Even nearing 45, 'Little O' continues to amaze
Blue Jays infielder Vizquel still productive at an advanced age
CLEVELAND -- He was out of position when he first took the field, brought in as a fifth infielder in extra innings and officially listed as the Blue Jays' left fielder before shifting to first base. He wore new colors, and he wore a new number -- No. 17.But it was Omar Vizquel in the flesh at Progressive Field, the building where he once made so many memories. And it is one of the best stories in baseball to see the seemingly ageless shortstop, mere weeks from his 45th birthday, still suiting up on Opening Day -- and all that comes after -- in this, his 24th Major League season. "When I take the field," Vizquel said, "I don't want to look like I am my age." Well, he doesn't, so mission accomplished. Vizquel is on the verge of becoming the oldest shortstop in the game's long history (once he's officially placed at that position, he'll pass Bobby Wallace, who played 32 games for the Cardinals at age 44 in 1918). And he would be lying if he told you he feels as spry today as he did when he made his debut. "When you're 25, and you get out of bed, you're ready to run, take an at-bat and hit a triple," Vizquel said. "Now, you have to get up and make sure that you're going to the bathroom and you don't knock things around. So it does get harder. Every day, every hour is just hard on your body." Vizquel takes great pains, though, to put his body in position to contribute at the Major League level. Rare is the potential Hall of Fame player (and we'll get to that topic in a minute) who, at this stage and age, would willingly accept a Minor League contract and Spring Training invite, then endure an honest-to-goodness competition for a roster spot. Vizquel has made, according to baseball-reference.com, more than $62 million in his career. And while his playing career is, of course, his foundation, retirement life would allow him to dabble further in his other interests -- art, music, philanthropy -- or perhaps get into coaching, in which he has often expressed interest. Nah, "Little O" would rather keep playing as long as he can, as long as his body lets him or he wills it. And by legitimately earning his way onto this Blue Jays roster with a solid spring (batting .395 and still making all the routine plays at short, as well as some of the not-so-routine ones), rather than simply having it handed to him because of his vast experience, Vizquel has surprised even himself. "It feels great," he said. "I think that I am in a very special spot. I don't think too many people can say they've been playing Major League Baseball for 24 years. Every time I step on the field, I take it like it's my last day. I still have a lot of passion for the game. I'm very happy and fortunate to be here." Vizquel said that everywhere he goes, he runs into former teammates and opponents who are now in coaching, scouting or front-office work. "And here I am," he said with a smile, "still on the field, jumping around and fielding ground balls." Today, he finds himself playing alongside the likes of Brett Lawrie, the Blue Jays' stud third baseman who wasn't even born on April 3, 1989, when Vizquel made his debut. Vizquel has talked to him about preparation, about positioning in the field, etc. But these sorts of mentoring moments are not why the Blue Jays gave him the utility infield job. "The mentoring side is a benefit," said manager John Farrell, "but he's still a very capable player. He had a very good Spring Training. He's in great shape. He comes in with what is, for me, a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, on a Minor League contract, and puts his ego aside and shows he loves to play the game. He plays with youthfulness, even at his age, that I think we all draw from." The phrase "sure-fire," with regard to Vizquel's Hall of Fame credentials, has its faults, for it seems Vizquel's will be a divisive case when the time comes. Vizquel is currently 45th on the all-time hits list, with 2,841. He has played more games at shortstop than anybody, having surpassed his hero, Luis Aparicio, in 2008. Aparicio is, of course, a Hall of Famer, and Vizquel compares favorably to him in the Gold Glove count (11 to nine) and offensively (.272 career average against .262 and .337 on-base percentage to .311). Vizquel's Hall case will basically boil down to his defensive reputation and his sheer longevity. His critics will point out that he's been listed on the Most Valuable Player ballot once (an eighth-place vote in 1999, by far his best season), so he's never ascended to a level at which there was agreement that he was one of the best players in the league in a given year. Others will turn to anecdotal evidence that he was every bit as highly regarded defensively as Ozzie Smith, with similar offensive statistics. "Omar didn't do back flips," Farrell said, "because he didn't need to. To me, he's the best shortstop who ever played the game." Someday, this Hall of Fame thing, as it pertains to Vizquel, will make for a great debate. Of course, to even be eligible for the Hall of Fame, you have to retire. And even with his service clock creeping toward a quarter-century, Vizquel isn't done yet. "Every year, I keep saying, 'This is my last year. This is my last year,'" Vizquel said. "I keep announcing the retirement, but it's not getting there."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.