It is hard to believe that Omar Vizquel has been in the majors since 1989, and was not even a remarkably young rookie that year, at 21 for his big-league debut. That April, the Seattle Times explained how Omar landed the shortstop job in the Kingdome:
When the Seattle Mariners traded for shortstop Rey Quinones in August 1986, they figured they had filled their shortstop need into the next century.
But Quinones, a 26-year-old with a world of talent, abused his talent and ultimately wore out his stay in Seattle. He was traded Friday to Pittsburgh.
For three years the Mariners had no option but to tolerate Quinones’ convenient injuries and unapproved sabbaticals back to Puerto Rico. There was no prospect in the entire system who could be considered an everyday major-league shortstop.
Shortstop and catcher, traditionally, are the two most difficult positions to fill adequately. Quinones knew he held the hammer and he used it. Then along came Omar Vizquel , at 5 foot-9 and 150 pounds.
In 1986, when the M’s acquired Quinones, Vizquel was only 18 and hitting but .213 for Class AA Wausau. Good field, no future.
His fine glove work slowly would advance him through the system, but his hitting was not keeping pace. Then in the Instructional League in Tempe in 1986, hitting instructor Bobby Tolan made one suggestion – try hitting left-handed.
“He told me I could take advantage of my speed if I hit from the left side,” said Vizquel. Coming out of the left side, he could have better success on the bunt and could beat out more infield grounders.
In addition, there are four times as many right-handed pitchers as lefties in the majors.
“I never hit from the left side. I never even had it in my mind,” said Vizquel, a native of Venezuela. “When I was in high school I was a home-run hitter. I never thought I needed to hit left-handed.”
He started working with fungoes, then soft-surface balls. He had to adjust to a mirror-opposite perspective and the change of his dominant hand.
“It affected my right-handed hitting. I was kind of lost at the plate. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
But he stayed with it. He worked on it for three weeks and in his first left-handed at-bat in a game he hit a hard ground ball to short. He knew he was on his way.
“I saw the ball better and I started to like it more and more,” Vizquel said.
The Mariners’ hitting instructor, Gene Clines, said, “I can’t think of anyone who made this kind of transition and did as well as he has. It usually takes three or four years before you even get a feel for it. But he’s up there battling major-league pitching already. It’s amazing what he has been able to do.”
In three years, Vizquel has made the transition from strictly right-hand dominance to two-sided confidence.
“It’s natural now. I feel more comfortable left-handed,” he said. “Everyone says I even look better left-handed.”
His development as a switch-hitter accelerated his rise through the system and made Quinones expendable.
“He’s going to be steady in the field and hit in the .275 range. He’s going to be good, an All-Star caliber player,” added Clines.
Vizquel made three errors in the first eight games he has played, not an acceptable pace for a season. But he calls them “stupid errors.”
“On Opening Day (in Oakland), with it on TV, the big scoreboard, all the people and the wave going around, it was exciting just to be on the field,” Vizquel said of his major-league debut. “I couldn’t concentrate. I was nervous that day.”
So he threw the ball into the seats. Two days later, he made a fielding error, then another Sunday.
“(Manager) Jim Lefebvre tells me it’s all right. He gives me confidence,” said Vizquel, who was the best fielding shortstop in both the Midwest and Eastern Leagues.
“I’m not comparing myself to these guys,” he added. “But I think I can play in the major leagues with my glove. I know they need me out there every day to fill Rey’s role. He was a good shortstop.”
Earlier that April of 1989, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported:
At the Seattle Mariners’ headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., early last week, rookie shortstop Omar Vizquel was talking to a reporter about some of the roster cuts that still had to be made.
“I don’t think anything about it because I know where I’m going,” he said. “I’m going to Calgary where I can play everyday.”
The next day, veteran shortstop Rey Quinones sprained his ankle and suddenly Calgary was removed from Vizquel’s immediate travel plans.
He still may wind up with the Triple-A club as early as next week when Quinones is eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list, but the quiet, 21-year-old Venezuelan has established himself as the club’s shortstop of the future.
“I didn’t expect to be here and I’m happy for me,” Vizquel said.
Defensively, Vizquel has as much range as Quinones, but his arm isn’t as strong. His throws, however, aren’t as erratic as his Puerto Rican counterpart.
M’s bullpen coach Bill Plummer has watched Vizquel through his development stages, particularly during winter ball in Venezuela, and says the youngster has such good hands “the ball never seems to take a bad hop.”
The first time Plummer saw Vizquel play was in the winter of 1986, two years after he signed as a 16-year-old.
“I was managing the Caracas team and about a week into the season my veteran shortstop wasn’t doing the job,” he recalled. “I knew that Omar was in our (the M’s) organization, so I decided to give him a shot to see what he could do.
“He played the remainder of the season and made only two errors. He handled the position like a pro and we won the Venezuelan league title. You could see he took a lot of pride in what he did and there was a lot of pressure on him playing in front of his countrymen.”
Although his advancement through the organization has been steady, hardly anyone had a clue that the 5-foot-9, 155-pounder would be starting the season with the M’s this year.
It took two events this spring for him to enter the picture: Quinones was late reporting to camp because of a contractual hassle and Mario Diaz sustained a sore right elbow.
“I was the only shortstop left so I got to play a lot,” he said. “I was very relaxed because I had nothing to lose.”
His talents quickly became obvious.
“He’s so smooth,” Lefebvre remarked.
“The reason he’s such a good fielder is because as a kid, he played on some pretty tough diamonds in Venezuela,” Plummer said. “Playing under those conditions has to make you better.”
And in June of ’89, the Seattle Times checked in on Omar again:
Vizquel, barely 22, gives the Mariners everything Rey Quinones didn’t at shortstop. For his age – especially for his age – he is a dependable, cooperative, dedicated and consistent player.
Vizquel plays every day. Against right-handers, left-handers, inside and out. He has been so reliable, so promising – recently even as a hitter – that the Mariners believe they are fixed at shortstop for a decade.
We tend to forget that Vizquel, though capable enough to make Quinones expendable, spent the vast majority of last season in Burlington, Vt., playing Class A ball.
Jim Lefebvre, the rookie manager who currently employs more rookies (eight) than any team in the majors, smiled when asked about his young shortstop.
“When we got to the point of remaking this thing, I said, ‘What the heck, let’s give the kid a chance.’ “
Although younger, Griffey grew up around major-league baseball.
At one point in the first days of spring practice, Lefebvre asked Griffey how many major-league camps he had attended. Griffey said 12.
He’d been to them with his father.
At a similar time, Vizquel was growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, in the poor neighborhood of Santa Eduvigis.
“We played baseball always,” he said. “We played with a tennis ball. Sometimes we played with a ball made out of socks and tape.”
Baseball is the favored sport in Venezuela. Vizquel’s hero was the same as everyone else’s, Dave Concepcion, No. 13, the shortstop for the world-champion Cincinnati Reds. Now Omar Vizquel wears No. 13.
Marty Martinez, a former Mariner coach, signed Vizquel, who was then 16, to a contract in January of his senior year in high school.
“My parents decided it was a good deal,” said Vizquel. “I didn’t care about money. I just wanted to play baseball.”
Omar’s parents – his father is a technician at an electric company and his mother a kindergarten teacher – made him take a three-month crash course in English before he left for his professional baseball debut, in Butte, Mont.
“My parents told me people wouldn’t speak Spanish at all. They told me, ‘Omar, you’d better listen to those guys when they try to teach you about baseball.’ “
It is difficult to determine how much being able to speak English helped Vizquel make his way through the minors, but as Lefebvre said, it suggests what kind of person he is, how dedicated he is to improving himself.
In Salinas, Calif., where he played Class A ball, Vizquel volunteered to live with an American family so he would be forced to break away from his Latin friends on the team and the comfort of the Spanish language.
“One of the reasons so many Latin players fail in baseball,” Vizquel said, “is they don’t always understand what they are told, and they can’t tell the coaches and managers how they really feel about things.
“Only about 10 percent of the Latin players take the time to learn English from a teacher.”
Gene Clines, the Mariners’ batting coach, understands the language problem.
“A lot of Latin players will tell you they understand what you’re teaching because they are embarrassed because they don’t,” he said.
Vizquel says it is simply his nature to want to communicate better with people.
“It is my personality, one of my characteristics,” he said as if to show how good his use of the English language had become. “I’m just the kind of person who likes to talk a lot. I’m not very shy.”
A broad, inviting smile is as much a part of Vizquel’s uniform as is Concepcion’s number. Still, playing here when you’re from there is never easy.
“In Butte,” he recalled, “I missed my family so much. I started to cry at night. I didn’t have any advice from my mom. I didn’t even know what to eat. I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ “
He described his first confrontation with an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, the affordable bailiwick of minor-league players.
“The stuff tasted all right,” he said, “but I just had no idea what it was. I’d never seen any of those things before, especially the salads.
“I just can’t believe this,” said Vizquel, looking around his hotel room in Minneapolis. “I just can’t believe where I am.”