March 1, 2011
By Tyler Kepner, NY Times
Omar Vizquel first played shortstop in the major leagues in 1989, when Derek Jeter was a freshman in high school. Now Vizquel is the only player on a roster who was active in the 1980s, the oldest man in baseball who does not throw a knuckleball.
Vizquel, who turns 44 next month, started at shortstop for the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday at Camelback Ranch. He does not play the position much anymore — just nine times last season — but his 2,690 games at shortstop rank first on the career list. Jeter is fifth with 2,274, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Jeter turns 37 in June, and to Vizquel, he is young. The master rejects the premise that Jeter’s performance is slipping.
“It’s really weird that I start reading a lot of stuff last year about people doubting him as a shortstop,” Vizquel said in the clubhouse Tuesday morning. “I just couldn’t believe what I was reading, because here I am playing shortstop at 41, 42 years old, and a guy that is 36 over there in New York, they’re talking about, ‘He can’t do it anymore.’ You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Vizquel may be incredulous because he is the only player in the last 90 years to do what Jeter is attempting now. Jeter’s new Yankees contract includes a player option for 2014, which he has said he will use. That would mean four more seasons as the starting shortstop, through age 40.
The Hall of Famer Honus Wagner played at least 100 games at shortstop from 1911 through 1915, when he was 41. Since then, Vizquel is the only man to play 100 games at the position for four consecutive seasons at age 37 or older. He did it for the Cleveland Indians and the San Francisco Giants from 2004 through 2007.
Luke Appling, another Hall of Famer, lost most of two seasons to military service during World War II, when he was 37 and 38, and returned to be a regular shortstop for three of the next four seasons.)
Vizquel listed all the reasons the position can be challenging for older players. To succeed, he said, a shortstop must have quickness and explosiveness, swift lateral movement and the ability to accelerate, decelerate and jump. He must also be diligent.
“You’ve got to stay on top of your game all the time,” Vizquel said. “If you let it go, your body’s going to let you know real quick. And when you’re going to try to come back, it might be too late.”
Jeter acknowledged as much last month in Tampa, Fla. He starts training earlier in the off-season than he used to, he said, and his workouts last longer. His efforts last season could not save him from the worst year of his career, when his average tumbled 64 points, to .270. His defense suffered despite winning a Gold Glove.
Vizquel also had a bumpy year at age 36, in 2003, when two knee operations cost him most of the season. He recovered to hit ..291 for the 2004 Indians, but when he became a free agent after the season, only the Giants offered him a three-year contract through age 40.
Vizquel won Gold Gloves in each of the first two seasons in San Francisco and hit at his career norms, if not a bit better. He did not feel his age in the field until 2007, when he was 40 and in his final season as an everyday player. It was an unwelcome sensation for a fielder once famous for range.
“The ball goes by you, and you start questioning yourself and doubting: ‘Wow, I saw the ball there, why couldn’t I just get it?’ ” Vizquel said. “Maybe it was a matter of first-step reaction, or a matter of leaning down to get that ball. Your mind is telling you that you can get to that ball, and your body’s not allowing you to get to that ball.”
Advanced fielding metrics show that Jeter improved his range for two seasons before last year’s steep decline. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman has spoken about Jeter’s eventually leaving shortstop, but learning a position in his late 30s could be more challenging than simply staying put.
Vizquel did not start at another position until 2009, when he was 42. Jeter has never played another position, and Vizquel doubts he ever will.
“Let’s face it — are you going to see Derek Jeter playing another position?” Vizquel said. “I don’t see him playing third base or second base. He’s just a natural shortstop.”
Few have ever looked as natural or graceful in the field as Vizquel, who needs 201 hits for 3,000, a milestone Jeter should reach by midseason. Vizquel doubts he will get enough playing time to make it, but his glove is his legacy, anyway.
His glove and his enthusiasm.
“I see a lot of 32-, 33-year-olds talking about, ‘Oh my God, I’m tired today,’ ” Vizquel said. “That really pumps me up. Here you are at 43, trying to do the same, and you don’t feel that kind of tiredness or soreness. It just makes you feel so good.”