Return to Cleveland significant for Vizquel
Blue Jays infielder made his name with Indians in 1990s
This year's Opening Day will take on a special significance for veteran infielder Omar Vizquel.
The potential Hall of Famer, and soon-to-be 45-year-old, is set to embark on what in all likelihood will be his final season in the Major Leagues.
If that weren't enough to provide added incentive for the beginning of another big league campaign, Vizquel on Opening Day will also be making his return to Cleveland where he played for 11 seasons and twice went to the World Series.
"I think every time I go to Cleveland, it doesn't matter what time of the year it is, it's very special because that's where I really became a good player, where I established myself," Vizquel said. "They have a special place in my heart.
"This being my last year and having the Opening Day in Cleveland is going to be very special, very emotional. I'm going to have a chance to see a lot of my friends."
This isn't the first time Vizquel has said he was entering his final season in the Major Leagues. He said it each of the past two seasons, and while he could change his mind about the most recent claim, Vizquel plans on cherishing each moment along the 162-game journey.
W: Perez (1-0) L: Asencio (0-1)
That starts in Cleveland, and while no active players remain from his time there, Vizquel hopes to reminisce with former teammate and current Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. With any luck, he'll also cross paths with Kenny Lofton, who was doing some work with the club during Spring Training.
The three were together with the Indians for much of Vizquel's prime. The longtime shortstop has accomplished a lot during his 23 years in the Major Leagues but nothing compares to the 11 seasons he played in Cleveland. That's when Vizquel was at his best by making dazzling plays in the field and utilizing his underrated bat to put the Indians in a position to contend year after year.
Vizquel, a native of Venezuela, won nine Gold Gloves, appeared in three All-Star Games and finished among the top three in the American League in fielding percentage eight different years. Along the way, the Indians made the postseason six times including the World Series in both 1995 and '97.
Both of those World Series teams ended coming up just short by losing to Atlanta and Florida, respectively, but Vizquel prefers to remember the experience and not the heartbreak that came at the end of those seasons.
"There are so many memories from Cleveland, but I think the most important ones are the World Series," Vizquel said. "What we accomplished there was great, too bad we didn't get the [title], but just sharing with all of those guys: Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Tony Fernandez, Albert Belle. There were so many great players during that time.
"It seemed we didn't have a weakness in those years. ... We lost both because of a lack of a play, or we didn't come through where we really needed to come through, and that hurt us. But just the fact that you take a team all the way out there, and you are involved in a World Series, was a very huge accomplishment."
Another highlight for Vizquel during those glory years in Cleveland was the opportunity to play with Hall of Famer, and fellow Gold Glover, Roberto Alomar. The two formed one of the best double-play duos in the history of baseball for the three seasons they were together.
There was a time when it seemed like every ball hit on the ground towards either middle-infield position would result in a guaranteed out. Vizquel's arrival in Toronto marks a reunion of sorts in the city where Alomar currently serves as a special assistant to the Blue Jays.
"The best partner that I ever had at second base, no doubt about it," Vizquel said. "The knowledge that he had for the game, and how he played the game, put ourselves at a better level, not only to me but to the whole team. Having a guy that is always constantly saying things that he picks up in the opponent. It was pretty important. Obviously on defense, he was just a genius. It was a pleasure just to be right next to the best guy that I ever saw playing second base."
Vizquel entered this year's Spring Training without a guaranteed job for the first time since his rookie campaign in 1989 with Seattle. He previously signed a Minor League deal in 2009 with Texas, but at the time there was little doubt he would make the team.
There were no promises in camp with Toronto, and Vizquel had to prove himself every step of the way until being officially named to the squad on March 28. There had been lingering questions regarding his range and arm strength at shortstop, but he answered them with relative ease.
It's the type of accomplishment that only a handful of players have experienced in the Majors and one that Vizquel would never have dreamed of after being selected in the 1984 Draft by Seattle.
"Even if they said that I was going to play for 10 years in the big leagues, I was going to say, 'Wow, that's going to be huge,'" Vizquel said. "Year by year, you don't know where you're going to be in this game. You can have an injury, you can just make a detour, stay out of focus, get in trouble. I was able to kind of focus on my game and the things that I needed to do to get better every year.
"I've been blessed with a good body, I think, and the passion to go out and work out in the gym and keep my body fit. That's the only opportunity that you have to be in the big leagues for a long time."