It’s always sad to see a great player lose his special skills while still unwilling to acknowledge that. Willie Mays lost his home run stroke three years before he retired and famously misjudged a fly ball in the 1973 World Series.
After making a nice comeback for two years, Willie McCovey lost it in 1980 and had to retire in midseason. (My memory is that he couldn’t get around on the fastball, but when we talked this spring, he said breaking pitches were the biggest problem.)
The latest example is Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel, who can still perform wonders in the field but is no longer a major-league hitter.
Vizquel is justifiably proud of the way he made himself into a good hitter. Two years ago, he was still a marvel to watch, using his speed to beat out bunts and wielding his bat almost like a tennis racket, guiding the ball into vacant spots in the outfield.
That mastery ended abruptly last season, when he hit just .246. The optimists called his season a slump, but unless they’re injured, hitters don’t slump for an entire season. I wrote that his problem was a 40-year-old bat and that it wouldn’t get any better.
This year, he’s been much worse. After going 2-for-4 Thursday, he was hitting just .159. That was a handful of points higher than rookie Brian Bocock, who was optioned to Fresno because he was overmatched against big-league pitching — and Bocock had a higher on-base percentage.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy, the eternal optimist, says that Vizquel’s hitting will come around. It won’t. Vizquel might be able to nudge his average above .200, but in this power era in baseball, a team can no longer afford a .200 hitter, even at shortstop, where defense is the biggest priority.
Meanwhile, another rookie shortstop, Emmanuel Burriss, has been very good defensively and has hit much better than expected, .277 in his first 101 at-bats.
So, what’s to be done? Bochy said he would be resting Vizquel more, to give Burris some playing time (Burriss can also play second, when Ray Durham is injured or needs a rest). Vizquel said he has no argument with that.
But for a team whose main goal this season should be to develop players who can be an important part of their future, that’s not enough. In the battle of rookie shortstops, Burriss has moved ahead of Bocock. He needs to play on a regular basis, so the Giants can get a good gauge on his potential.
Understandably, Vizquel doesn’t want to forfeit any of the salary due him, but the Giants should agree to pay him for the rest of the season if he retires this month. The Giants could stage a nice ceremony for him before one of their late-July games and he could segue into coaching. His advice would certainly speed the development of Burriss and any other young infielders the Giants mightbring up.
Omar Vizquel has been an example of everything that is good about baseball. He has played well and worked hard in a career in which he has played the most games at his position, and he has always been a positive presence in the clubhouse. He should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and now, he should retire while we can remember him at his best.