Among shortstops, Vizquel's a giant

May 14, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

On one end of the clubhouse stands a ring of reporters around an empty locker, waiting for San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds to appear and maybe, just maybe, offer words of surly wisdom - or at least an expletive.

Five lockers down sits another veteran player, another guy who is chasing history and a longevity record set by a Hall of Famer. He sits by himself.

A perfect contrast in the imperfect world of sports.

While every move of Bonds' is chronicled despite his contempt for the media, his always-approachable teammate, shortstop Omar Vizquel, remains virtually unnoticed, drinking a power shake and organizing his sanitary socks.

The night before Bonds hit his 713th homer to inch that much closer to Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, Vizquel reached his own milestone - playing in his 2,303rd game at shortstop.

Vizquel, 39, passed Orioles legend Cal Ripken for third all-time at the position and now trails only Luis Aparicio (2,581) and Ozzie Smith (2,511).

"If he wants to, he'll pass them [all]; he's a tireless little man," Giants manager Felipe Alou said. "He plays hard and smart every day."

He also plays in the shadows of the infamous Game of Shadows subject. Before joining Bonds, Vizquel was overshadowed on a dominating Cleveland Indians team that included Jim Thome, Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. And Vizquel played the same position in the same league as Ripken, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada - which explains just three All-Star appearances.

Vizquel was the spunky shortstop who gobbled up grounders and Gold Gloves without much fanfare.

He's still playing at a high level with the glove and bat, currently in the top 20 in the National League in batting average and runs. He's also making history. He won his 10th Gold Glove last year, second only to Smith's 13 at shortstop. He is the oldest middle infielder to capture the award.

"I don't do anything special. I just keep my body in shape by doing what I am actually supposed to do," Vizquel said. "Have enough hours of rest, eat well and stay away from injury. And being a little guy, I think that helped me out to keep my body in good health."

Vizquel is listed as 5 feet 9 and 175 pounds. He's shorter than that. Yet he has survived and prospered in a game that has been ruled of late by giants such as Bonds.

"In the 1990s, everybody was hitting home runs and people didn't really look out for the defensive part of the game," Vizquel said. "Now with all the steroid talk and all that, I think people are going to start coming back and talk a little more about the defensive part."

A quick aside: Just because Vizquel is small doesn't mean he automatically can be dismissed from the steroid discussion. No one can in this age. Failed drug tests by fleet-footed Alex Sanchez, slender Rafael Palmeiro and a cadre of lanky pitchers has taught us better. It's not just the hulks who have benefited from the juice.

But the point is that Vizquel played through the steroids era and is still excelling with skills that are counter to what defined the past decade - which might have damaged his prominence and legacy.

"I think it didn't help me," Vizquel said. "Because you always hear about the guys who hit home runs all the time and my name never is mentioned in those group of guys. I think I belong in the 1960s era, the little guys who play a lot of games, get base hits and stolen bases."

Like Aparicio, except Vizquel has one more Gold Glove, a career batting average 13 points higher and more than 150 fewer stolen bases. Vizquel's also a better hitter than Smith was, though defensively Smith is unquestionably the standard-bearer for shortstops. As the total package, however, they are in the same ZIP code.

"If you take a look at my numbers and the projection of where I am going to be by the time I retire, my numbers should be right there with Ozzie and Luis Aparicio, and those guys are in the Hall of Fame," Vizquel said. "I don't know how they are voting these days or the things you have to do to get there, but if you take a look at [the numbers] it is pretty even with those guys."

An informal query of 10 baseball writers on Vizquel's viability for Cooperstown yielded three "no's" and a chorus of "probably."

Considering that he's signed for at least another year, Vizquel could accumulate more than 2,500 career hits, 400 stolen bases and 1,400 runs in addition to his defensive and longevity records.

Not bad for an anomaly in a sport overrun by home run chases, Congressional hearings and no comments. That couldn't be more apparent than it is now, when the sporting world's media are stalking Bonds.

All the while the friendly, funny Vizquel is inconspicuously in the same room.

If logic prevails, they should share a Cooperstown plaque room next decade.

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