Indians Hall of Fame SS Omar Vizquel Recalls His MLB Debut in April of 1989
When you think about highlight reel shortstops, two players normally come to mind. Hall of Famer St.Louis Cardinal Ozzie Smith, and Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer Omar VIzquel.
Playing till he was 45 years old, Vizquel is still one of the most recognizable faces in baseball.
He was scheduled to embark on his first season as manager of the Chicago White Sox Double-A team in Birmingham Alabama, but the pandemic that has halted all sports in North America also put that dream of being a manager on hold - for now.
In his time in the Majors which covered 24 seasons, Vizquel was as good as any shortstop that ever played the game, putting up a .985 fielding percentage, fourth best all-time.
He carries a career average of .272 with 80 homers and 951 RBI, but he’s more remembered as an 11-time Gold Glove winner, appearing three All-Star games at the shortstop position in a time the position was stacked with the likes of Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Ozzie Guillen and Derek Jeter.
Maybe the most amazing thing about Vizquel was that he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Seattle Mariners in 1984, and it took five years for him to finally get to the Majors.
He never thought he was going to get there, but due to some circumstances that had nothing to do with him in 1989, Vizquel found himself front and center as the Mariners starting shortstop in spring training in Tempe, Arizona for new manager Jim Lefebvre.
“I was not expected to be on that team,” Vizquel recalls. “They already had a shortstop by the name of Rey Quiñónez, and Ray was late to spring training because he got into a dispute with his contract, and the Mariners AAA shortstop was a player by the name of Mario Diaz and he got hurt. He had shoulder problems.
“They really didn’t have any other options but to put this young kid into the shortstop position that wasn’t ready to be in the big leagues.
“Obviously me being there brought a lot of attention the way that I was able to play and the way that I handled myself because I played in Venezuela and winter ball with a lot of older players, so it gave the manager the confidence enough to be able to put me on the Major League team.”
While Vizquel was one of the big storylines of the 1989 spring training roster for the Mariners, he was overshadowed by a young 19-year-old who would go on to be a Hall of Famer in centerfield – Ken Griffey Jr.
Nicknamed ‘The Kid,’ Griffey took Major League Baseball by storm that spring, setting Mariners team records with 32 hits, 25 runs batted in, and 49 total bases.
By the end of spring training, Griffey had secured his place as the top young prospect in baseball, but despite having a solid spring himself, Vizquel still wasn’t sure what his future held, and as camp closed, he still had no idea where he was headed next.
Then on the last day of camp, Lefebvre called Vizquel into his office to give him the news.
“When the last day of spring training came up and everybody was getting ready to break camp the manager called me into his office, and I sat down thinking that I was probably going to be sent back to start the season in Double-A ball,” Vizquel recalls.
“As I sit down, Lefebvre says to me “hey you’re going to be my shortstop,” and just like that, I was a Major League Baeball player. That was the way that I had to prepare for it, it was so fast, I had just two days to prepare to be in the big leagues.”
“The first thing I did when I left his office was call my mom and dad right away and told them the news that I was going to be the starting shortstop for the Seattle Mariners.
“After I got off the phone with them I had just enough time to quickly call my girlfriend, she was so excited, everyone was so excited for me. Finally it happened, it was a dream come true to finally be able to live out my dream and play professional baseball at the Major League level.”
The promotion to the big leagues for Vizquel was no small news in his hometown of Caracas Venezuela, as at the time there was just a small handful of players that had ever made the Majors from the country just South of North America.
By the next day when things slowed for just a minute and Vizquel was able to reach out to more of his friends and family, word had already spread in his native country.
“I called everybody I made sure to tell all of them - but when you are from Venezuela and at the time they only had eight big league players and you make it to the Majors, you’re going to be in every newspaper,” Vizquel remembers.
A copy of that newspaper still is possessed by his mother to this day, but it’s a cherished memory that Vizquel won’t soon forget, but he quickly had to turn the page and get ready for his debut.
The actual call to the Majors was a shock the moment it happened for Vizquel, but he felt that he was as good as some of the current shortstops already in the game, and was eager to make an impact right away.
With most of the attention on Griffey and his debut coming on April 3 1989 against the defending World Series Champion Oakland A’s, Vizquel was nervous yet confident in the journey he made to get to finally be in ‘The Show.’
“I knew that I belong in the big leagues even before I got the call that day in Arizona,” Vizquel said.
“When I was practicing in Double-A ball I was able to see some of the guys in the big leagues and the way that they practiced and played the field, and you realize that you’re not very different from them you still have your tools and all of your abilities. Someday you’re going to have that opportunity, all you have to do is be ready for it.”
The atmosphere in Oakland was electric the night that Vizquel made his debut, as it was circus (literally) type celebration for the A’s coming off their World Series championship just six months prior.
As the game got closer and the two teams reported to their respective dugouts to begin the 1989 campaign, the game itself took a backseat to the festivities on the field.
“It was very intimidating being in that stadium that night,” Vizquel recalls. “It was even more after the celebration they had because they had just come off winning the World Series the year before.
“They had an elephant throwing out the first pitch they had a guy jumping all the way from center field to home plate on a cable - they had a lot of cool stuff, obviously that really made me nervous.
“It felt like a completely different feeling it’s very different from when you’re walking onto the field at spring training, you realize that it’s the real deal.”
Once the pregame festivities were over, it was finally time to play baseball and for Vizquel to get his Major League career off and running.
Hitting in the ninth spot in the order and facing longtime A’s ace Dave Stewart, Vizquel had little success, flying out to left in the 3rd, and grounding to short to end the fifth.
He flew out to right against A’s reliever Gene Nelson in his final at-bat in the 7th, but what he recalls the most was playing the field, and an error in his first game at short that turned into a big play for the A’s.
“It was still early in the game (3 inning) we were down 1-0, and Carney Lansford hit a ball deep in the hole, and I made the play but the throw was bad, and he was safe at first,” Vizquel said.
“The next batter up was Mark McGwire, and he crushed a pitch from our pitcher Mark Langston for a home run to left field, and just like that we were down 3-0. I wanted to run and hide, I felt like it was my fault.”
The Mariners lost the opener 3-2 and the next game to the A’s 11-3 as Vizquel again failed to get a hit, but finally in his third game in the Majors he delivered.
Batting against Oakland starter Storm Davis, Vizquel recorded his first MLB hit with a line drive to center field to lead off the third inning. He later scored on a double by Darnell Coles.
Seattle would get swept that day losing the game 11-3, but living his dream and playing his first of what wound up being 2968 games over 24 years was something Vizquel would never forget.
“I remember the hit, it was in my eighth at bat,” Vizquel said. “I remember that series, I made my first error, I got my first hit, scored my first run, everything just happened at the same time.”