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The Hall of Fame case for Omar Vizquel

Entertaining players deserve consideration, even if the stats aren’t as juicy as they could be.

Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel looks on Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP/Getty Images

I would like to show you one of my favorite baseball plays of all time.

That it’s one of my favorite baseball plays of all time probably says a lot more than I’m intending. It suggests that the 2005 Giants were entirely unwatchable, and this play stood out only by default. A fella will grasp on to any of the buoyant wreckage that floats by when Barry Bonds is gone for the year.

But it’s one of my favorite baseball plays of all time partly because it came from one of my favorite baseball players to watch of all time.

Hello, my name is Grant, and I’m an Omar Vizquel apologist. It’s time to talk about his case for the Hall of Fame.

I’ve had some version of this post in my head for at least the last three years, waiting for the day when it was relevant. I imagined that Vizquel would be polling at 74.9999 percent, and that the internet would be aflame with the idea that a sub-700 OPS slap hitter would be close to the Hall of Fame. Alas, we were not lucky enough to be blessed with such chaos:

There will be such chaos a few years down the road, perhaps, but for now, we’ll have to argue about Trevor Hoffman or something equally as bland.

However, I can make the case for Vizquel, and I can make it very quickly. If you want a case study that’s built on reams of empirical evidence, you know where to go to find that. But the quick case for Vizquel goes like this: He made baseball more fun for me, and he did it for decades.

That’s it. That’s the case. And if 75 percent of the writers who covered baseball believe this, Vizquel should be in the Hall of Fame. The tyranny of the majority is the whole point of the Hall of Fame vote, and I can respect it when it comes to the players who make writers wistful, even if the stats don’t justify it.

I was against the idea of the Giants signing Vizquel in the first place — a 38-year-old shortstop who didn’t sign with the Mariners because he failed a physical, are you kidding me? — and he quickly became one of the only reasons to watch baseball that year. I made a point to watch Vizquel take infield grounders when I was at the park. I made it a point to look where he positioned himself before the pitch was thrown. I made it a point to dig deep into the video archives, which wasn’t easy to do in a pre-YouTube, fledgling-MLBAM world, and watch Vizquel plays from his time with the Indians. Because if he was this good as he approached 40, how much better was he when he was in his 20s?

That much better. He was the kind of defensive shortstop who could keep the Indians alive in Game 6 of the World Series. He was creative and graceful, the platonic ideal of a shortstop. I was too young to appreciate Ozzie Smith fully, but here was the next best thing, and I was a sucker for it. You wanted your team to sign sinkerballers if they employed Omar Vizquel. Not because it was a good strategy, but because it increased the number of endorphins that were released while watching baseball. And that’s before you get to his slappy-scrappy hitting, the bunting and the speed, the tendency to dance in the dugout or pretend his bat was a little guitar ...

He was the best, and this brings me to my Greater Hall of Fame Voting Theory:

  1. I like endorphins
  2. Gimme those endorphins
  3. Baseball players responsible for gimmeing those endorphins more than any other will get my consideration for the Hall of Fame

I’m not entirely a member of the feels brigade, where I evaluate every player based on my personal evaluation of how it felt to watch him play, I will always, always, always include my feels in the final tally. It’s why I don’t have a problem with Ryne Sandberg, who was one of my favorite players growing up. It’s why people overrated Jim Rice, and it’s why Vladimir Guerrero (VLAD THE IMPALER) is going to get in this year and Larry Walker (Larry) is not.

When the player in question isn’t someone I had the same feels about, my reasoning is consistent:

And if over 400 of the voters saw the je ne sais quoi that I never saw, I’ll learn to accept that it’s my problem, not theirs.

That was about Jack Morris, who just missed getting in through the regular ballot, but will get in because of a Faustian bargain that will also get Alan Trammell in. I would have been fine if Morris were elected, though. The Hall of Fame is a museum that’s supposed to tell the story of baseball, and if 75 percent of the eligible writers thought that Morris was a part of that story, I’m for it. The same applies to Vizquel, who was one of my very favorite players to watch.

Here’s the twist, though: I also loved watching Darren Lewis play center field. I enjoyed Andres Galarraga, a gregarious vending machine of a man who spent his career distributing dingers and smiles. I enjoyed Steve Reed dropping down and making professional hitters look like idiots with his slider. There was nothing better than Vince Coleman reaching first base in his prime, and he was the only reason I would check the games of the week to see if the Cardinals were playing. My memories of baseball are improved because of these players, and none of them would have sniffed my hypothetical ballot.

With Vizquel, what I have to ask myself is if the gulf between his statistical career and the statistical career of a Hall of Famer is completely made up by the level of enjoyment that he brought to the sport. I’m pretty sure it’s close. But I’ll have to be a no vote for now, because while Vizquel made me love the sport more, he didn’t do it better than Andruw Jones. The joy that Vizquel brought with the defense is analogous to the fear that I felt when Kenny Lofton played against my team, leading off and running around the bases like he was breaking the rules. There wasn’t a pitcher alive who seemed less hittable than Kevin Brown in his prime, which is saying something when you consider that he was a peer of Randy Johnson. All of those players have stronger statistical cases than Vizquel.

And I can’t suggest with a straight face that Vizquel was exponentially more exciting than any of them. He wasn’t. Vizquel belongs in that same class of thrilling-but-let’s-look-closer, and I’m pretty sure he’s toward the back. Andruw Jones might fall off the ballot this year — entirely off the ballot! — and that’s an absolute travesty. We can do better than arguing about Omar Vizquel.

If you want to vote for Vizquel, I’m a sympathetic ear. He made my baseball experience better, and he did it for nearly a quarter-century. He was a good enough hitter to almost push his numbers into Hall of Fame territory, and I’m just enough of a big Hall guy to consider voting for him myself.

He would be behind Kevin Brown, Kenny Lofton, Andruw Jones, Will Clark, Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield, and Mark McGwire, oh my goodness, Mark McGwire on my list of thrilling players worth fighting for, though. Getting all of those players (and Vizquel) in would be a great way to tell the story of baseball in the ‘80s and ‘90s the way I saw it. Turns out that not everyone saw it the same way.

That’s fine. It’s going to be like that with Vizquel, and it’s why he’s not going to get in. The system works, at least occasionally.

I’m not going to make fun of the people voting for him, though, because I saw it, too. That flash, that radioactive talent, it was beautiful. Baseball was better for a long, long time because of Vizquel. If that’s worth a Hall of Fame vote in your mind, go for it. The Hall of Fame can always use more players who made baseball better.