© 2008 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
06/24/08 11:35 PM ET
Cleveland fans greet Vizquel warmly
Former Tribe shortstop has special place in diehards' hearts
By Andrew Gribble / MLB.com
CLEVELAND -- Omar Vizquel was joking, of course. Typical behavior from the 41-year-old veteran. When asked what he would like to tell Indians fans in his long-anticipated return to the city where he won eight Gold Gloves and went to two World Series, the longtime Tribe shortstop couldn't resist.
"Please don't throw any oranges or bottles at me," the former Tribe shortstop said, remembering back to when former Tribe sluggers Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome felt the wrath from a bitter fanbase in their returns to Cleveland.
Not a chance. Not from this crowd on this night, his first since leaving Cleveland to sign with the Giants after 11 memorable years with the Tribe.
The Indians honored Vizquel for recently becoming baseball's all-time leader for games played at shortstop with a pregame video tribute of top highlights he had in an Indians uniform. And the 29,024 fans reacted just as they were expected to.
No oranges. No bottles. Just a standing ovation.
"It was the first situation where I felt like I was the center of attention," Vizquel said. "It was really emotional. I never expected it to be like that.
"It was really cool and really beautiful."
Fans in all types of Vizquel jerseys and T-shirts -- outnumbering hometown favorites Grady Sizemore and C.C. Sabathia nearly two to one -- dotted the Progressive Field stands Tuesday, many here solely to see No. 13.
And on this night they saw Vizquel do two of the things he did best with the Tribe: prevent runs with his defense and produce runs in clutch situations.
In the ninth, after leaving five runners in scoring position in previous at-bats, Vizquel laid down a perfect squeeze bunt to drive in what ended up being the game-winning run in the Giants' 3-2 victory. And in the bottom half of the inning, Vizquel ranged far to his right for a ground ball, spun and threw in one motion for the force, stifling a fervent Indians rally.
So, could the homecoming have been any better? Again, Vizquel was quick with a joke.
"I could have had two hits tonight," he said.
All kidding aside, Vizquel really took on the persona of a rock star Tuesday.
Before the game, he walked the caverns of Progressive Field, giving out handshakes and hugs (or both) to seemingly everyone he saw. Every move he made during batting practice was followed by a horde of photographers and cameramen. And, certainly, he couldn't forget about the fans, out for an autograph or simply some eye contact and a smile.
"He's the best thing that ever happened to this town," longtime Indians fan Glenn Sawyer said. "He's the best shortstop ever."
A stretch, perhaps, but Vizquel's always been a showman.
Eric Wedge saw it firsthand in his first Spring Training game as the Tribe's manager. In front of a crowd of about 3,000, Vizquel drew a standing ovation in the first inning after making a diving catch. He kept them on their feet when he triumphantly raised his arms above his head like a heavyweight boxer.
"He's a special player," Wedge said. "Obviously, he has a special place in the game."
For diehard Vizquel fans, that place is squarely in their hearts. At least that's where 23-year-old Ashley Moody keeps him.
Wearing a homemade "I love Omar" shirt with the shortstop's face placed in the middle of the pink heart, Moody made the nearly two-hour drive north from Carrollton, Ohio to see her "favorite player ever."
"I've been watching him ever since his first game here and I'm still watching him," Moody said, admitting that she cried when Vizquel officially left Cleveland. "He was so personable and the fans just love him. And he's an awesome drummer, too."
Scott and Darlene Haworth, each toting "Still Terrific Omar" signs, made the trip all the way from Columbus, Ohio, to see Vizquel. It wasn't the first time they made a long trip to see their favorite shortstop, though. In need of an Omar fix, the couple made a special trip out to San Francisco in 2005 just to see him play.
"It was his defense, his hustle and his attitude that made him special," Darlene Howorth said.
That's what brought the Barrett family to Progressive Field on Tuesday. Situated roughly in between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the East Liverpool, Ohio, family tried to see Vizquel at a Pirates game last season. To their dismay, Vizquel was a late scratch from the lineup, but he still left them with a lasting memory.
"He saw us with our signs and shirts from the team bus and he waved and smiled at us," 17-year-old Brittany Barrett said. "He's always smiling."
The smile and carefree, almost Little League attitude Vizquel carries is what pursued Sawyer to push his friend to give him front-row seats for Tuesday's game.
"He's not a prima donna like a lot of players of today," Sawyer said. "Us middle-aged guys grew up with players that actually loved to play the game, and it's great to see a guy who plays baseball because he loves baseball."
Andrew Gribble is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.