By IAN WILSON
With the first Calgary Cannon now enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, another member of the defunct Triple-A team is waiting on deck to see if he will join his former teammate among the sport’s immortals.
And, while designated hitter extraordinaire Edgar Martinez had to wait until his 10th and final year on the ballot to be selected for Cooperstown kudos, shortstop Omar Vizquel may have to wait even longer.
The Caracas, Venezuela native is now in his fourth year on the ballot, seeking a 75% approval rating from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).
The case for the manager of the Toros de Tijuana in the Mexican League is, in many ways, the opposite of the case for Martinez. Edgar was known for his hitting, but critics denounced the lack of time he spent in the field. Vizquel, meanwhile, played more games at shortstop than anyone in Major League Baseball (MLB) history and won 11 Gold Gloves over 24 seasons. Despite sitting 43rd overall in career hits, with 2,877, the switch-hitter was never considered much of a slugger. The infielder hit 80 home runs over his MLB career while collecting 951 runs batted in (RBI), 1,445 runs, 404 stolen bases and a batting average of .272 in 2,968 games.
For those who saw Vizquel rise through the minor leagues on his way to the majors, the final career numbers may not actually be all that surprising.
MINOR BAT, MAJOR GLOVE
When he was promoted from the Double-A Vermont Mariners to the Calgary Cannons on Aug. 1, 1988, the 21-year-old was considered the top defensive infielder in the Eastern League.
“Vizquel, who was voted by league managers as its best defensive shortstop, was hitting .253 with two homers, 35 RBI and 30 stolen bases. He was sixth in the league in stolen bases,” read the Burlington Free Press summary of his 103 games in Vermont.
Dick Balderson, the general manager of the Seattle Mariners, gave the following scouting report on Vizquel to the Free Press earlier that year:
“He has a chance to be an outstanding major-league shortstop. His instincts separate him from the average players …. He has great hands and good range. He needs to improve with the bat, but he’s a switch-hitter and he can run.”
In 33 games and 107 at bats with the Cannons that season, Vizquel scored 10 runs, drove in another 12 runs, stole a pair of bases and batted .224. Defensively, he committed six errors, collected 92 assists and his fielding percentage was .957.
His first Triple-A home run came in the Pacific Coast League’s version of the Battle of Alberta, a 10-3 Calgary win over the Edmonton Trappers during a Sunday matinee in front of 5,899 fans at Foothills Stadium. The victim of the two-run round tripper was Urbano Lugo, a fellow countryman and a former Venezuela winter ball teammate of Vizquel’s.
“He pointed at his head like he was going to throw at me the next time I came to bat,” the 5-foot-9, 155-pound Vizquel told Calgary Herald reporter Gyle Konotopetz after the game.
“It was even better hitting it off a friend.”
For his part, Lugo confided he had no control of his changeup or his curveball that day and he saw something in Vizquel that many others did not.
“Omar’s got pretty good power for a small guy,” Lugo told the Herald.
GOING TO THE SHOW
Vizquel made his MLB debut in 1989, playing 143 games for the Seattle Mariners and just seven contests for the Cannons, but a spring training injury sent him back to the minors in 1990, where he played 48 games for Calgary. During his half-season with the big club, his bat was less than impressive – two long balls, 18 RBI and a .247 batting average over 81 games with the M’s. The glove, however, could play. Vizquel posted a .980 fielding percentage while getting tagged with seven errors.
The 1991 campaign marked Vizquel’s first full year with no time in the minors, but his scouting report remained unchanged: great glove, slight bat. Over 142 games with the Mariners, he recorded a .980 fielding percentage that set a new club record and was third in the American League (AL).
Though it looked like his time with the Cannons was over, a knee injury brought him back to Calgary for a six-game rehab stint in May of 1992. This time around, the defensive wizard seemed bitter about the assignment and frustrated by his performance at the dish.
“I didn’t want to come here. I told (the Mariners) I was ready,” Vizquel told reporter Daryl Slade of the Herald. “But they wanted to be sure my knee was ready. And I understand they want me to have some more playing time before I go back.”
He also took a swipe at his hitting coaches.
“I was a good hitter until the hitting coaches told me too much,” Vizquel told the Calgary newspaper.
“If I’d never thought about it, I’d be a better hitter. Like my fielding, nobody told me anything. Everything came natural.”
But it was apparent to Vizquel that his approach at the plate needed to improve.
“Hitting is my biggest concern. That’s why I play winter ball – to work on my hitting … if I could be the same way at the plate that I am in the field, I’d be a lot happier.”
His bat would gradually improve over his years with the Mariners, Indians, Giants, White Sox, Rangers and Blue Jays, but if it is truly a Hall-of-Fame calibre career that will largely be determined by his theatrics with the leather.
MIDDLE INFIELD OF DREAMS
“He never had a real strong arm, like some shortstops did,” Cannons owner Russ Parker told Alberta Dugout Stories. “He could make plays so effortless, a lot of it because he could read the ball coming off the bat so well. Everything was just so fluid … he’ll be remembered as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.”
Lou Piniella, the manager of the Mariners from 1993 through 2002, was also impressed by the Venezuelan’s abilities and was sad to see Vizquel leave for Cleveland in 1994.
“I regret I had Vizquel for only one year,” he said in his 2017 memoir Lou: Fifty Years of Kicking Dirt, Playing Hard, and Winning Big in the Sweet Spot of Baseball.
“Vizquel, who won the first of his eleven Gold Gloves in ’93, is the greatest fielding shortstop I ever saw and another of my players I will be proud to see go into the Hall of Fame.”
Dan Szymborski, a senior writer for FanGraphs and an ESPN contributor, called Vizquel’s bid for Cooperstown a “tougher one” than that of Martinez.
“Undeniably a great defensive shortstop, he probably wasn’t quite at Ozzie Smith’s level with the glove or, when you take into account eras, the bat,” Szymborski told Alberta Dugout Stories in 2017.
“While I can argue he’s a borderline candidate that should be in the Hall – I’m on the fence.”
Szymborski, who developed the ZiPS player projections system, thinks Vizquel’s fate could eventually be determined by the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Eras Committees (formerly Veterans Committee). These committees consider candidates that are no longer eligible for election through BBWAA ballots.
A thorough examination Vizquel’s Hall-of-Fame case can be found in this article by Chris Bodig.