Joe Christensen's Sunday Insider: Omar Vizquel one of finest in the field

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2012 - 12:07 PM

Omar Vizquel didn't always wow scouts with his slight build, but his glovework led to a 24-year MLB career.

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Toronto Blue Jays' Omar Vizquel hits a double to move Vizquel ahead of Babe Ruth on baseball's all-time hits list.

Photo: Bill Kostroun, Associated Press - Ap

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In October 1989, Gophers baseball coach John Anderson went into the Siebert Field grandstand and spoke to some scouts who'd turned out for one of his team's fall scrimmages.

Listen, Anderson said, there's a new kid on campus from Latin America. He hopes to walk on this year. Let me know what you think.

What Anderson knew, and the scouts didn't, was that the kid already had reached the majors. The kid was Omar Vizquel, the same guy who passed Babe Ruth on the career hits list this week.

Vizquel was a rookie with the Mariners in 1989, under manager Jim Lefebvre. The defensive prowess that would eventually earn Vizquel 11 Gold Gloves at shortstop was obvious, but the little guy batted .220 in 143 games and needed more meat on his bones.

Lefebvre's son, Ryan, was headed to the University of Minnesota that fall as a freshman. Seattle finished the season at the Metrodome, so the elder Lefebvre suggested Vizquel spend two weeks on campus, focusing on strength and conditioning.

"It was a great experience because I never had been in a university here in the United States," Vizquel said. "I wanted to see how the players prepared. I met some great guys. I met Coach John Anderson, who was a great guy, too."

Vizquel showed up for his first Gophers practice wearing Mariners gear. By Day 2, he had visited the equipment room and was decked out in maroon and gold.

"He just blended in like one of the guys; it was remarkable," said Ryan Lefebvre, now a broadcaster for the Royals. "He played in all of our intrasquad games, and he used the aluminum bat, too.

"Now, he wasn't The Omar Vizquel yet, but the tricks he could do with his glove and the ball -- I mean it just amazed the guys. He would do them over and over for them."

Vizquel walked the campus and visited classrooms. He attended the homecoming bonfire. He went to a Vikings game.

But the day Anderson talked to the scouts, Vizquel didn't impress.

"Of course, they shredded the guy," Anderson said, chuckling at their comments. "His arm's too short. He's too small. Yeah, he's got pretty good hands, maybe you can make something out of him.

"I said, 'C'mon, this guy's a major league shortstop. This is Omar Vizquel.' They said, 'No way!'"

Now 45, Vizquel has continued baffling onlookers through 24 major league seasons. This will be his last. Playing for Toronto, he continued building his Hall of Fame résumé Wednesday, notching career hits No. 2,873 and 2,874 at Yankee Stadium to tie and then pass Ruth.

"I did all right," Vizquel said. "I would never imagine I was going to stick around the game this long and have all the records and everything that I have accomplished for my career. I weigh 175 pounds, and I'm still 5-9, so I'm not one of these big power hitters that stay in the big leagues because of my bat."

He stayed by being one of the best defensive players of all time. Ozzie Smith is the only shortstop to win more Gold Glove Awards with 13.

"I've heard a lot of scouts say he was the best at bare-handing the ball of anybody they've ever seen," Ryan Lefebvre said. "He would come in bare-handing plays, charging just like it was his glove. The final out for Chris Bosio's no-hitter with the Mariners [in 1993 against Boston], he barehanded the ball. That's how confident he was."

Vizquel said he often played without a glove while growing up in Caracas, Venezuela. How did his hands get so quick?

"I played on a lot of bad fields," Vizquel said.

In tribute, Anderson had a Gophers jersey made with Vizquel's name and No. 13, sending it with the Twins to pass along when the teams meet in the season's final series in Toronto.

"I just wrote him a little note and told him congrats on a great career," Anderson. "I'm glad we didn't screw it up back in 1989."

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