Omar Vizquel was an Indians fan favorite not only for his fielding prowess, but his attitude and accessibility.
Eric Risberg / AP Enlarge
CLEVELAND - The Indians will welcome back an old friend tonight, and for a change, a player from the club's '90s heyday won't be greeted with boos.
Unlike Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, who left for more money, Omar Vizquel is still highly regarded in Cleveland. A chorus of cheers is anticipated for the San Francisco shortstop when he returns for the first time since he signed with the Giants in 2004.
It's not just the barehanded scoops that made him a fan favorite. His smile and happy-go-lucky attitude were as much a part of the early Jacobs Field magic as the titanic blasts from Ramirez's and Thome's bats.
"You hear me talk about having fun and enjoying the game and loving to come to the ballpark," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "I don't know if you could think of somebody who did it better than him."
Vizquel played 11 seasons for Cleveland until the Giants signed him as a free agent. Fans consider the 11-time Gold Glove winner the one from those potent teams of the '90s who didn't abandon them for the big payday.
"Grabbing balls barehanded. Getting to balls that no one else could get to," said longtime fan Ray Pulkkinen. "He loved to play ball, and he loved being here, it seemed."
It wasn't an act.
Vizquel said he had never lived in such a laid-back city before. Cleveland provided space to stop and breathe, to appreciate the landscape and its people.
"It made me relax," he said. "Made me change as a person."
In an age of untouchable sports heroes, Vizquel was accessible.
He became part of the community fabric. He shopped at the West Side Market. He danced to his beloved Latin music at downtown clubs, sometimes jamming with the band on the sidewalk out front. He dined at Cleveland's restaurants, sold his own brand of salsa, ice cream and trademark line of bright-colored clothing.
Vizquel is now 41 and starting to feel like it, too. He had surgery on his left knee and missed spring training. He plays with a brace and wondered whether the joint will ever feel normal. How much longer he'll play depends, he said, on his productivity and whether teams are interested when his contract ends after this season.
The Indians plan a video tribute before the first game, acknowledging Vizquel's place in baseball and team history.
Vizquel's tenure in Cleveland ended as the team was rebuilding. When Wedge became Indians manager in 2003, Vizquel was the last conduit to a past filled with division titles and two trips to the World Series.
"He was very supportive of me as a young manager," Wedge said. "That meant a great deal to me. When you're a young manager, you need your veteran players to get on board or it can be a long day. He did."
Wedge remembered calling Vizquel into his office one day. Vizquel, as he sometimes did, didn't run out a ground ball. At the time, Wedge had gone head-to-head with outfielder Milton Bradley over the same issue.
"What I said is, 'How can I get these guys to run if you don't run?' He looked at me and said, 'I understand.' After that he was great," Wedge said.
"I asked him to help me out, trying to teach these guys how to play, and he did. The key to that is I never had to talk to him again. It doesn't mean anything if he doesn't respect me and the game. But he does."