Omar Vizquel will forever be a magician
Longtime Venezuelan shortstop no doubt among the best defensive players of all time
A writer traveled to Seattle in January 1998 to closely examine perhaps the greatest hands in baseball history, specifically to see that amazing sleight-of-hand thing that Omar Vizquel does. The two played catch for 15 minutes in Vizquel's driveway on a cold, rainy day, the first day Vizquel had picked up a glove in two months. Fifty throws went to Vizquel, seemingly none of which entered his glove, then presto, the ball was in his throwing hand, and on its way back. The writer couldn't see the transfer, it was too quick, and demanded a slow-motion demonstration. Vizquel was deflecting the ball off the heel of his glove, into his hand, which was about a foot away from his glove. He had received 50 throws, none had entered the pocket of his glove, and he hadn't dropped one.
"Omar,'' the writer asked incredulously, "how are you able to do that?''
"It's magic,'' he said.
It has been a magical career -- perhaps, someday, a Hall of Fame career -- for Vizquel. He was signed for $2,000 at age 16 in 1984 out of Caracas, Venezuela, and here it is, 27 years later, and he is still playing in the major leagues at age 44. He has won 11 Gold Gloves at shortstop; only Ozzie Smith won more at that position. In 2006, at age 39, Vizquel became the oldest shortstop ever to win a Gold Glove. Vizquel has 2,839 hits -- more than Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Ken Griffey Jr., and more as a shortstop than anyone in history besides Derek Jeter -- and has stolen 401 bases. Vizquel has played more games than any foreign-born player in major league history. He and Bobby Wallace (in 1918) are the only players in baseball history to play a game at shortstop after turning 44.
"That's what I'm most proud of, that I'm still playing, still competing with the cream of baseball at age 44, playing second base, shortstop, third base -- not many other guys have done that,'' Vizquel said. "I take pride in the work that I have done. And I love the game. I have a passion for it. I get up every day with the energy to go to the park. I love playing around with the guys. I love the smell of the game, the pine tar, the hot dogs. I love all the things around baseball. I am very humbled. I give a lot of credit to my mom and dad for taking me to all my games when I was a little kid. This is what I always wanted to do.''
As a kid, Vizquel developed those extraordinary hands. He routinely carried a rubber ball or a tennis ball with him, and he was constantly throwing it off something, and catching it bare-handed. "But my hands really got good because we played on a lot of terrible fields with rocks all over them,'' Vizquel said. "It was real bad. On a lot of ground balls, the goal was to not let the ball hit you in the face. That's how I developed quickness in my hands. From playing on those fields, I felt like I had an advantage over all the other guys.''
When Vizquel signed with the Mariners in April 1984, he came to the United States with three other young players from Venezuela. They lived together for the first year, but in the second year, Vizquel chose to live with an American family in order to learn the language and the customs. The other three players stayed together, never made it past Class A ball and returned to Venezuela.
"A lot of guys had the same chances that I had, but they didn't take advantage of it,'' Vizquel said. "I knew how valuable it was, I knew the value of everything else I had, of doing everything right, of listening to my coaches. Baseball is more than just talent, it's about being smart enough to adjust to things. I was not 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and could hit the ball out of the ballpark. I was just a little guy with a $2,000 bonus. There were 10 other guys [in Venezuela] that looked better in a uniform, and were in the papers more. But I learned to adjust.''
He may not have been the biggest, or looked the best, but no one could catch a ground ball better than Vizquel. As soon as he got to the big leagues in 1989 at age 22, the Mariners' infield defense became significantly better. He became "Omar The Outmaker," the man who caught everything, even bare-handed. In 1993, Seattle's Chris Bosio's no-hitter was preserved when Vizquel bare-handed a high hopper hit by Ernest Riles for the final out.
"Bare-handing a ball is not that hard,'' Vizquel said. "Watch when I do it. The ball is always right next to my eyes. I can see it. I'm not bare-handing it down here or over there.''
Vizquel does things a little differently, not the way shortstops were taught to play the game in the United States. He fields balls on the run, he occasionally backhands balls instead of getting in front of them and sometimes, on a high popup in the sun, he will catch the ball by turning his back to home plate to shield his eyes. "We teach our kids, 'Get in front of the ball, knock it down, let it hit you in the chest,'" said Scott Bradley, the baseball coach at Princeton, and a former teammate of Vizquel's in Seattle. "I asked Omar, 'How do you learn to catch a ground ball?' He said, 'We weren't told to always get in front of the ball, to knock it down, we were told to catch the ball whatever way possible.'"
No one in the history of the game has caught the ball better than Vizquel. He and Ozzie Smith are, by any definition, the two best defensive shortstops of all time, which qualifies them to at least be in the discussion as the two greatest defensive players of all time. When Vizquel went to Cleveland in 1994, and his teams started making the playoffs, the baseball world began to really take notice of his defensive brilliance. Former Indians coach Buddy Bell, who was one of the best defensive third basemen of all time, said of Vizquel, "He has the greatest hands I've ever seen. I could watch him take grounders all day.''
He has the greatest hands I've ever seen. I could watch him take grounders all day.” -- Former manager, coach and
player Buddy Bell on Vizquel
In 2009 with the Rangers, playing all over the infield for the first time in his career, Vizquel did not make an error in 62 games. Last year, he signed with the White Sox and, instead of wearing No. 13, as he did in Seattle and Cleveland, Vizquel chose to wear (with permission) No. 11 as a tribute to another great Venezuelan shortstop, Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio, who won nine Gold Gloves. With the White Sox, Vizquel made three errors all season, and finished a streak of 111 games without an error. This season, he has made one error in 54 games, including 41 starts. The White Sox marvel at him. Manager Ozzie Guillen said, "I wish we had nine guys just like Omar Vizquel.'' Hitting coach Greg Walker said, "He can still hit. And he might be in the best shape on our team.''
"He was unbelievable here,'' said Rangers infielder Michael Young. "Great teammate. He would hold court while he was taking ground balls during BP. Whenever I would have a little trouble defensively, I would watch him take ground balls. He has such a perfect rhythm, and it would help me just watching him because his body was never in a rush. When we play the White Sox, I still watch him take grounders, and it makes me better.''
It is still a thrill to watch Vizquel take ground balls during batting practice, the easy, fluid movement, those wonderful hands. After taking a certain number of ground balls to his left, right, coming in, going back, all beautifully choreographed, Vizquel always has some fun for the final few minutes of BP, flipping balls behind his back, batting the ball to second while occasionally kicking a ball to second. It takes great hands and great feet to play in the middle infield in the major leagues, and Vizquel's feet are almost as good as his hands. He was a great soccer player as a kid, and that day at his house in Seattle in 1998, he picked up a soccer ball and dribbled it in the air with his feet for at least two minutes.
"When was the last time you've done that?'' he was asked.
"Oh, maybe five years ago,'' he said.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN