Omar Vizquel, now 45 years old and retired, was the main speaker at the Akron Shaw Jewish Community Center’s sports dinner on Tuesday night. He wined and dined while sharing stories with the ecstatic fundraiser crowd of over 200 people. He seemed genuinely thrilled to be back in Northeast Ohio.
“There is no other team I love more than the Cleveland Indians,” he said. “Believe me.”
Vizquel, who played his final Major League season in 2012 with the Toronto Blue Jays, also unveiled during the night that he will be working for the Los Angeles Angels in 2013 as a roving infield instructor. His first choice was Cleveland. They didn’t have any openings.
Famous for his 11 Gold Gloves and his impressive 11-season career with the Tribe, Vizquel is a borderline Hall of Famer. He appears to be right on the cusp because of his fielding acumen and 2.877 career hits, but one never knows for certain how the Hall of Fame vote might be splintered in the Steroid Era.
In his first public U.S. appearance of 2013, Vizquel was treated like a hero — one who hadn’t been back to his rabidly loyal hometown in a decade. In fact, it’s now been 9 years since the Venezuelan’s final year in Cleveland in 2004. The team then decided not to resign the soon-to-be 38-year-old after that season, thinking his best years were way behind him. But of course, he kept plowing forward for the San Francisco Giants and then three more teams.
Later Tuesday night, Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, a former teammate of Vizquel’s on that 2004 Indians team, confirmed the news of Vizquel’s hire to the Los Angeles media. Vizquel will get a taste of working with the big-league club during spring training. He’ll then journey from minor league team to minor league team during the season, reporting back on various players to Dipoto and the front office.
The Shaw JCC event featured an open bar, silent auction, 50-50 raffle and the like. It was the 11th such sports dinner that the Shaw JCC had organized, with most guests over the years being coaches or GMs from the respective Cleveland sports teams. Tuesday’s edition just seemed to have a more vibrant atmosphere from the start, as Vizquel’s always vivacious style certainly could have been the reason.
Kudos to Shaw JCC Director Todd Rockoff (a WFNY reader) for organizing this year’s dinner again. He’s been doing these in Akron ever since he moved here, as the idea originally came from his days at the JCC director in Calgary. Also, a huge thanks to Todd for inviting my dad and I to pick Omar up at his hotel, then bring him over to the JCC. Here’s photographic evidence for y’all:
After the event dinner, 1590 WAKR’s Ray Horner and Indians VP of Public Affairs Bob Dibiasio introduced the guest speaker. In bullet-point form, here are some of the top highlights:
—- Vizquel began his speech by first saying how proud he was to return to Cleveland. He then addressed the two-minute long video that the Shaw JCC played just beforehand. The video showed dozens and dozens of spectacular fielding plays, but, as Omar specifically pointed out, only two hits. “Those were my only two hits ever. Two home runs.”
—- Vizquel then detailed one of the early criticisms he received as a 16-year-old trying to make it in baseball. While many others told him he was too short or too weak of a hitter, one worker at a training camp took it a step further. He said he should just retire from baseball already and, based on his short and light frame, become a jockey. “Those words were my motivation,” Vizquel said. “I needed to prove that guy wrong.”
—- At age 27, after spending 10 years with the Seattle Mariners organization, Omar received the news of his famous trade to Cleveland. The date was Dec. 20, 1993, and in a deal for Reggie Jefferson, Felix Fermin and cash, the only organization he had ever known had dealt him to a far away land filled with snow. Vizquel recalled crying often during those harsh winter days. He credited fellow Venezuelan infielder Alvaro Espinoza for taking him under his wing in Cleveland and showing him the ropes.
—- Vizquel said that by far and away, the best team he ever played with was the ’95 Indians. He recalled how that team easily cruised to the World Series, and was lead by the “wise” leadership of three old veterans: Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser. Vizquel called them the godfathers. When recalling his reputation for always smiling on the field that year and beyond, he said: “Who wasn’t gonna smile when you had the team that we had?”
—- Omar also shared some specific player stories of some notable teammates. Albert Belle, of course, was constantly back-and-forth with his emotions. One day, he turned over the table of food in the clubhouse so nobody ate that day after the game. Another day, Belle yelled and yelled about only getting four hits, not five. And he’d always be mumbling to himself and in another world. Julian Tavarez was another crazy act on the team, as only Dennis Martinez was able to truly know what was going on with him. Eddie Murray was a huge help for Vizquel in mastering the art of switch-hitting, something he developed only in his Cleveland days. Vizquel said he would ask Murray questions all day every day, and “he was like our dad. He put us into our game face.”
—- Recalling the story of why Cleveland didn’t resign him following the 2004 season, Vizquel was able to showcase some humor. He recalled a mild media controversy surrounding some pictures of himself holding a chainsaw while studying with a famous local log-sculptor. Vizquel joked: “At that point, John Hart just said ‘we need to get Vizquel out of here.'” In 2009, while playing for the White Sox, Vizquel said his return to Jacobs Field was really hard to swallow. The team surprised him by playing a two-minute video before the game, giving him chills and putting tears in his eyes. At one point, he recalled: “Fans started cheering for me to get a hit. They were cheering against their home team!”
—- In response to a question from a fan, Vizquel said he thinks Barry Bonds and other stars from the Steroid Era deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. In a bit of a complex response, he said the players were already good enough without the substances. He said that maybe they were led to take the drugs because of the demand from fans, media and the growing popularity of the sport. However, injecting such items into his body would have been a personal violation for himself, so he never got involved with it. Remarking on the fall of Bonds’ legacy and others such as Lance Armstrong, he said: “It’s very sad to me to see that, since those guys were heroes.”
—- In the future, Vizquel said he hopes to continue to do talks such as this, especially on the topic of leadership. He shared a few of his personal secrets to success for his 24-year MLB career. He said the most important thing for him to succeed was asking questions. He knew his weakness was hitting, so he started switch-hitting. “Follow your dream; it’s the only way you are going to become the person you want.”
—- Vizquel said he was happy he was able to leave the game on his own terms, unlike so many of his peers who were forced to retire because of injuries or being released. He said he had become mentally tired of being on the bench while only playing once a week. He felt physically able to keep playing, but knew it was time.
—- One more time, Vizquel reiterated: “I hope I can be working for you guys some day.” He still strives to be a manager at some point in his career, something that he had hinted at during his final season in Toronto. As one final tease, Vizquel also announced that he’ll be back in Cleveland at some point during this upcoming summer. But he declined to explain further, possibly adding fuel to the fire about a possible jersey retirement ceremony.
Again, thanks to Todd Rockoff and the Shaw JCC for putting on this great event. I was thrilled to be there and mingle with the sports crowd. Always lots of fun.