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PLAYMAKER AS MILLIONS OF FANS DISCOVERED IN LAST YEAR'S WORLD SERIES, INDIANS SHORTSTOP OMAR VIZQUEL IS SUCH A GOOD FIELDER HE SOMETIMES DOESN'T EVEN NEED A GLOVE

April 01, 1996
April 01, 1996

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April 1, 1996

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PLAYMAKER AS MILLIONS OF FANS DISCOVERED IN LAST YEAR'S WORLD SERIES, INDIANS SHORTSTOP OMAR VIZQUEL IS SUCH A GOOD FIELDER HE SOMETIMES DOESN'T EVEN NEED A GLOVE

It was rainy and cold, a miserable January day, when Cleveland
Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel put on his glove for the first
time since the Tribe had lost to the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of
the 1995 World Series. As much as last year's postseason will be
remembered for the brilliant pitching of Atlanta lefthander Tom
Glavine, it will also be noted for Vizquel's wizardry around
second base. Catching hard-hit ground balls with his bare hand,
floating over sliding base runners as if suspended by wires and
gliding into areas of the infield where few shortstops venture,
Vizquel displayed a sleight of hand that made you wonder, How
did he do that? So we went to Bellevue, Wash., to play catch
with one of the best defensive players in baseball and find out.

This is an article from the April 1, 1996 issue Original Layout

He was rusty, but after two minutes of soft tossing to get his
right arm loose on this nasty afternoon, Vizquel was ready. "You
can move back a little," he said. Then, from 50 feet away, the
ball whistled toward Vizquel's left ear, and no sooner had he
raised his glove than the ball was in his throwing hand and on
its way back. His right hand hadn't gone near his glove. Had the
ball even touched leather? The next throw was sailing at his
right ear when suddenly the ball was in his right hand, which,
as before, hadn't come within a foot of his glove. When the next
toss sailed high, Vizquel stuck his glove up, and the ball
immediately materialized in his right hand, which hadn't risen
above eye level. It was miraculous. How did he do it?

"I've never seen anyone who can do this the way that I do,"
Vizquel said. "I've been doing it for 10 years, since I was 18.
The guys in the minor leagues loved it. They'd beg me, 'Show us
how, show us how.' "

In fact, the ball never entered the pocket of his glove,
deflecting instead off its heel into his right hand. Had the
ball hit an inch lower, it would have smacked Vizquel on the
wrist. An inch higher, it would have disappeared in the pocket,
in which case he would have had to reach in with his right hand
and take it out, the way everyone else does.

Not Omar the Outmaker. "In games, after a strikeout we'll throw
the ball around the infield, and I'll do this," Vizquel said.
"Carlos [Baerga, the Indians' second baseman] tries to do it,
but he drops the ball, and everyone in the infield laughs. This
Week in Baseball filmed it, but you couldn't see how I did it.
They had to slow down the tape."

It's just a trick he taught himself (on rare occasions he'll
field a grounder this way during a game), but it typifies his
deft touch afield. New Detroit Tigers manager Buddy Bell, a
six-time Gold Glove winner at third base who was Vizquel's
infield coach the last two seasons in Cleveland, says, "Omar can
do more things with a ball than anyone I've ever seen--the way he
transfers the ball, the way he gets rid of it. I've seen him
deflect balls to Carlos."

Vizquel can also catch the ball behind his back and between his
legs. And with his glove completely closed: On a throw headed
for his eyes, he stuck his folded glove in front of his face,
and the ball slammed into the slab of leather and dropped softly
into his waiting right hand. He hasn't used this technique in a
game situation. Yet.

The rain started coming down harder, ending the game of catch
after 15 minutes. With the exception of the first two minutes,
when he was warming up, Vizquel had not used the pocket of his
glove. He smiled on his way back into the house. "It's magic,"
he said.

Vizquel should give himself more credit than that. "He has the
best hands I've ever seen," says Bell. "He's got a feeling with
his hands that's different than most of us." Vizquel figures he
has made roughly 50 barehanded plays in his seven-year major
league career; most of them were like the one in Game 2 of last
fall's American League Championship Series against the Seattle
Mariners, when he grabbed Luis Sojo's two-hop grounder and
gunned him out from the hole.

"You have to be careful barehanding the ball--people think you're
a hot dog when you do it--but I do it when it's the only play I
have," he said. "If you screw it up, you look stupid." His most
important barehanded play came as a Mariner on April 22, 1993,
when Seattle's Chris Bosio was throwing a no-hitter against the
Boston Red Sox. With two outs in the ninth Vizquel drifted
behind the mound, coolly snagged Ernest Riles's two-hopper and
threw him out to end the game. "On that play I couldn't have
gotten him if I'd used the glove," Vizquel said. "But that was
not a hard play. It wasn't even my best play of that game. The
ball was right here [eye level]. I could see it very easily. It
wasn't down here [ankle level]. Now that would have been a tough
play."

His hands are not big--they're the size you would expect for
someone who's 5'9" and 165 pounds, as is Vizquel--nor are his
fingers gnarled from bad hops and sliding runners. The fingers
are unmarked, as smooth and supple as they are steady and
lightning-fast. "When I signed with the Mariners [as a
16-year-old in 1984], the guy who signed me, Marty Martinez, had
some ideas on how players could improve their hands," Vizquel
said. "We'd throw a rubber ball or tennis ball against a wall
and run and catch it barehanded. If you dropped it, it was a run."

Then there are his feet, quick and nimble. "His balance is
exceptional," says Bell. "His feet are always under him." Like
his father and namesake, Vizquel was a good soccer player in his
native Venezuela. "Good hands are important to have if you play
shortstop," Vizquel said, "but if you don't have good feet,
you're dead." Just ask Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Gregg
Jefferies and dozens of other major leaguers who were drafted as
middle infielders but were moved to first base, third base or
the outfield because they had slow, clumsy feet.

Then there's Vizquel's glove, a Rawlings Pro SXSC model, which
fits snugly. It's smaller than most shortstops' gloves--in fact,
it's not much bigger than Vizquel's left hand--and has a very
shallow pocket. There's nothing worse for an infielder than
having the ball get stuck in the pocket. "The first time I put
this kind of glove on my hand six years ago, I fell in love with
it," he said. "Rawlings doesn't make this glove anymore, but I
told them, 'I don't care, just keep making them for me.'" Some
players use the same glove for several years; Vizquel breaks in
a new one every season.

But it's not his glove that has made Vizquel a defensive genius;
it's his work. "Players say they played from morning to night,
but with Omar, I believe it because he loves the game so much,"
says Bell. "He cares about winning. He cares about doing things
right. He's very intelligent. He wants to be the best."

That's why Cleveland, which acquired Vizquel from the Mariners
in a trade after the 1993 season, gave him a five-year, $15.35
million contract extension last December. The Indians believe
that he isn't the type of person who's going to get into trouble
off the field or get out of shape in the off-season. He's a
game-preparation freak. "When he's taking ground balls before
games, he has a plan," says Bell. "I could watch him take
grounders all day."

It's more fun to watch Vizquel's highlight tape. Produced by the
Indians' video department, it features Vizquel's best plays in
his two seasons with the Tribe. "I have another tape of the
plays I made with Seattle that's even better than this one,"
said Vizquel, who played in relative obscurity there, dazzling
Mariners fans while the rest of the country didn't know what it
was missing. It wasn't until 1993 that he won the first of his
three straight Gold Gloves.

In the first highlight on the Indians' tape, Vizquel backhands a
vicious one-hopper hit by the Texas Rangers' Jeff Frye and flips
to Baerga, who relays to first for a double play. Two highlights
later there appears to be a replay of the first one. "Same play!
Same hitter! Same game!" Vizquel said of burning Frye the second
time.

It took Cleveland's first World Series appearance in 41 years
for Vizquel's skills to become widely appreciated. Even though
he was one of the weakest hitters (.266) in baseball's most
potent lineup last season, Vizquel was the Indians' most
fascinating player to watch. In Game 3 against the Braves he
made a diving stop of Ryan Klesko's ground ball up the middle
and threw Klesko out. In Game 4 Vizquel was running to cover
second on a steal play when a one-hop shot up the middle by Luis
Polonia required that he reach back across his body to grab the
ball and throw out Polonia. In Game 6 he ranged behind second to
nab a grounder hit by Rafael Belliard and flipped the ball with
his glove to Baerga, who barehanded the toss and turned the
double play.

In every game of the World Series, Vizquel made at least one
difficult play look easy. "I got a lot of compliments after the
World Series," he said. "People compared me to Ozzie Smith and
Luis Aparicio."

On the big-screen TV in the Vizquels' bedroom, where Omar has
been joined by his wife, Nicole, and their six-month-old son,
Nico, the highlight tape has run for 15 minutes, and Omar the
Playmaker has made 10 plays that had to be seen to be believed.
When pressed for an answer, he couldn't name the play he thought
was the best of his career. "Guys on my team have asked me, 'How
did you make that play?'" said Vizquel. "I tell them, 'I don't
know. You saw it, I didn't.' "

In the next play on the tape, he went to his right, backhanded a
grounder, leaped and threw to first for the out. "That's my
favorite kind of play, going to the hole," he said. "It's the
toughest play any infielder has to make." Then there was a
scorching bad-hop grounder that he snagged before it smashed him
in the face. Vizquel learned how to handle balls like that while
growing up in Caracas, where the fields were littered with rocks
and broken bottles. He would never get such a bad hop on
artificial turf, so you would think, especially with his
quickness and range, he would prefer to play on turf rather than
the natural grass at Jacobs Field. "No," he said. "Grass, always
grass."

Why? "Because turf makes everyone look good," he said.

Vizquel has baseballs signed by longtime Detroit Tigers
shortstop Alan Trammell and Trammell's double play partner of 18
years, the equally efficient Lou Whitaker, because Vizquel
admired the way they played their positions. He would like to
meet Ozzie Smith, the 41-year-old St. Louis Cardinals shortstop
who was the best fielder in the game until age and injuries
slowed him, and he would like to have an extended conversation
with Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., perhaps the
headiest player to ever play the position. "I take good advice,"
Vizquel said. "Other Latin players are so stubborn, that's what
makes me different. They only want to do it their way. I want to
learn."

He has learned well. He has made only 75 errors in seven
seasons, only 57 in the 1990s (the same number as Ripken, which
ties them for fewest by a shortstop over that span, in a minimum
of 700 games). In 859 career games Vizquel's fielding percentage
is .981. The career leader at shortstop (minimum of 1,000 games)
is former Philadelphia Phillie Larry Bowa, who had a .980. To
put it another way, Vizquel has averaged one error every 52.2
chances in his career, compared to 49.2 for Bowa. For all that,
he must have one play that stands above all others.

"O.K.," Vizquel said, smiling. "A few years ago, in winter ball
in Venezuela, I went into the hole. There wasn't much time. I
knew I couldn't get the guy at first, so I reached down,
barehanded the ball down by my ankles, jumped and threw to
second for the force. It was a good play."

It had to have been better than that. It must have been magic.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Vizquel believes nimble feet are as important to an infielder as his hands are. [Omar Vizquel]COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT On his way to third base, Atlanta's Marquis Grissom admired Vizquel's work in last year's World Series. [Omar Vizquel catching baseball as Marquis Grissom runs to third base]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Mike Lavalliere had a good seat for watching Vizquel's throw beat his White Sox teammate for a double play. [Omar Vizquel throwing baseball as Mike Lavalliere slides into second base]