- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — He could have signed a huge deal to play second base for the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or any of the other countless teams that would have spent heavily to land him.

All Jose Vidro wanted to do was play baseball for the Montreal Expos.

“I was happy here,” Vidro said. “I like the guys here. I like the staff here. I like the opportunity they’ve given me and the respect they give me here. It was not a big deal for me to go and sign somewhere else. I like it here, and nothing else would change my mind.”

Washington, meet your first real baseball star.

Even if he doesn’t act like one.

Make no mistake, Vidro is a bona fide star. He’s a three-time National League All-Star, a career .304 hitter, a slick infielder and without a doubt the Washington Nationals’ best all-around player.

There just aren’t many people outside of Montreal who know it. Which is fine with Vidro, who had a chance to become a free agent last year and become a big name in a big market yet chose to sign a four-year, $30 million extension with the Expos.

Vidro signed his deal last May, when the future of the franchise was totally uncertain. He had no idea where the club would play in 2005, but he was fine with that as long as it was playing somewhere.

“I didn’t care, because I was going to be playing no matter what,” he said. “So I didn’t think much about it.”

Vidro elected to stay with the only organization he had ever known, the one that drafted him in 1992 as a scrawny teenager from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and gave him his first professional contract.

Thirteen years later, Vidro (now 30) is the franchise’s senior member. He commands a respect around the Nationals’ clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium not afforded to anyone else, other than perhaps manager Frank Robinson.

“He’s the backbone of this organization,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said.

And a pretty darn good player, too.

Hardly an imposing presence at 5-foot-11, 193 pounds, Vidro has no real flaws in his game. A switch-hitter, he surpassed the .300 mark for five straight seasons before dipping to .294 during an injury-plagued 2004 campaign. He’s hit as many as 24 homers in a season, driven in as many as 97 runs and owns a career .983 fielding percentage.

The stats tell only part of the story, though. Those who have watched Vidro play every day for the last eight years marvel at the intangible qualities he brings to the field: his defense, his leadership and his knack for the big hit.

“He’s such a great clutch hitter,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “He’s the guy you want up at bat in a game-winning situation.”

For all of that, he’s earned three trips to the All-Star Game and a reputation inside baseball circles as one of the game’s best second basemen.

He could have been paid like it, had he allowed himself to become a free agent at the end of last year. The way the market exploded this winter, Vidro probably could have commanded a long-term deal in the range of $12 million a year. Instead, he re-signed with the cash-strapped Expos on May 14 for an average of $7.5 million a year.

The only provision Vidro insisted be put in the contract was a clause that would have made him a free agent at the end of the 2005 season if the Expos had not relocated. Otherwise, he accepted a less-than-market deal to remain with a team that had been abandoned by the likes of Vladimir Guerrero, Javier Vazquez and Orlando Cabrera.

“The credit goes to Jose Vidro,” former general manager Omar Minaya said at the time. “He basically showed loyalty that you don’t usually see these days.”

Vidro places a lot of emphasis on family ” his 9-year-old son, Jose Jr., has been at his side throughout the first two days of spring training ” and the Expos/Nationals have become his family.

So imagine how much his teammates missed him last summer, when the tendinitis that had plagued Vidro’s right knee for nearly two years became so painful he had no choice but to undergo season-ending surgery.

Though he played in 110 games before going on the disabled list, Vidro was never really himself. In fact, he played the entire 2003 season in similar pain but refused to go on the DL because the Expos were in the thick of the NL wild-card race.

He insists he’s nearly back to 100 percent after a winter of rehab, but the Nationals will be cautious with him this spring. He’ll be in uniform with the rest of the players who have reported for today’s first workout, but his regimen won’t be as strict as that of his teammates for now.

“He’s coming along fine,” Robinson said. “We’re just pleased to have him healthy, because a healthy Jose Vidro is a fine ballplayer.”

Vidro’s focus right now is on being in his familiar No. 3 spot in the Nationals’ lineup on Opening Day (April 4) in Philadelphia. He’s endured a lot during his 12 years with this organization, and with the payoff finally in clear view, he wants to make sure he reaps the benefits.

“I’m happy now because things have turned out great,” Vidro said. “Look, we’ve got great uniforms, we’re going to play in the States. We’ve got a great team, and they went out and made this team better than it was last year. What more can I ask for?”

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