Veteran Vizquel maintains youthful passion

Veteran Vizquel maintains youthful passion

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Omar Vizquel might be the senior citizen on the block when compared to some of his teammates in the Blue Jays' clubhouse, but he still has the passion of a much younger player.

The soon to be 45-year-old began his career in the big leagues before Brett Lawrie was even born, but he has never grown tired of the routine of getting ready for yet another season.

Vizquel has the same enthusiasm and love for the game he had when he first broke into the big leagues with Seattle in 1989 -- even during what can sometimes be the mundane experience of Grapefruit League baseball.

"I think you always wait for this moment every year, when Spring Training is going to come, how you're going to get ready," Vizquel said. "You just get really excited to face a new team, to be on a new team and you're just happy to be around guys every year. I guess it's something that's in your blood and I don't think it ever gets old.

"My motivation is to challenge myself to play another year. I know every year it starts to get a little harder for yourself and it's always a challenge to be on a Major League team at an older age. I think as long as time has been going by, I feel more pride in the things I have accomplished in my career."

Vizquel, who signed a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training during the offseason, now begins his quest to try and crack Toronto's 25-man roster. If successful, it would mark his 24th season of what has been an illustrious Major League career.

He's a career .272 hitter with a .337 on-base percentage, 1,432 RBIs and 401 stolen bases. He has 11 Gold Gloves to his credit and will go down as one of the greatest defensive shortstops to play the game.

The track record is impressive, but the past results won't factor into the Blue Jays' final roster decision. Vizquel's future with the Jays won't be determined by what Vizquel has done in the past, but what he can do in the future to help the team win.

Vizquel's biggest obstacle will be proving he still has the range and arm strength required to play shortstop. It's a position he has played just 18 times in the past two seasons with the White Sox, but one he'll need to handle in order to beat out Mike McCoy and Luis Valbuena for the opening at the utility infielder spot.

Blue Jays manager John Farrell and the rest of his coaching staff will monitor the situation closely over the coming weeks before making the call, but at this point he appears to be the odds-on favorite for the job.

"Our utility guy's going to have to be able to play shortstop," Farrell said. "Not only the range, but the arm strength. If all those are in what we feel are normal or appropriate levels to be playing the position at a Major League caliber, that's what we're going to begin to hinge and narrow our focus on.

"The defensive side is more of a priority than what the offensive contributions are, and that's not to discount what a player can do from that side of the game. We're looking forward to seeing him get back in games and seeing him at game speed."

If Vizquel is successful, he will provide a much-needed veteran presence in a clubhouse that got a lot younger following the departures of John McDonald, Aaron Hill, Corey Patterson and Jose Molina in 2011.

The mentorship has already started and it's no coincidence that his locker inside the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium is situated directly beside emerging shortstop prospect Adeiny Hechavarria. Vizquel was previously a mentor for Elvis Andrus in Texas and even did the same with McDonald back in Cleveland in the late '90s and early 2000s.

In fact, the leadership role has been so important to Vizquel over the years that he listed those experiences as the highlight of what is potentially a Hall of Fame career.

"Right now, there are some young players that come in and they think that because they're in a big league camp that they have it made," said Vizquel, who was speaking in general terms and not referring to any members of the Blue Jays. "Sometimes they don't realize how much it takes to stay in the game. This is when you have to start working a little harder because you are in a big, huge competition for a spot.

"It's not only the fact that you are here, it's the fact that you just want to shine and you just want to do your best and I think that's the way that I always felt when I was a younger player. I think, at this point, I feel that way. I feel like I have to show, not only the coaching staff, but also my teammates that I can help. I think that's the attitude that you have to have on the field."

Many of the young Blue Jays players made the rounds in the first week of camp to introduce themselves to Vizquel, but there will be at least one familiar face in Toronto's organization.

Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar, who currently serves as a special assistant to the organization, was teamed up with Vizquel at Cleveland for three seasons from 1999-2001 to form one of the best tandems up the middle in the game's history.

Those Indians teams made it to the American League Division Series twice in three years, but were unable to make it to the next level. The same could be said for the earlier versions that made it to the World Series twice in the 1990s, but failed to capture the elusive title.

"The best partner that I ever had at second base," Vizquel said while reflecting back on Alomar and those teams. "No doubt about it. The knowledge that he had for the game and how he played the game put ourselves at a better level, not only to me, but to the whole team. Having a guy that is always constantly saying things that he picks up on in the opponent.

"It was pretty important. Obviously on defense, he was just a genius. It was a pleasure just to be right next to the best guy that I ever saw playing second base."

Vizquel sits just 159 hits shy of 3,000 for his career, but the milestone is something he doesn't put much thought into these days. Recording that amount in one season would be impossible as a part-time player and Vizquel recently indicated this likely would be his final year.

Instead, some of the focus has already shifted to what he will do after his playing days are over. There was an offer on the table this offseason to become a manager back in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela, but he wanted to give it one last shot as a player.

The time to enter the coaching ranks surely will come one day -- just not yet.

"I want to manage some day," Vizquel said. "I talked to the guys [in Caracas] and I said if I'm playing in the big leagues, I'm not going to have the time to do it, because they start the league a little earlier than we finish here. There's going to be a time, but I don't [think] the time is here yet."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.