Vizquel in front of the class as Dash skipper

Longtime MLB standout takes on key role in player development

Omar Vizquel spent two seasons with the White Sox as a player in 2010 and 2011. (James Geiser/Winston-Salem Dash)

By Andrew Battifarano / MiLB.com | May 1, 2018 12:30 PM

LYNCHBURG, Virginia -- As Omar Vizquel recalls it, April 5 was just like any other day at the ballpark.

There were no extra butterflies as he approached his spot in the dugout and peered at the lineup card he'd filled out, no unusual nerves as he looked onto the field at Five County Stadium in North Carolina.

Donning a purple and gray uniform and shouldering new responsibilities didn't create any sense of anxiety. He's a man of routine, and this day was just one in a long line of them across the six-month campaign. As far as he was concerned, he was right where he was supposed to be. After a career that spanned 24 seasons as a player followed by four as a coach in the Majors, Vizquel is back in the Minor Leagues as the manager of Class A Advanced Winston-Salem.

And he couldn't be more thrilled at the prospect of mentoring some of the game's best young talent.

"One of the things I've been good at is, I've kept humble during my whole career," Vizquel said. "This was an opportunity presented to me to work with younger kids. This is something that I love to do. Even when I went back home to Venezuela I used to do that. This is a great opportunity for me to grow as a manager."

His experience might be limited in the coaching realm, but the White Sox are confident the former infielder has all the right tools to thrive in a new role.

"We look for the best teachers of the game, regardless of background, who have leadership abilities," said White Sox director of player development Chris Getz. "He has a long list of attributes that make a great manager."

Back to school

It's no secret that Vizquel, who turned 51 on April 24, had a successful career as a big league middle infielder. As an 11-time Gold Glove winner, three-time All-Star and holder of 2,877 career hits, he has a resume that stacks up among the best in baseball over the last two decades. But what might be easy to overlook in a career that could end with a Baseball Hall of Fame plaque is the fact that Vizquel began his professional days -- like most others in the game -- as a Minor Leaguer.

He started as a 17-year-old in the Seattle organization in 1984, playing for the Butte Copper Kings of the Rookie-level Pioneer League. Over the ensuing five years, he logged 427 games across five different levels before getting his call to The Show with the Mariners.

Over the next 24 seasons spent over six teams, he was a fixture at shortstop at the highest level. He wouldn't play more than seven Minor League games in any of those seasons, only heading back down for rehab assignments. But after retiring as a player and spending five years coaching -- the last four as Detroit's first base coach -- Vizquel was presented with the chance to venture back where his professional career started.


Vizquel played five-plus seasons in the Minors. (Steven Harrison/Chicago White Sox)

The Tigers finished 2017 with 98 losses, and the organization did not renew manager Brad Ausmus' contract. That left Vizquel out of a job. Looking to stay in the game in any capacity, he flipped through his rolodex and hoped something would turn up. Soon enough, he and one of his former teams were in discussions.

"I started knocking on some doors, and the White Sox were one of the first teams that I approached, and they told me that this opportunity was here for me," he said. "I jumped right on it. I said to myself that it was going to be cool working with kids and maybe do a little bit of managing."

Vizquel worked as a roving infield instructor with the Angels in 2013, but his only real managerial experience before coming to the Dash was helming the Venezuela team in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Still, when he met with his players and staff (coach Guillermo Quiroz, hitting coach Charles Poe and pitching coach Matt Zaleski) at Camelback Ranch in Arizona this March, he felt right at home.

"I knew most of the coaches working in the White Sox organization," Vizquel said. "The process was easier because I knew a lot of them, and I got to keep [in] contact with them and keep the friendships that I have nowadays.

"It's like a school. When you start in primary, your first three years you're trying to learn the basics. Even though you've been coaching in the big leagues, it doesn't really prepare you to be a manager and having the final decision. I have a lot of help from all my coaches -- all of the coaches have been great."

And as long as he's making some tangible impact in the game, he doesn't mind trading charter flights for coach bus trips in the 10-team Carolina League.

"You've still got to ride two, three hours," he said. "The process has been a little quicker, too. You don't have to go through the airport, you don't have to wait for your suitcase. It might look complicated, but I think it's easy and it doesn't bother me at all. I'm having fun with it."

Making his mark

Before the Dash's game at BB&T Ballpark on April 20, there was a familiar face taking some grounders at second base. It was Vizquel, fielding the ball with ease and looking nearly as spry as he did during his playing career.

Tweet from @WSDashBaseball: 50 years old...and @VizquelOmar13���s still got it. pic.twitter.com/pjivqE4S6h

Even if it was just a few minutes of reps on the diamond, his players certainly took notice.

"It's funny because I grew up watching him. He and Derek Jeter were my two idols growing up," second baseman Mitch Roman said. "Just going out there and seeing Omar Vizquel taking grounders at second base and shortstop with me, it's pretty awesome, to be honest. Just going out there and knowing that this guy is an 11-time Gold Glove [winner], knowing what he's done in the past, it's been a special moment for all of us here."

Appreciating what his own managers did for him, Vizquel understands that adding his personal stamp to the job is just as important as making defensive alignments or pitching changes. Whether it's blaring music in the clubhouse before a doubleheader or imparting wisdom on the infield dirt, he tries to demonstrate -- with a little flair -- that he's an open resource to his young players.

"I think the communication has to be there every day," he said. "You've got to let the guys know ahead of time where they're playing, what they're doing and what their plan is. I'm sure they're going to respond -- either good or bad.

"You can never lie to a player and tell them something that you're never going to do. I think the fact that I speak Spanish and English is a big help. You can communicate with any of the kids there. Sometimes the ones who speak Spanish are a little shy. Sometimes they don't know the instruction -- they might not know how to approach different things. It's easier for them [with a Spanish-speaking manager], because they feel more relaxed. They feel more at home, because you have a couple of guys that speak Spanish and they can talk to them."


"What separates Omar from others who have impressive resumes is his selflessness and passion for teaching."
 
-- Chicago director of player development Chris Getz

With the career and fame Vizquel has, he knows there might have been an intimidation factor when he came into the clubhouse on Day 1. He's found a way to keep a solid rapport with each player without talking above them, and that hasn't gone unnoticed.

"He's just one of the best players of all time, but he's a relatable guy. He's been through the process of Minor League Baseball," Roman said. "Just being able to relate to us and having gone through the process of the eight-hour bus rides. And it's just playing baseball. Going out there and playing hard, it's the way he played it, and he wants us to do the same."

Vizquel has found that relating his journey is a key facet in a player's development, especially for those with aspirations to make the big leagues in short order. Considering that the White Sox system is loaded with premier talent from top to bottom (ranked No. 5 in position players and No. 3 in pitching this spring), he's playing an important part of the growth process. His team alone, as it currently stands, includes two prospects in MLB.com's top-100 prospects in No. 61 Dylan Cease and No. 99 Blake Rutherford, while No. 10 White Sox prospect Micker Adolfo is not far behind.


Vizquel coaches third base in his role as manager of the Dash. (Andrew Battifarano/MiLB.com)

But Vizquel wants to make sure he's available to all his players -- ranked or not -- whenever they need assistance along the way.

"I think one of the great things about the White Sox this year is the depth that they have at every level," he said. "From what I've heard from the other coaches, they didn't have this kind of talent before. With all the trades and stuff they did last year there is depth and a lot of prospects that you can work with and make sure that the future is bright out here. We have a huge responsibility with these kids for their development. I feel proud and honored that I get to be part of this and see some of these guys play in the big leagues someday."

In a short period of time, he's made a large impression on both his players and on the organization as a whole.

"What separates Omar from others who have impressive resumes is his selflessness and passion for teaching," Getz said. "He has great patience that shines when communicating."

Making the next steps

Vizquel makes no secret about what he wants in his managerial career. Like the youngsters he's leading, he hopes to make his way to the Majors and recognizes there's a grind to endure before he gets that call.

"You have to remember the most important part of this is the players," he added. "They're kids. You have to make sure that they're successful in everything that we do with them. We've got to talk about different plays, preparing for that, and then go from there. You've got to put your ego on the side and make sure that the kids play their game.


Vizquel was an an AL All-Star in 1998, 1999 and 2002. (James Geiser/Winston-Salem Dash)

"My final goal is to manage in the big leagues someday, and I think this is going to be a good school for me."

Despite his big league aspirations, he's clearly focused on the Class A Advanced level in his day-to-day work. That's another quality that Getz finds admirable in the first-year skipper.

"He lets the tasks of the day speak for his Major League managing aspirations. He puts others ahead of himself, plain and simple," the director of player development said. "We just want him to continue to be himself and help our players reach their development goals. We have all the faith in the world he will do just that."

The same attitude goes for a potential Hall of Fame bid. In his first time on the ballot, Vizquel came in at 37 percent, which kept him short of reaching baseball's pinnacle. Now leading a team of budding stars, Vizquel has made sure to keep his priorities in order.

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"Last year, it was a little bit on my mind, because obviously it was my first year and there's a lot of [comparison] with numbers with guys that have been there and my numbers," he admitted. "But this year, I'm concentrating on [the Dash] and the things that I need to do. It really doesn't bother me much anymore."

No matter how long Vizquel is in Winston-Salem, his dedication to the job will be felt for years to come.

"From his past experience to coaching right now, it's been special," Roman said. "It's something I know for a fact that the guys on this team won't forget. We'll be able to tell our kids that Omar Vizquel was our manager, and we learned so much from him."

Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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