Friday, August 14, 2009

In Omar We Trust by Michael Baker

Venezuelan shortstop Omar Vizquel is a man of grit, grace, and class, sort of like George Gershwin if George could throw deep from the hole. He is winding down a remarkable career: 2700 games, many awards and post-season appearances, and nearly 2,700 hits. Whether he makes it into baseball's Hall of Fame remains to be seen—he is with Texas now and more post seasons seem unlikely. I must also say that I am torn between bifurcated poles of thinking here: as a lifetime Tribe fan, I saw Omar elegantly spur the Cleveland Indians into the playoffs six out of seven years. I have seen up close and live and on TV Omar play so many times, and watched breathlessly so often as he turned two so effortlessly, or laughingly viewed his grabbing bare handedly distaff line drives so often, my heart certainly says yes, a Hall of Famer. But there are many negatives as well—he was never at the top of his profession in comparison with more gifted peers, and he seems to be for the last few campaigns a mere statistic compiler, not a difference maker.

A strong argument against Omar is the level of competition at his position. Near contemporaries already in the Hall dwarf his accomplishments: Cal Ripken, Jr., Robin Yount and Ozzie Smith richly deserve their bronzing; the still playing Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are locks. Tony Fernandez, Miguel Tejada, Barry Larkin, Nomar Garciaparra, Jimmy Rollins and Edgar Renteria, although none of them belong, certainly at one time in each of their careers the player maintained superior seasonal value compared to Omar’s performance. And we can't forget the two studs who project to be first round selections in 20 years or so: Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes.

Some compilers, of course, belong—Don Sutton and Rafael Palmiero (drugs aside); Rusty Staub, Craig Nettles, Darrell Evans and Steve Finley do not. More so than level of competition—it's his fault the position of shortstop changed in the mid-1980's to include bigger athletes with more power?—compilers seem a little awkward to emotionally and statistically deal with. What with medical advances, obscene pay, and the stretching point of major league franchises, it's not hard to figure why someone plays until the age of 40. And lest we be called cold hearted bastards, there are very few professions where we eliminate, Logan's Run style, the semi-mature denizens of any sect, not to mention that normally we applaud athletic fitness and steadfastness, lunch-pail obduracy, and fidelity to both corporation and mission.

Let's get back to facts, Jack. Omar Vizquel has been selected to three All-Star games. He has won 12 Gold Gloves—only three position players have more (Pudge Rodriguez, Brooks Robinson, and Ozzie Smith). Over 1250 times Omar walked or struck a sacrifice hit: persistence and patience at the plate are too often overlooked as galvanizing attributes and sacrificing yourself so that the team (or Albert Belle) can thrive is an outstanding quality of civilized humanity, almost as if Omar had a sense of agape, or spiritual selflessness. Most importantly, metaphysics aside, he was successfully doing something well over 1250 times (walks, sacrifice hits) at the workplace. I, for example, in my non-illustrious career, have done something right at work fewer than three dozen times. He is, as well, virtually guaranteed to get well over 2700 hits which would land him in the top 50 of all time. He has 530 extra base hits, 1400 runs, and nearly 400 stolen bases. In comparison, Ozzie Smith has 1257 runs, 2460 hits, 501 extra base hits, and 580 steals. To further make the argument for Hall inclusion, non-peers Joe Tinker and “The Scooter” Phil Rizzuto have stats that can barely match Omar's first ten years in the league: Scooter, the winner of the NYC media whine party, had 877 runs, 1588 hits, 149 steals, and 339 extra base hits while Tinker, the famed recipient of starring role in the worst poem (“Tinkers to Evers to Chance”) since The Fairie Queen, had 774 runs scored, 1687 hits, 408 extra base hits, and 336 steals, or, in other words, a decent six year stretch for George Sisler.

This hasn't really gotten us anywhere. I can (barely) hear a resoundingly sighed “maybe” from you, the silent majority, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère! I would lean towards the negative because of the essential truth—on any given Thursday night in the late 90's Omar Vizquel was not even a top 5 shortstop playing that humid evening. So let me try something else. His range factors compared to league average, not surprisingly, have been consistently well above average, but so were many fielding statistics of the other half dozen all stars that were playing pepper before games (or knocking down multiple clandestine rendezvous with high class hookers—Hi A-Rod!). What if we can find a statistical anomaly that separates OV from both his peers and his potential Hall classmates?

In basketball there is an unspoken stat that suggests the point guard's efficiency: his turnover to assists ratio. It is pointless to have a point guard fostering three on two breaks with clever passes eight times a game if he or she throws the ball away six times that evening as well. A good ratio would be 3/1; a Hall of Famer ratio would be higher. John Stockton had 4244 turnovers but 15,806 assists. Magic Johnson had 3506 turnovers, but 10,141 assists. They are over 3/1 and they are in the Hall of Fame. Allen Iverson has 3198 turnovers, 5511 assists. Someone has to think deeply before voting for that malcontented, megalomaniacal, practice-shunning, anti-Semitic rapper. So what’s the point? How about stacking up a ratio that examines errors to turned double plays as a slice of fielding excellence? For instance, Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese had 388 errors and 1246 double plays. That's a ratio of 3.21 to 1. Peer Rizzuto had 1217 double plays, 267 errors (4.55 to 1). Rabbit Maranville (with 2600 hits a close offensive comparison to Omar) had 630 errors (WTF?), 1183 turned twos: 1.87 to 1—no stew for you, Rabbit! Hall of Famer shortstop Joe Sewell's stats make me weep—333 errors and only 665 double plays (1.96 to 1). Luis Aparicio and his 366 errors come out to 4.24 to 1. Tejada's is slightly over 5. Ozzie Smith logs in at 1590/281, or 5.33. The benchmark? Not really. In over 20 years of fielding excellence Omar Vizquel has turned 1713 double plays and laid an egg 183 times; that translates to an astounding 9.74, or: for every ten double plays achieved Omar made an error.

Now this is almost simply anecdotal evidence, not taking into consideration slick second basemen with terrific moxie and howitzer-accurate arms, smooth first basemen scooping semi-errant throws out from oblivion, or a pitching staff that is or is not predominately low strike throwing. Then again, in my baseball experience, turning two is good for the team, and making an error is bad. And Omar does more good things than bad. Many more. And if we could, we should turn back to the emotional side of the argument. I have loved the Tribe since Rocky Colavito came back, like MacArthur, a hero into my infantile psyche. I have witnessed the soul deadening of baseball ineptitude for the next 30 years, as if I were a Sioux and had my picture taken every five minutes of my life. Omar and Orel and Albert and Eddie and Carlos and Sandy gave me, the city, and my friends and family a sense of hope, a sense of relief, a sense that the prior years since 1960 were worth laboring over. And that cathartic relief was spearheaded by the indefatigable and ingenious leadership of Omar Vizquel. He is in my Hall of Fame.

Michael Baker once from Ohio, now New Jersey, is an award winning poet, a teacher of university composition classes, a frequent contributor to Trouser Press and Zisk, and a writer of extended Perfect Sound Forever essays on The Kinks, Cleveland in the 1970s, and Alex Chilton. His baseball blog, Knock the Rock, can be found at

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