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Mystery Man Without fans or fanfare, Jose Vidro has established himself as the game's best-hitting second baseman

June 24, 2002
June 24, 2002

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June 24, 2002

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Mystery Man Without fans or fanfare, Jose Vidro has established himself as the game's best-hitting second baseman

The visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field in Atlanta is equipped
with a big-screen television and the latest in baseball video
games, both of which the Montreal Expos were enjoying a few
hours before a recent game against the Braves. At one point
Expos second baseman Jose Vidro walked past the TV while paging
through a magazine just as the virtual Vidro smoked a double
into the right-centerfield gap. Later, when someone mentioned to
him that he's just as dangerous a hitter in computerized form as
he is in real life, Vidro was momentarily confused. "Oh, was
that me up there?" he said. "I wasn't even paying attention."

This is an article from the June 24, 2002 issue Original Layout

Sometimes even Jose Vidro doesn't notice Jose Vidro, which makes
him no different from much of the rest of the world. A career
.306 hitter, he had a 21-game hitting streak earlier this season
and through Sunday had cranked out more hits (595) over
three-plus seasons than *NSYNC. But Vidro is only slightly
better known today than he was when he broke into the majors in
1997. "He's a good test to give a baseball fan," says Montreal
shortstop Orlando Cabrera. "'Do you know who Jose Vidro is? No?
Then you don't really know baseball as well as you think you do.'"

At week's end Vidro, a 27-year-old switch-hitter, led the
National League in hits (90) and batting average with runners in
scoring position (.406), and was third in doubles (21), fourth
in batting average (.335), 12th in RBIs (47) and 12th in total
bases (134)--and was tops among NL second basemen in all those
categories. "I knew he was a hitter, but I didn't know he was
this good a hitter," says Frank Robinson, who is in his first
year as Montreal manager. "Some guys who hit .300 do it with two
outs and nobody on, but that's not Jose. He's one of those guys
who becomes an even better hitter in the clutch."

The Braves discovered that in their 4-3 loss to Montreal on May
29, when Vidro drilled a three-run double off closer John Smoltz
in the top of the ninth inning, wiping out a 2-1 Atlanta lead.
Yet after the game autograph seekers in the parking lot rushed
over to Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero while Vidro walked
unimpeded to the team bus. Guerrero, a three-time All-Star, was
formerly the least recognized star in the game but has
relinquished that title to his teammate.

The soft-spoken Vidro enjoys being able to stroll the Montreal
boulevards accompanied by his wife, Annette, and their
six-year-old son, Jose Jr., without the hassles that come with
celebrity. "I've wondered what it would be like to walk down the
street and be recognized by a lot of people," he says, "but I
honestly don't feel like I'm missing something."

Vidro occasionally does let on that he would welcome some of the
recognition he deserves. The night before the National League
All-Star reserves were to be announced in 2000--he would finish
that season, his best yet, with a .330 average, 24 homers and 97
RBIs--Vidro slept with his cellphone on all night in case
someone called to tell him that National League manager Bobby
Cox had named him to the team. In fact, he got the good news the
next day and then became teary when he talked about it with
reporters. "Maybe it comes from being an Expo all these years,"
he said recently, "but I never really expect to be noticed."
(Through Monday, Vidro was second in this year's fan balloting,
only 9,000 votes behind 12-time All-Star Roberto Alomar, who was
having an off year--.267 with five homers--for the New York Mets.)

In addition to averaging only about 8,000 fans a game at Olympic
Stadium, Montreal has been on local television only three times
this season (on a French-language channel) and is only
occasionally seen on network games. Its players are so
underexposed that with the exception of Guerrero, they probably
could switch uniforms without the average fan catching on.
However, even if the Expos received the fame victory would
bring--and they were making strides in that direction, with a
35-33 record through Sunday--Vidro would still be an unassuming,
unspectacular player, destined to remain unheralded in a
hockey-mad culture. His teammates sometimes call him Machine, as
in hitting machine, and he plays with an efficiency that is
admirable but not eye-catching. At 5'11" and 195 pounds, his
body is solid but not sculpted. He has average speed but rarely
steals a base. He has good power but doesn't send the ball into
orbit.

Away from the field Vidro, who is in the second season of a
four-year, $19 million contract, is no more noticeable than he
is on it--except when he's driving his Porsche 911, the latest
evidence of his weakness for sports cars. "If he was flashier,
people would probably talk about him more," says Expos first
baseman Andres Galarraga. "But that's not the way he does
things. Jose doesn't play for attention, he just plays."

When he was growing up in Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico, Jose
grabbed his glove every day after school and headed for the
fields in the center of town. "I didn't like soccer that much,
and I wasn't that good at school," he says, "so baseball was
what I did every day from the time I was five years old." His
father, Jose Sr., works as a foreman at a Frito-Lay factory, and
his mother, Daysi, was an office worker for Sunkist Foods. In
1992, when he was 17, Vidro was Montreal's sixth-round draft
choice. Expos scout Fred Ferreira signed him for a $30,000
bonus, and for the next five years Vidro honed his skills and
his English as he moved up the Expos' minor league ladder. That
stage of his career went smoothly, except for a touch of
loneliness, which he remedied by marrying Annette, his hometown
sweetheart, after his second season.

Throughout his career Vidro has played with a quiet
determination--sometimes too quiet. Last year a fastball from
Houston Astros righthander Roy Oswalt hit Vidro in the batting
helmet. He missed one game, then talked his way back into the
lineup. Vidro played two more games, concealing his headaches
and blurred vision, before admitting he was ailing. (His injury
was eventually diagnosed as a mild concussion, which kept him
out of the lineup for two weeks.) "He's one of the toughest guys
in the league, and that's what makes guys on this team respect
him so much," says Cabrera.

At times Vidro seems embarrassed by the attention he does get.
Suggest that he might someday be compared with Alomar, whom he
idolized as a teenager, and he puts up his hand to put a stop to
such heresy. "No, no, no," Vidro says. "I'm just happy that I'll
be able to tell my grandchildren I played in the same league as
him." Ask Vidro about the comparison some have made between him
and Seattle Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez, and Vidro
dismisses the notion. "I have heard people say that, and it is
not fair to Edgar," he says. "Maybe I am starting on the same
road as he did, but I am far away. Far away."

His protests aside, Vidro is similar to Martinez in his
consistent, line-drive-producing stroke. "You very rarely get
him to take a bad swing," says Smoltz. "He's the toughest kind
of hitter because he's got the power to take you out of the
ballpark, but he doesn't go up there swinging for home runs."

Vidro is not as gifted with the glove as he is with the bat. He
cut his errors from 11 to 10 to nine in the past three seasons;
at week's end he was tied for the most miscues among NL second
basemen (seven), but he also led in total chances (343). Vidro
has worked hard enough on his defense to erase any doubts that
he could handle the position full time. It was that uncertainty
that prompted the Expos to bring journeyman second baseman
Mickey Morandini to spring training in 2000, after Vidro had hit
.304 in his first full season. "What disappointed me was that I
had had a very good year, and I had still gone to winter ball
during the off-season to try to get better," Vidro says. "Then I
come to camp and I have to compete for my job." Vidro played so
well that spring that Montreal eventually shipped Morandini to
the Philadelphia Phillies for $50,000.

Vidro is the baseball version of a gym rat. "He never has to be
encouraged to put in the work," Ferreira says. "He used to call
me from spring training to tell me that the club didn't have
enough arms to throw all the batting practice he wanted to take."

Vidro spends even more time at the ballpark during the first
several weeks of the season, when his family is in Sabana Grande
until Jose Jr. finishes the school year. After he arrives in
Montreal, the boy often accompanies his dad to Olympic Stadium,
but that hasn't been enough to change Jose Jr.'s mind about who
his favorite player is: Alomar. "That's O.K.," Vidro says,
smiling. "He's just like me. My favorite player was Alomar, too.
But at least Jose could ask me for my autograph."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE FACE IT Even as his play has reached an All-Star level, the low-key Vidro is content in the relative anonymity of Montreal. COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE CONTACT! Vidro's steady line-drive stroke has made him the NL leader in hits and in batting average with runners on.COLOR PHOTO: MARCOS TOWNSEND/AP [See caption above]
"Some guys who hit .300 do it with two outs and nobody on, but
that's not Jose," says Frank Robinson.