No longer a starter, Izturis remains a clubhouse leader

Veteran shortstop plays essential role in bringing Orioles together

March 05, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — — The awkwardness lasted all of a couple of minutes — or about the amount of time it took Cesar Izturis to approach the player who essentially took his job.

As the Orioles infielders fielded groundballs for the first time this spring, Izturis made sure that J.J. Hardy knew exactly where the two stood.

"He said, 'Listen man, if you need anything, you come to me and you ask me,'" recalled Hardy. "He couldn't stress it enough. He said, 'Don't feel like you can't come talk to me, don't think I'm mad at you for coming here. I know what my role is.'

"He's made me feel real comfortable with the situation because it could have been awkward. I wasn't going to come in here and think that he was going to hate me or whatever, but when he started telling me that, it just kind of opened my eyes and made me realize how good of a teammate that he is."

There is a reason that Izturis' re-signing this past offseason generated just as much excitement among Orioles players as the addition of veteran first baseman Derrek Lee and potential closer Kevin Gregg. There is a reason why, after trading for Hardy, the Orioles wanted Izturis, their starting shortstop the past two seasons, back as a utility man and weren't the slightest bit concerned about how he'd deal with a lesser role.

Izturis' selflessness, leadership and professionalism have made the veteran infielder arguably the most popular player in the clubhouse.

"Whether it's a Latin player, a white player, an infielder, a young pitcher, it doesn't matter," said Orioles starter Brian Matusz. "He takes interest in every single player whether they've been in the league for 10 years or two days. He just seems to make everyone feel comfortable. He's always giving you advice, always asking if he can help you out. He's friendly, a fun guy to be around. You can't help but love a guy like that. Off the field, I think he's good friends with everybody in this clubhouse."

Matusz has vivid memories of the time in 2009 that Izturis talked to him following a bad start and reminded the pitcher that he was plenty good enough to be in the big leagues.

"To have a Gold Glover like that sit you down and try to get you back on track, that's really cool. Those are the types of things that Izzy does behind the scenes," Matusz said. "He's always on your side. That's the type of guy you want in the clubhouse."

Izturis, 31, has played parts of 10 big league seasons for six different organizations. He's played in 110 or more games in seven of the past nine seasons, primarily because he's been one of the better defensive shortstops in baseball over the last decade.

He is also a career .256 hitter who doesn't get on base much and has no power. He's coming off a 2010 season for the Orioles in which he compiled just a .545 OPS (a combination of on-base and slugging percentage), the lowest for a big-league regular since 1994.

However, those who have been in the same clubhouse with Izturis say that obsessing over his offensive struggles — and they are undeniable — takes away from the other things that he does for a team.

Tony LaRussa, his former manager in St. Louis, called Izturis one of the smartest players that he's ever managed. It didn't take long for Orioles manager Buck Showalter to see Izturis' value and conclude that the Venezuelan native will make a very good coach when his playing days are done. Several times last season, Showalter started to deliver a message to the shortstop only to have Izturis nod before he was done speaking, indicating that he had seen exactly the same thing as his manager.

"He's more than just a great presence in the clubhouse," Showalter said. "He's a guy that can play short, second and third. He's a guy that has played every day. He just gives us a comfort zone there. If something happens, we know what we're going to get from him."

Showalter gets a reminder of Izturis' professionalism almost every day. Today, he approached the infielder and asked him if he'd prefer playing a couple of innings as a reserve in the home exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox or make the hour and a half trip to Fort Myers Sunday to start against the Minnesota Twins. Most veterans would choose the home game, but Izturis opted to go on the road Sunday because he wanted a couple of more at-bats.

Philadelphia Phillies third base coach Juan Samuel, who both coached and managed Izturis the previous two seasons in Baltimore, said that he leaned on the infielder heavily both on the field and in the clubhouse.

"I sure appreciated having him in there," said Samuel. "I used him to take care of some of the issues in the clubhouse with some of the Hispanic guys. He's like having another coach for the team. I know I relied on him to move some of the guys around the infield. If I needed to get somebody's attention, he was my guy."

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