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The Sports Page: Happy Retirement, Omar

 Corey Barnes The Sports Page: Happy Retirement, Omar
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On Thursday, after an illustrious 24-year career, Omar Vizquel pulled off a move many thought he couldn’t manage: he retired. The acrobatic shortstop who dazzled and delighted fans in five cities over the years finally hung up his cleats at the age of 45. Omar was the oldest player in the league this year while appearing in 60 games for the Toronto Blue Jays. The shortstop of my childhood has retired, but he will never leave the hearts of those who saw him play.

For anyone in college or just beyond, Omar Vizquel WAS the Indians in the 90s. He arrived in a trade from Seattle in 1993, right before the Jacobs Field Era began. Omar came in with little fanfare; he hit a decent .252 in his first five years with Seattle and won a Gold Glove that final season. In Cleveland, Omar did it all (except hit for power). He became a dependable contact hitter and force on the basepaths. The field, however, was where Omar built his legacy.

Omar Vizquel is the greatest shortstop I have ever seen. The hardware backs up the case: 11 career Gold Gloves, the last of which at age 39. A three time all-star with the Tribe, Omar even played well enough in 1999 to finish 16th in the American League MVP vote. In his prime there was no ball he could not range to, no throw he could not make. Everyone in the building knew that 99 times out of 100 a ground ball to #13 would be sent over to first or second for a double play. Oh, Omar turned the best double plays. His most famous images are of him fielding a ball from the second baseman and jumping clear over the incoming baserunner. Behind the back, between the legs, barehanded, glove flip. These circus plays were routine for the Venezuelan. He made the impossible look easy and he never ceased to amaze. Every Cleveland kid in little league wanted to play shortstop in the 90s and they ALL tried a barehanded play at least once (though with perhaps less success than Omar had).

The only knock against Omar is that he never won the World Series. He played 57 postseason games, all with Cleveland but was never able to lift the trophy. As far as consolation prizes go, however, Omar got a good one in August 2001. Trailing Seattle 14-11 in the ninth, Omar hit a bases clearing triple to tie a game and cap a 14-2 comeback. He always seemed to come through in the clutch.

What separates Omar from other former players is that he never really left. He was bigger than the game: he made music, wrote a book, and invented his own salsa. Omar had fun, and his attitude was infectious. He understood that he got to play a game for a living and he never let a day go by without appreciating that fact. So we in turn appreciated him. His natural charisma and 1,000 watt smile immediately endeared him to fans (especially women) plus he played the game like we would have. Omar would play the jokester in the locker room, helping to bring in the rookies; he would playfully taunt pitchers while on the bases, and would occasionally send ground balls to the first baseman during warm ups just to keep him on his toes. Cleveland’s love for Omar did not fade with time either. In 2008, the Giants travelled to Cleveland for the first time since Omar left. I went to his first game back and he received nothing but love. The scoreboard played a montage of some of his greatest plays and he turned in a solid defensive game. Think about that: we played a video about a VISITING PLAYER. But that’s not a fair assessment; Omar wasn’t really visiting, he was coming home if only for a weekend.

Now he can come home in earnest. It’s only a matter of time until Omar’s #13 is immortalized in right field where it belongs next to names like “Doby,” “Feller,” and “Boudreau.” These were men whose legacies have stood the test of time; Omar is deserving of their company with no debate. And in a few years, when goes to the podium at Cooperstown, no doubt he will be wearing Chief Wahoo on his cap and a smile from ear to ear.

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