Front Row Seat: A memorable Hall of Fame ceremony for Omar Vizquel

by MIKE LESKO | REPORTER Published:

When Omar Vizquel, the greatest defensive shortstop in baseball history, was inducted into the Cleveland Indians' Hall of Fame on June 21, it occurred in front of a festive, sold-out crowd that arrived early at Progressive Field.

I was lucky enough to see it in person. Thousands wore blue No. 13 Vizquel jerseys handed out prior to the game. Others had on Omar T-shirts they obviously had worn during the 1990s when Vizquel starred during the Indians' golden era of excellence.

My 15-year-old son, Michael, who was with me at the game, had a blue Vizquel T-shirt about 10 years ago, but he outgrew it long ago. On this day, he wore a red Nick Swisher T-shirt, symbolic of the Indians' current designated hitter.

Fans on the leftfield home run porch carried signs that read "Omar-velous" and "We Love You, Omar." From there, we could see both the ceremony at home plate and replay highlights on the scoreboard of Vizquel's career.

We watched Vizquel enter the field from the outfield bullpen as the crowd roared. He thanked "you guys -- all the fans -- who filled these seats and gave me the energy to play."

Pete Conces, chairman of Aurora's recreation advisory committee, said Vizquel's outstanding performances "captured all of our hearts and created memories for a lifetime."

Master of ceremonies Tom Hamilton, an Indians radio announcer, told the fans that Omar's next speech should be in Cooperstown, N.Y., as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Vizquel, an 11-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop, deserves that honor, but if he isn't elected, it will be because enough voters did not actually see him play, which would put their qualifications as voters into question.

Vizquel finished his career 123 hits short of the magic 3,000-hit total, which ensures induction into the Hall. Some unqualified voters likely will dismiss him simply for that. But those who watched him play saw an acrobatic magician in the field.

"Omar made spectacular plays look routine," said Andy Vidmar, a member of the recreation advisory committee. "He was the Indians' original Dr. Smooth."

SWISHER said Vizquel "reinvented" the shortstop position. I believe that is true. Vizquel fielded hard-hit ground balls with his bare hand and threw out batters. While it is more commonplace today, it was rarely seen 20 years ago until Vizquel came along.

Conces agreed, saying, "Omar had the most reliable glove and hands in baseball during his tenure with the Indians. The way he could grab a ball in midair with one hand and no glove and spin to throw the ball in the same movement to make an out at first base was breathless."

Vizquel, running toward the outfield, also caught pop flies by using his body and cap to shield the ball from the sun. He had phenomenal range and soft hands that managed to snare nearly every grounder that came his way. He has the highest fielding percentage of any shortstop in baseball history.

In addition to all his passion and skill, he played the game with joy. Even his pre-game fielding practice was a show of artistry, as he sometimes would kick a grounder, like a soccer ball, so it would pop into the air, then he would catch it and throw it.

Vizquel also had a supreme ability to perform in the clutch. His diving stop and throw to first base in Game 6 of the 1997 World Series, which saved the game for the Indians against the Florida Marlins and forced a Game 7, was one of the finest defensive plays by a middle infielder in World Series history.

It was so memorable that a national fast-food restaurant chain created a 17-inch by 14-inch drawing of the spectacular play and handed out copies of it to its customers. It's a classy souvenir.

The day after the ceremony, Hamilton told radio listeners, "I don't think anybody ever enjoyed being inducted into the Indians' Hall of Fame more than Omar."

For those who watched Vizquel during his remarkable career, it was no surprise.

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4187

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Twitter: Mike Lesko@MikeLesko_RPC

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