It was rainy and cold, a miserable January day, when Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel put on his glove for the first time since the Tribe had lost to the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series. As much as last year's postseason will be remembered for the brilliant pitching of Atlanta lefthander Tom Glavine, it will also be noted for Vizquel's wizardry around second base. Catching hard-hit ground balls with his bare hand, floating over sliding base runners as if suspended by wires and gliding into areas of the infield where few shortstops venture, Vizquel displayed a sleight of hand that made you wonder, How did he do that? So we went to Bellevue, Wash., to play catch with one of the best defensive players in baseball and find out.
He was rusty, but after two minutes of soft tossing to get his right arm loose on this nasty afternoon, Vizquel was ready. "You can move back a little," he said. Then, from 50 feet away, the ball whistled toward Vizquel's left ear, and no sooner had he raised his glove than the ball was in his throwing hand and on its way back. His right hand hadn't gone near his glove. Had the ball even touched leather? The next throw was sailing at his right ear when suddenly the ball was in his right hand, which, as before, hadn't come within a foot of his glove. When the next toss sailed high, Vizquel stuck his glove up, and the ball immediately materialized in his right hand, which hadn't risen above eye level. It was miraculous. How did he do it?
"I've never seen anyone who can do this the way that I do," Vizquel said. "I've been doing it for 10 years, since I was 18. The guys in the minor leagues loved it. They'd beg me, 'Show us how, show us how.' "
In fact, the ball never entered the pocket of his glove, deflecting instead off its heel into his right hand. Had the ball hit an inch lower, it would have smacked Vizquel on the wrist. An inch higher, it would have disappeared in the pocket, in which case he would have had to reach in with his right hand and take it out, the way everyone else does.
Not Omar the Outmaker. "In games, after a strikeout we'll throw the ball around the infield, and I'll do this," Vizquel said. "Carlos [Baerga, the Indians' second baseman] tries to do it, but he drops the ball, and everyone in the infield laughs. This Week in Baseball filmed it, but you couldn't see how I did it. They had to slow down the tape."
It's just a trick he taught himself (on rare occasions he'll field a grounder this way during a game), but it typifies his deft touch afield. New Detroit Tigers manager Buddy Bell, a six-time Gold Glove winner at third base who was Vizquel's infield coach the last two seasons in Cleveland, says, "Omar can do more things with a ball than anyone I've ever seen—the way he transfers the ball, the way he gets rid of it. I've seen him deflect balls to Carlos."
Vizquel can also catch the ball behind his back and between his legs. And with his glove completely closed: On a throw headed for his eyes, he stuck his folded glove in front of his face, and the ball slammed into the slab of leather and dropped softly into his waiting right hand. He hasn't used this technique in a game situation. Yet.
The rain started coming down harder, ending the game of catch after 15 minutes. With the exception of the first two minutes, when he was warming up, Vizquel had not used the pocket of his glove. He smiled on his way back into the house. "It's magic," he said.
Vizquel should give himself more credit than that. "He has the best hands I've ever seen," says Bell. "He's got a feeling with his hands that's different than most of us." Vizquel figures he has made roughly 50 barehanded plays in his seven-year major league career; most of them were like the one in Game 2 of last fall's American League Championship Series against the Seattle Mariners, when he grabbed Luis Sojo's two-hop grounder and gunned him out from the hole.
"You have to be careful barehanding the ball—people think you're a hot dog when you do it—but I do it when it's the only play I have," he said. "If you screw it up, you look stupid." His most important barehanded play came as a Mariner on April 22, 1993, when Seattle's Chris Bosio was throwing a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. With two outs in the ninth Vizquel drifted behind the mound, coolly snagged Ernest Riles's two-hopper and threw him out to end the game. "On that play I couldn't have gotten him if I'd used the glove," Vizquel said. "But that was not a hard play. It wasn't even my best play of that game. The ball was right here [eye level]. I could see it very easily. It wasn't down here [ankle level). Now that would have been a tough play."