Strict attention is paid even to the smallest of details when it comes to baseball’s spring training.
Arriving at 7:30 a.m. at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Thursday you find Toronto Blue Jays bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos meticulously roughing up the dozens of baseballs that will be used during the bullpen sessions that day.
He’d already been at the ballpark for a couple of hours and the heavy fog that enveloped the Gulf Coast town overnight is just starting to burn off.
Wander into the spacious clubhouse and many of the players have already arrived and are preparing to work out on their own in an adjoining weight room before they head outside for formal on-field training with the coaches.
In one corner of the clubhouse sits Adeiny Hechavarria, the highly regarded Cuban prospect whom the team hopes will develop into its shortstop of the future.
Hechavarria, 22, played as high as Double A last season and is still learning to speak English.
The stall directly beside his contains the nameplate of Omar Vizquel, a Latin legend who is considered the best defensive shortstop to have played the game over the past 20 years.
Vizquel will turn 45 next month, has 23 major-league seasons to his credit, and speaks English and Spanish fluently.
And it’s no fluke that the Blue Jays have positioned the two side-by-side in the clubhouse, hoping that some of Vizquel’s vast experience will rub off on the young prospect.
“Those are some of the pluses that Omar brings and we’ll take advantage of that, to build that rapport, to be able to impart his experience,” Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. “We’ll take advantage of that.”
There were some who questioned the wisdom of Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos when he signed Vizquel to a one-year minor-league contract in January, which will only cost the Blue Jays $750,000 (U.S.) should he make the team.
His best days, when he was winning Gold Gloves for those tough Cleveland Indians outfits of the 1990s, are far behind him.
He has played the past two seasons – sparingly – with the Chicago White Sox, last year getting into 58 games (42 starts), hitting .251.
The feeling within the Toronto organization is that Vizquel might still be able to bring it defensively in a backup role and that the influence he can wield within the clubhouse, even if it is only for the six-week duration of spring training, is worth a look-see.
“During the early stage of his career, he set the bar in terms of shortstop play,” Farrell said. “You don’t win that many gold gloves by happenstance.”
Vizquel has won 11 Gold Gloves, including nine in a row with the Indians from 1993 to 2002.
Farrell said Vizquel will be given ample opportunity to earn the utility infielder’s spot and his main competition will figure to be Mike McCoy, who was all of 8 when Vizquel began his major-league run in 1989.
Vizquel was asked what, if anything, he’d lost, through 23 years in the majors.
“I lost a lot of hair,” came his quick response.
In a more serious tone, Vizquel admitted he has probably lost a step and that his arm is not as strong as it once was. But he said he now compensates using the wisdom that comes with being a veteran.
As for Hechavarria, Vizquel said the teaching process has already started.
“Of course, we talk a little bit about defence,” he said. “From what I hear from all the guys, he’s kind of like a goofy guy a little bit – he loses his head on the field sometimes.
“So I think it’s our job – not only mine but the infield instructor and teammates – to kind of keep him in the game and keep him focused.”
Whether he sticks with the Blue Jays or not, Vizquel said this will be his final season – at least as a player.
He said he is intending to be a manager and already has a manager’s job lined up with a pro team in Caracas.