By Craig Gifford
When Omar Vizquel was essentially let go from the Cleveland Indians following the 2004 season, the thought many fans had was that the great shortstop would be back in a matter of two or three years – serving in a management role following retirement as an active ball player. No one could have imagined Vizquel, then 37 would play into his mid-40s and still be playing against the Tribe seven years later.
It was a difficult decision for then Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, but he ended up letting the popular Vizquel walk away as a free agent in the winter of 2004. The Tribe was in the middle of a rebuilding period, following great success through the late 1990s. Cleveland also had a young, up-an-coming shortstop prospect in Jhonny Peralta who was ready to break out as one of the top hitters at his position. Although Vizquel wanted to stay and the fans wanted him to play out his career in the Wahoo red, white and blue, the Tribe cut ties with Little O and went for the youth movement.
Unlike superstar players from the championship era before him, who walked way for greener pastures, Vizquel is still beloved in Cleveland and cheered fervently when he returns to Progressive Field. He wanted to stay, circumstances said otherwise.
Now playing for the Chicago White Sox, Tribe fans will again get to see one of their all-time favorite players in action this week. The Indians visit the South Side of Chicago for a three-game series, beginning Tuesday. Vizquel may not be a regular starter anymore, but he is certain to play in at least one or two games.
The fact Vizquel will play at all is amazing. The closest most 44-year-olds get to the ball field is in the comfort of a couch, in front of television, in their living room. Most are not running around and playing every infield position. Seven years ago, it was presumed Vizquel was nearly finished.
When Vizquel left Cleveland he did so having won an amazing nine career Gold Gloves. They all came in a row, from 1993-2001, before age and younger shortstops began to catch up. No one could have seen two more Gold Gloves in his future, but that is what happened. He won back-to-back awards with the San Francisco Giants in 2006 and 2007, the latter at the age of 40.
Vizquel played one more year with the Giants, before coming back to the American League with the Texas Rangers in 2009. That signaled the end of his regular playing days. Vizquel, who is thought to eventually be a coaching candidate if and when he retires, became a mentor and pseudo coach to rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus. A year later he began the first of what is now two seasons with the White Sox.
Known best for his glove, Vizquel could also hit and run. His career batting average is .272 and he is creeping ever closer to 3,000 hits, now standing at 2,836. He may not get there, as Father Time eventually has to set in, but you also can’t completely discount his chances. Even this year, in just 51 games, Vizquel is still batting well enough (.245, 37 hits) that he should be able to land a spot on someone’s bench for at least one more year.
To think Vizquel would still be playing after all these years away from the Tribe is astonishing. Even more so is that he has completely reinvented himself as a super utility player. This season, he has played all four infield positions with the majority of his time coming at third base. He can also play in the outfield if an emergency dictated the need.
Cleveland fans may have to wait a couple more years before an opportunity even arises for Omar to return in a coaching/management capacity. Even that may be a stretch as Vizquel’s fountain of youth seems limitless. It is probably best to simply continue enjoy watcing Vizquel take the field and cheering him on when he returns to the park he used to call home.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images