Countdown To Pitchers And Catchers: #13 Omar Vizquel

Today continues our countdown to the start of Indians pitchers and catchers reporting to Goodyear, Arizona on February 20. We’ll count down the days, profiling a former Indian who wore the corresponding number. Some players will be memorable, others just our favorites and some, the only one we could find who wore that number. Today, we chronicle the career of Omar Vizquel.

By Kevin Schneider

Omar Vizquel’s big personality sometimes overshadowed his bat, but never the shortstop’s Gold Glove, as an Indian.

And the Venezuelan’s personality never outgrew Cleveland during his 13-year stint during the Tribe’s modern glory years. Vizquel provided leadership and didn’t shy from calling out teammates who couldn’t take the heat – specifically the Florida heat.

In his 2002 autobiography Omar! My Life on and off the Field, written with Bob Dyer, Vizquel in the first chapter relays his 1997 season fantasy of fielding and starting a double play to clinch the World Championship leading 2-1 with one out in the ninth. “But Jose Mesa wasn’t following the script,” Vizquel’s book starts.

Vizquel, nicknamed “Little O,” made headlines for saying his teammate, Indians closer Jose Mesa, choked in 1997 with the Indians’ first World Series title since 1948 on the line.

In his book, Vizquel writes, “Not long after I looked into his vacant eyes, he blew the save and the Marlins tied the game at two.  And instead of that routine grounder coming to me, it went two innings later to second baseman Tony Fernandez – who booted it.”  So close to victory, the Tribe lost that game and the Series 3-2.

In those sell-outs and come-from-behind victories in Jacobs Field’s opening era, Vizquel helped set the table for Tribe power hitters such as Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Sandy and Roberto Alomar, and Thome. And he dazzled fans with the ground he covered and all the outs he saved at shortstop.

When the Tribe traded light-hitting shortstop Felix Fermin, first baseman Reggie Jefferson, and cash for Vizquel before the 1994 season, they laid a solid infield foundation to open Jacobs Field. After coming in one of the greatest trades in franchise history, Vizquel earned eight of his 11 Gold Glove awards with the Tribe. Overall, he batted .283 with 279 steals for the Tribe.

With the Tribe, Vizquel also made all three of his All-Star appearances, including the 1999 season, his strongest with Cleveland.  In that season, he hit career-highs with a .333 batting average and 112 runs; he added 66 RBIs and finished 16th in the American League MVP voting.

Most expect Vizquel to easily earn his place in Cooperstown, for his glove skills, solid hitting, consistency, and, now, his longevity. But the slick-fielding veteran, 44, has to retire first.  And no one knows when that might happen.

Vizquel’s often compared to Ozzie Smith, who earned 13 Gold Glove awards and made 15 All-Star appearances. Smith played 19 seasons and hit .262, with 1,257 runs and 580 SBs.  Vizquel has earned fewer fielding honors but, in 23 seasons and counting, has hit .272, with 1,432 runs and 401 SBs.

Some had called for Vizquel to return to Cleveland this season, at the end of his career, much like when the Indians brought Jim Thome back last year and Kenny Lofton in 2007. But the Indians, one of the youngest teams in the majors, have a logjam of role players and minor-league invites that could fill what would have been Vizquel’s role.  Jason Donald and Jack Hannahan probably enter the season as front-runners to back up infielders, though they don’t offer the leadership and experience of Little O.

Now a back-up infielder, Vizquel last month signed a one-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. In the last two years with the White Sox, Vizquel  batted a combined .268, with 2 HRs, 38 RBIs, and 12 steals in 166 games.  He made one error in his two-year tour with the Tribe’s division rival.

Photo: Casey Johnson

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