Cleveland Indians baseball is synonymous with my youth, mostly because I grew up in the 1990s. Tribe fans of the era had no shortage of potential favorites, but no one seemed to captivate the city quite like number 13. And today, as the Cleveland Indians induct him into the team Hall of Fame, he will again be in the spotlight.
Vizquel for Fermin, Jefferson and Cash
Omar Vizquel came to Cleveland at the most opportune time. After having been dealt from the Mariners to the Indians just prior to the 1994 season, his first day on the job aligned with the opening of the brand new Jacobs Field. With the new ball park came renewed hope for a city who had not seen their ball club finish above .500 since the 1986 season. He became the cornerstone for the resurgence of Cleveland baseball, starting 11 straight Opening Days at shortstop for the Tribe (1994-2004).
Cleveland took quickly to Omar, and Omar quickly to Cleveland. Statistically, he improved in every offensive category in 1994, his first year in Cleveland, versus 1993, his last year in Seattle. Even if we exclude the strike shortened 1994 season, comparing 1993 to 1995 makes no difference – Omar still swept the board for improvement. But his increased RBI and runs were not what made Omar smile…that honor belonged to his glove.
Vizquel’s Sleight of Hand Gave Those Slight of Stature a Role Model
Whether it was gathering the neighborhood to play ball at the diamond behind the school or playing a game of catch with my little brother in the backyard, I was the kid who threw every ground ball to first by turning, jumping, and trying to do mid-air splits. As much as I loved Ramirez and Belle, my body was more inclined to the acrobatic infield plays than the bat flip after a big fly.
And that’s what made Omar different. The John Hart assembled Indian’s were known to mash the ball, but Omar survived on his defensive prowess. Winning eight straight gold gloves with the Tribe (1994-2001), he hardly played the role of a slight, 5’9″ SS. More, seemingly, it appeared he had the wingspan of a 7 footer, which is the only logical explanation for a number of the plays he made. And this was important for me and a number of novice, young Tribe fans. I knew that I didn’t have to hit home runs or put up tremendous offensive numbers to be valued by the team. I could be Omar.
Omar Was a Leader With a Smile
Omar Vizquel was a competitor, and he played a big role in the Indian’s 1995 and 1997 World Series seasons. However, no matter how big the stage, Omar competed with a smile, and that smile was important.
The new stadium in 1994 and new jerseys in 1995 were more than just a cosmetic change – the new look Tribe was winning. Images from the games moved from just the sports page to the front page. The Indians were a topic on the news and graced the covers of local magazines. And one of the easiest images to use – the smiling, human highlight reel at shortstop. Vizquel never shied away from reporters or the media. He was beloved by both journalists and fans; he became a recognizable Cleveland figure, and not just to sports fans. Certainly, Omar’s kid-like, on the field smile helped draw all kinds of fans to the stadium.
But that smile remained on his face even after he left the gates of Jacobs Field. His interactions in the community were important to solidifying so many Clevelanders’ love for their baseball team. Poll your neighbors, and you’ll hear a number of stories of Omar signing autographs or providing money or time to charity events. In fact, during his return last season, Omar Vizquel had an art show, and proceeds from the sale of his pieces benefitted El Sistema University Circle, a local orchestra program for urban youth.
Omar was an important face of the team as the culture of Cleveland baseball changed, and he really helped shape the expectations Clevelanders have for their ball players.
His Defense Was Important…No Really, it Was Critical
Over the course of this Hall of Fame weekend, there will be a ton of articles written on Omar Vizquel, and a number of them will debate his Hall of Fame credentials. Every single one of these article will point to Omar’s stunning and magical defensive plays. They will highlight his 14 career gold gloves, including one at age 39, and seasons like 1995, 1998, 2000-2002, and 2005-2007 in which Omar played over 140 games at shortstop and recorded just single digit errors.
Magical was probably the best word to describe Omar’s play. Just check out this story from the Sports Illustrated Vault, published April 1, 1996, on the heels of the 1995 World Series in which all of America witnessed Vizquel’s defensive wizardry. But his defense was more than just flash, it was critical to the team’s success.
The Cleveland Indians’ rotation was full of guys that induced ground balls. In 1995, the Tribe had four pitchers in the top 25 ground ball to fly ball induced ratio. They were, Orel Hershiser, fifth with a 2.43 GB/FB, Charles Nagy eighth with a 2.07 GB/FB, Dennis Martinez 19th with 1.69 GB/FB, and Ken Hill 22nd with a 1.61 GB/FB ratio. Nagy and Hershiser remained in the top ten in 1996 and 1997. Starting in 1998, the Indians introduced a number of other pitchers who would crack the top 100 in GB/FB ratio, including Dave Burba, Bartolo Colon, and Jaret Wright.
Omar’s range was not just dazzling, it was vital for the Tribe’s success. With the rotation constructed as it was, the Indians needed an above average shortstop, which Vizquel made good on ten-fold.
His Offensive Was Nothing to Ignore
Omar Vizquel quietly put together good offensive numbers over the course of his career. As Wahoo’s on First Evan Vogel highlights, Vizquel is 40th in MLB history in hits, with 2,877, and 16th in MLB history in singles with 2,264. In 1999, Omar batted a stellar .333 with 66 RBI and 112 runs.
Omar is also seventh on Cleveland’s all-time hit list. During his time in Cleveland, he had a number of timely hits. Probably the most immortal hit he had for Indians was the triple he hit to cap one of the most prolific comebacks of all time.
We are anticipating a sellout tonight! Just released: Standing Room Only tickets. Get ‘em now at http://t.co/mKVZCHolpd if you want in!
— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) June 21, 2014
Omar Vizquel has an invaluable place in Cleveland Indians’ history. His defensive plays and contagious smile will forever live on in Tribe lore. He deserves the not just the standing ovation and tip of the cap he is sure to get from the sellout crowd in attendance, but also the reverence and applause he will receive from so many Clevelanders throughout the town tonight.