SURPRISE, Ariz. – Elvis Andrus peered at the locker next to his. VIZQUEL, the nameplate read. Andrus shook his head. He couldn't believe his idol was here. He wanted to ask him everything. About fielding and running and hitting and, most of all, what it's like to be Omar Vizquel.
Actually, Vizquel is trying to figure that out, too. He walked out of the clubhouse at the Texas Rangers' spring-training facility wearing a gold-and-black collared shirt and distressed jeans, a look he pulls off well for being two months shy of 42. Vizquel is the oldest non-roster invitee in baseball this spring, an inglorious distinction for a shortstop whose defensive prowess one day could land him in the Hall of Fame.
And yet it's reality in a baseball world where past accomplishments don't translate into present-day guarantees. Vizquel is older and slower, and that renders him insurance for Andrus, who figures to be the youngest player in the major leagues when the season begins April 6.
So chalk up Andrus' excitement to the fact that he is 20, and that he grew up in Maracay, Venezuela, an hour from Vizquel's hometown of Caracas. Every winter, Andrus would travel to watch Vizquel play winter ball and wonder how he might grow into Merlin with a glove, just as Vizquel did when Davey Concepcion returned home from the Cincinnati Reds championship teams.
"Every little kid in Venezuela idolized Omar," Andrus said. "He was a star. We wanted to be him. His attitude, his passion, the way he played – those kind of things are what you want to be."
Shortstop is a Venezuelan heirloom, passed from Chico Carrasquel to Luis Aparicio to Concepcion to Ozzie Guillen to Vizquel and now to Andrus, whose speed, impervious glove and natural leadership convinced the Rangers to shift Michael Young off the position at which he won a Gold Glove last season. The Rangers shrug off Andrus' undeveloped bat and youth, largely because Vizquel is a worthwhile contingency. For now, as much as he wants to play every day, such a job doesn't exist for a quadragenarian coming off a season in which he hit .222, and that leaves him in a dual role of mentor and infield jack of all trades.
"I'm not used to this," Vizquel said. "But I have to understand, that's where I am. I'm a utility guy, and I'm here for this kid.
"You don't want to be a utility player at the end of your career. But I'm better off with a team that's going to give me a chance than be in the house watching the games on TV."
As an Atlanta farmhand three years ago, Andrus got to meet Vizquel during the opening round of the World Baseball Classic. He wasn't quite sure what to say, other than, "Hey." While the Venezuelan fans were busy ogling all of the country's contemporary stars – Johan Santana and Carlos Zambrano and Francisco Rodriguez and Bobby Abreu and Magglio Ordonez – Andrus studied Vizquel, as he did whenever he watched games with his father.
Emilio Andrus was a physics professor and a good amateur ballplayer. He died of lung cancer at 48, when Elvis was 7, and had never smoked a cigarette. Andrus' mom, Elvia, raised him and his two brothers, one of whom, Erold, signed with the New York Yankees in 2000. Five years later, the Braves gave Elvis a $550,000 bonus, watched him perform well as the youngest player at every minor-league stop and sent him to Texas at the 2007 trading deadline in the Mark Teixeira deal.
The Rangers could see Andrus' tools: the sinewy 6-foot frame, the great arm, the potential for gap power. They didn't know that throughout rookie ball and Class A, he studied a dictionary and listened to all sorts of music – hip-hop and country, he said, tell the best stories – to master English. Because, he figures, every good shortstop ought to know it.
"I like being the youngest guy," Andrus said. "I force myself to learn. I learn and learn and learn, every day. Like, when you're at Double-A at 19, there are a lot of expectations. I know I might not be ready for it, so I've got to figure out how to work around that."
Undeterred, the Rangers named Andrus their opening day shortstop four months before the season began. When general manager Jon Daniels delivered the news, Andrus jumped. Manager Ron Washington, a longtime infield coach, visited Andrus in the Dominican Republic over the winter a skeptic and left convinced that amid a lineup of sluggers, Andrus would fit fine with his glove alone.
"I can stand up here today and say that kid is gonna be good for us this year," Washington said. "Right now, I don't think he'll have a single problem playing in the major leagues, catching baseballs."
Though, if you'll allow Vizquel to hock a loogie on the lovefest, he's not enamored of the way Andrus fields the ball. His legs are too spread out, Vizquel said, and he doesn't bring the ball into his stomach the way Vizquel learned. He wants to mention these things, and then he thinks better of it, lest he undo years of instruction three days into his new camp. He'll have plenty of opportunity to drop hints because neither shortstop is participating in this year's World Baseball Classic.
"We've got a dilemma to deal with," Vizquel said. "It's hard to change a guy. I want to leave him alone and let him figure out if it's a benefit to him.
"But then I want to see him improve every day and make him believe he belongs in the big leagues. And he does. He's got the perfect personality to fit. His English is good. It makes things easier around him. He talks to everybody."
Including, a few days ago, Daniels. On his way to a live batting-practice session, Andrus strolled by a line of Rangers executives, nodded to each and said, "What's up?" The rest of the team's top prospects slinked by, their knees jellied by the prospect of addressing the man who determines their careers.
Andrus' happens to be starting now. Vizquel's is like a vapor trail, visible and impressive and left by something long gone. And together they forge ahead, for Texas, for Venezuela, for each other, for themselves.