SAN FRANCISCO – In a perfect world, the Steroid Era would have begat the Fundamental Era. More applause for a rangy fielder than a one-dimensional home run hitter, and more credit to someone who can advance a runner with a bunt than to a pull-hitting beast who doesn't know the definition of sacrifice.
Instead, there is shortstop Omar Vizquel, the embodiment of everything modern-day baseball isn't, sitting by himself in the San Francisco Giants clubhouse while a glut of people, yours truly included, watch Barry Bonds to see if he – gasp! – wiggles his big toe.
"They always have Bonds here, Bonds doing this, Bonds doing that, Bonds with the home runs," Vizquel said recently. "The biggest show in baseball now is the home run. It doesn't matter what you do on the defensive side or how many records or how many Gold Gloves you have. People like talking about the longball."
"They really forget about the defensive part of the game."
So, for one day at least, allow us to indulge his wishes, to celebrate artistry in the field and, amid the present-day smashball, to make the case that Omar Vizquel, Punch-and-Judy hitter, belongs in the Hall of Fame.
First, an anecdote. The sun at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, where Vizquel spent 11 seasons, casts a glare at the shortstop even the best Oakleys can't deflect. On pop-ups, this poses a problem. So Vizquel came up with a solution: He turned his back to the infield to shield his face from the sun and caught fly balls backward.
Surely there was a little showboating involved – a bet-you-can't-do-this air that Vizquel carries – but that wasn't the point. As he still shows in other parts of his game, Vizquel values utility above all, and if that meant defying convention, so be it.
Every Hall of Famer did something unique. Babe Ruth hit home runs. Ozzie Smith backflipped. Vizquel will be the one who caught balls backward and nipped runners by half a step.
Never noticed? Players do. Vizquel fields the ball with the nonchalance of a Blockbuster clerk. He gathers himself, transfers the ball from glove to hand with sleight-of-hand quickness and lobs it to first base an instant before the batter's foot touches the bag.
"Every time," said Dodgers catcher Sandy Alomar, Vizquel's teammate in Cleveland for seven seasons. "You think you're there, and you're not."
"It's not intentionally," Vizquel said, though his sly grin said otherwise. "I know who's running. And I know who I can do that with. It's a timing play. I do it over and over. And by the time the ball gets there, the guy is one step away from the base. I do it because I don't need to fire the ball to first all the time."
It's the equivalent of a great hitter who doesn't swing for a home run on every pitch, one whose patience dictates his greatness.
Vizquel was always smooth, from the moment he arrived in Cleveland in a trade with Seattle for Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson. Vizquel had won his first Gold Glove that year, 1993, and would win eight straight more with the Indians.
"Defensively, he was ridiculous," Alomar said. "He had the best hands of any shortstop I've ever seen. A very accurate arm. He knew the runners. A smart player.
"When he came to Cleveland, though, he couldn't hit."
Hall of Famers, by and large, can hit, and they tend to do it well. Even though Vizquel has fewer homers in his 18-year career (72) than Bonds had in 2001 (73*), he has acquitted himself well enough to merit consideration.
Vizquel's .275 career batting average is 13 points better than Smith's, and his 209 sacrifice bunts are only five shy of Smith, who ranks first in that category among the last two generations of players. This year, he should pass Smith in runs, RBIs and doubles, and next year, in the final season of his three-year contract with the Giants, Vizquel, health permitting, will usurp him for most games played at shortstop.
"The Hall of Fame is not only there because of your glove," Vizquel said. "You have to do something more to be a Hall of Famer. Can you hit? Can you score runs? Can you steal bases? It's like a complete player. If I keep stocking numbers, it's a better position for me to get there."
He's right. Baseball is a numbers game, and though sabermetricians' work with defensive numbers have broken ground, there's still no easily digestible fielding statistic equivalent to the home run or the batting average. If Gold Gloves are a barometer, only seven players in history – including Smith, a first-ballot Hall of Famer – won more than Vizquel's 10.
"He's got all the credentials," Giants manager Felipe Alou said. "A fielder. A runner. They've looked for the longball hitters for the Hall of Fame. Maybe with the steroid stuff they'll start looking at other players."
The first interesting candidacy is Mark McGwire's. He openly took androstenedione, a steroid precursor, and, according to the New York Daily News, ingested a cocktail of other steroids. If the Baseball Writers Association of America's voters stiff McGwire this year, it's a good sign.
After all, it took Bill Mazeroski more than 20 years after he was first eligible to get in. Baseball conditioned its fan base during the go-go steroid period to wait in coiled anticipation for a home run, and now, thanks to statisticians who provide tangible proof of the home run's importance, teams build around it.
"As a fan, you have to love it," Vizquel said. "As a player, if you were a little guy like myself and weren't taking it, and you're hitting only five or six home runs a year, you felt like you were doing nothing. You wanted to do (steroids) to keep up with these guys."
Fielding has become nothing more than an expectation. Everyone should play solid defense, and if they're spectacular, well, all the better. The prevalence of big, strong, hard-hitting shortstops was no accident. Teams made conscious decisions to sacrifice fielding for hitting, and it spawned Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra, all peers of Vizquel's and the only reason he hasn't made more than three All-Star teams.
"Sometimes I doubt that I really belong in this era," Vizquel said. "If I put on some weight, people would talk. I never felt like I need anything extra to keep me going or the energy to play 162 games. I tried to do it the right way."
While Vizquel will turn 40 a month into next season, he said he feels closer to 28 after having his knee and shoulder cleaned out. He's good for about 150 hits a season, which, if he plays through next year, would leave him at around 2,600 – more than Reggie Jackson, Ernie Banks, Joe Morgan, Mickey Mantle, Ryne Sandberg and, yes, Ozzie Smith.
And he'll keep playing his peerless defense. Perhaps Vizquel will even catch a pop-up backward at AT&T Park in San Francisco. He hasn't done it yet because of the wind's unpredictability, though the best artists always have another masterwork waiting to be shown.
Now if only it were appreciated.
- Omar Vizquel