only made three errors. That year, I believe I made 11 errors. It teaches you that baseball is mysterious sometimes. That was my first year here. I wondered what kind of response it would get. After I heard a couple of radio shows, it was like ‘what the hell did we get this guy for?’”
Obviously, Vizquel managed to work through the one blip on his near-perfect radar and won the Gold Glove Award every year from 1994-2001 while with the Indians. His 11 total awards is second only to the St. Louis Cardinals legend Ozzie Smith who won a record 13 during his 19 year career. His defensive ability gave the Indians fans such a thrill night after night that Vizquel became arguably the most popular player on a team full of superstars.
“(Other) teams hated the way that we played,” Vizquel said with a smile. “The way that we played—the way that we showed up the other team and the way that some of the guys hit homers and then would just throw their bat in the air; it was really hard for some of the other teams to take that. I think that’s why they wanted to beat us so bad.”
While flashy, Vizquel was never one to rub it in and always had a smile on his face. It’s a smile that was contagious and helped keep a pressure-filled team of superstars loose.
“Everybody felt that chemistry was important,” Vizquel said, “and we had so many different kinds of personalities that chemistry came from all over the place. We had some really funny guys, we had some really intense guys, but when you saw the team play together and the way we came off the field and everybody was laughing, we just looked like kids. We almost looked like the Bad News Bears…only we were winning games instead of losing games. Every day was entertaining. Every day something was happening in that dugout that was very entertaining.”
Vizquel continued to play for the Indians through the 2004 season, making the American League All-Star teams in 1998, 1999 and 2002. During an era filled with sluggers and performance enhancing drugs, it was tough for All-Star voters to overlook the offensive numbers of fellow AL shortstops like Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada for a defensive-minded Vizquel. Upon the completion of his contract in the 2004 campaign, the Indians let Vizquel walk via free agency in favor of young slugging shortstop Jhonny Peralta in 2005.
“I felt hurt,” Vizquel said. “I wanted to retire as an Indian. Sometimes, business doesn’t allow you to be where you really want to. I lived through the process with Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Charles Nagy…guys that really wanted to retire with the team that really saw them grow—and then it happened to me too. But when I saw all the people were leaving and I was kind of the last man standing, I knew there was going to be a time where they let me go. It’s just the way the business works in this game. It was a really sad moment, but then you have to get used to playing with a different team and move on.”
Vizquel signed a free agency deal with the San Francisco Giants where he became the oldest shortstop in history to win a Gold Glove at age 38 in 2005 and then won another at age 39 in 2006. In June of 2008, during his fourth season by the bay, Interleague Play allowed Vizquel to make his long-awaited reunion with the city of Cleveland. The Giants visited Progressive Field that summer and the fans were ready to welcome back their longtime hero.
“When I came here with the Giants, the first time after I left Cleveland, it was very emotional,” Vizquel said. “They played a little video on the scoreboard and it really touched my heart. It was really exciting the way people stood up and gave me a standing ovation. It’s something that I wasn’t expecting. I thought maybe people would get up and clap, but the people did really good. It’s different. You can really feel the emotion of the people. It’s really nice to see.”
Vizquel continued to defy Father Time and kept playing baseball through the 2012 season. He made pit stops with the Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox and finally with the Toronto Blue Jays before hanging up his spikes for good at the age of 45. Despite a huge chapter of his life closing, Vizquel was ready to turn the page.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t really miss playing much,” Vizquel said confidently. “I think playing at 45 was hard enough. Especially when you play on turf. As you guys know, I played in 2012 with the Toronto Blue Jays and playing on turf is really hard on your legs and body. If it wasn’t for the condition that I keep myself in, it would have been extra hard. It was something in my head. It was a switch that I was ready to turn. I was ready to move on in a different direction. As a player, I was spending a lot of time on the bench. I was only playing once every 10 days, or something like that. I didn’t really like that situation. For me, I wanted to do something different.”
Vizquel makes no secret of what “that something different” is.
“I want to be a manager someday,” Vizquel said. “That’s what I’m preparing myself to do. It’s coming, that’s something that I really want to do before I completely retire.”
Although he was not hired to become a manager immediately for the 2013 season, Vizquel took a first step in that direction and worked with the Anaheim Angels for his first season out of retirement.
“(I worked) as an infielder instructor, roving instructor for the Anaheim Angels,” Vizquel said of his new gig. “(I’d) go to all the teams in the organization, all the way from rookie ball to Triple-A and talk to the infielders. Basically, (I’d) talk to the infielders about fundamentals of the game, situations and how to improve your game. Some of the details (I’d) see maybe can help them become better players. (We’d) just go from there…(we’d) exchange information on what they have in their mind and it’s a great process. Basically, that’s what I did when I played. I was a good defensive player, and now I can pass it to the younger people. It’s something that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Vizquel also got a taste of things that may be to come as well.
“I managed a little last (summer),” Vizquel said. “One of the managers of the Double-A team took some days off and they asked me if I could take over for four days. I did very well… I won three games and lost one. The experience of filling out the lineup and doing the game and thinking ahead in the game, the anticipation and everything you have to do, it was the process that I really wanted to do.”
Having a former All-Star and one of the all-time great shortstops at your disposal may be a huge advantage for a young ballplayer to work with. If anyone ever asks what Vizquel did to make himself so great—or how to make a barehanded grab—Vizquel is ready with his answer.
“Nobody has ever really asked me about it,” Vizquel said of his ballplayers. “It’s hard to teach somebody to make that play. If they approached me, I would tell them how I approached the ball, but it’s not something I’m really proud to teach. Sometimes, you could get a jammed finger or a broken nail for trying to make a play like that. I don’t ever remember breaking a nail for getting a jammed finger, though. I tried to open my hand really wide and catch the ball going backwards. I try to explain to people that you have to treat the ball like an egg. You can’t try to break the egg with your hands, you have to try to be a soft as possible.”
In another step in the right direction, Vizquel was hired this offseason to be the first base coach, infield and base running instructor for the Indians main rivals, the Detroit Tigers. It will be his first time back on a Big League bench since Vizquel retired, a place that may one day land him in Cooperstown. While popular opinions differ on whether Vizquel should get enshrined as a baseball immortal or not, it is not something on the forefront of Vizquel’s mind.
“Not really,” Vizquel replied. “A lot of people love to talk about the Hall of Fame. I think the numbers are there. Obviously, a lot of people have their opinions of whether you are going to be or are not going to be. You question yourself sometimes about what your opportunities will be to get there. I’m not thinking that I’m getting in on the first time around, but obviously I have some numbers to make an argument.”
If the call from the Hall ever does come, Vizquel will certainly don a Chief Wahoo hat on his plaque. He had his most personal and team success as a member of the Indians and the city still holds an obvious place in his heart.
“It’s hard not to be watching the games or where they are in the standings, even when you are with a different team,” Vizquel said. “There’s something about Cleveland that is still in my heart. After playing 11 years with this team, it gives you a special connection with the people and the city and everything else. It’s good to see them having success right now.”
Vizquel especially holds a special place in his heart for the fans that loved him so dearly for over a decade of his life.
“I think (I had a special connection with the fans) because I played here the longest,” Vizquel said with a smile. “There were some other guys that played here for a while, but I played here for 11 years. I signed a lot of autographs, I did a lot of things in the community and I made a connection with the fans. I wasn’t one of the guys that was hitting the homers and winning the games, but I was probably one of the most consistent ones.”