- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — When the horn sounded and his teammates walked casually from one field to another, Jose Vidro ran. When a groundball came his way, he scooped it up and fired to the shortstop in one smooth motion. When he took swings in the batting cage, he did so with purpose and authority.

“Man, it just feels good to be able to play baseball,” he said.

Sure, all of the Washington Nationals were full of energy on the first day of full-squad spring workouts. This was different.

Vidro wasn’t just excited. He had an extra hop in his step, the kind that should leave Nationals fans excited about the possibilities.

“No one in Washington has really seen Jose Vidro,” club president Tony Tavares said recently. “Jose Vidro is a world-class player when he’s right. If all the reports are true, then we’ve got an All-Star second baseman.”

Just four years ago, Vidro was arguably the best second baseman in baseball. But it feels like an eternity.

In 2002, Vidro earned his second All-Star selection, hitting .315 with 19 homers and 96 RBI, scoring 103 runs with 190 hits.

Then one day, he felt a twinge in his right knee. He first noticed it sometime during the 2003 season, and it progressively got worse. He still managed to play in 144 games and hit his customary .310, but something wasn’t right, and things went downhill from there.

Vidro’s knee continued to hamper him in 2004, and though he tried to fight through the pain and play every day, he finally admitted defeat in late August. The Montreal Expos were out of the pennant race, so Vidro shut himself down and underwent surgery to remove an inflamed portion of his patellar tendon, plus a nodule that had developed in the area.

Some 18 months later, Vidro believes he finally has made a full recovery. Though the scar on his knee is still visible, he no longer feels pain. He has declared himself 100 percent healthy and is confident he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

“I’m very confident,” he said. “The way I am right now and the way I showed up last year to spring training, there’s no comparison.”

To understand why the Nationals want Alfonso Soriano to move to left field is to understand how valuable they still believe Vidro is.

“I know what this guy has meant to this ballclub, this organization and to me the four years I’ve been here,” manager Frank Robinson said. “He’s a very special person. … He doesn’t carry himself as a prima donna-type superstar. But he is one of the top players, to me, in baseball when he’s healthy.”

That’s the key phrase — when he’s healthy. Vidro hasn’t been in more than two years, and at age 31, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever return to his peak form.

He certainly was far from it during his first season in Washington, a frustrating one in which he got off to a hot start but suffered a major setback when he tore an ankle tendon sliding into the plate in early May. He spent the next two months on the disabled list and probably should have spent more, because he clearly wasn’t ready when he returned to the Nationals in the thick of a pennant race.

Vidro was out of condition. He had little range. And he was painful to watch on the bases.

Eventually, he was shut down again, and his final offensive numbers (.275 average, seven homers, 32 RBI in 87 games) were far from his career averages.

Fearful he might need surgery again, Vidro consulted four doctors at the end of the season. One told him he should have surgery, while the other three said he didn’t need it as long as he went through a vigorous offseason workout program. He went with the majority, and he’s glad he did.

“I’m very happy I didn’t do the surgery,” he said. “I’m very happy I went home and busted, worked hard and made myself better. … I want to show the organization that they can count on me for the whole year.”

For that reason, Vidro voluntarily pulled himself out of the upcoming World Baseball Classic — he was going to play for his native Puerto Rico — and declared that his only goal this spring is to ready himself for the Nationals’ season.

That was music to Robinson’s ears. The Washington manager believes a healthy Vidro is still capable of hitting over .300 with 15 to 20 home runs and 80 to 90 RBI.

“The last 21/2 years, you didn’t see the real Jose Vidro, period,” Robinson said. “I think with the knee being in the shape it is, if it will hold up, you will see the real Jose Vidro, offensively and defensively.”

And that was reason enough to add an extra hop to Vidro’s step yesterday.

“You know, it’s day one,” he said. “I’ve got to be happy with everything the way they’ve turned out. But we’ll see what happens during the course of [the season]. It’s not just one day. It’s going to be six, seven months.”

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