Vizquel inducted into Indians Hall of Fame

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CLEVELAND (AP) - Omar Vizquel hasn’t played for the Indians in a decade, but the passion Cleveland fans feel for him is still strong.

The 11-time Gold Glove shortstop was inducted into the Indians’ Hall of Fame before Saturday night’s game against Detroit in front of a sellout crowd. Vizquel, who thrilled fans with his dazzling play at shortstop for the Indians from 1994-2004, was a cornerstone of the teams that won five straight AL Central titles and appeared in the World Series twice.

Currently the first base and infield coach for the Tigers, Vizquel remains wildly popular with Indians fans, who gave him a standing ovation when he walked on the field for Saturday’s ceremony.

“The fans here have always been great to me,” he said. “I loved playing for them. Whenever I come back and walk around the city, people come up to me. Cleveland will always be a special place for me.”

On a team that included offensive stars such as Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Roberto Alomar and Carlos Baerga, Vizquel turned in defensive plays that made the highlight reel on a nightly basis. The Indians sold out 455 consecutive games and Vizquel’s defense produced as many memories as the home runs that flew out of the ballpark.

“I’ve always taken pride in defense,” he said. “That’s what got me to the big leagues in the first place. Very few times do you see people give standing ovations for players making fancy plays. It’s easy to clap and cheer when somebody hits a home run, but very few times do you see it defensively.”

Vizquel, who played in the majors for 24 seasons, perfected the art of grabbing groundballs with his bare hand and catching infield popups with his back to home plate.

“Those plays always felt natural for me,” he said. “I never really thought about how I was going to do them.”

Vizquel and Alomar formed one of the best double-play combinations in baseball history from 1999-2001. Vizquel also played alongside Baerga for three seasons. The two turned a mock double play before Vizquel gave his induction speech.

The sellout was just the second at Progressive Field this season. A plaque honoring Vizquel, who became the 40th member of the team’s Hall of Fame, was unveiled in Heritage Park behind center field.

Vizquel broke into the majors with Seattle in 1989. He remembered that many thought he’d be a career .240 hitter, but he improved his offense throughout his career. Vizquel ended his career with 2,877 career hits and a .272 average.

“I was still learning how to switch-hit when I got to the majors,” he said. “It took some time. I worked hard to improve my offense. It helped me a lot that I had so many great hitters in the lineup around me.”

Indians manager Terry Francona remembers seeing Vizquel in winter ball about 30 years ago.

“He was probably 18 and he couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield, but you could see a kid that, it’s like he didn’t need a glove at shortstop,” Francona said. “And then you look up a couple years later and it’s Omar Vizquel. Gold Glove. Good hitter. So it’s kind of interesting to watch him grow into the player he became.”

Players from both teams stood in their dugout and applauded during the ceremony. Vizquel quickly changed into uniform to take his coaching position for the first inning.

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