It’s not often that the greatest shortstop in a team’s history willingly un-retires his uniform number so that a newcomer can slap it on his back. In the case of the Chicago White Sox and Luis Aparicio, however, it seemed only obvious. That’s because the newcomer is actually an old-comer who’s new to the team, soon-to-be 43-year-old Omar Vizquel (only Tim Wakefield offers more senior status in the junior circuit), who last year surpassed Aparicio’s record for career hits by a Venezuelan—a title that Aparicio gladly conceded to his compatriot.
We also love us some Omar Vizquel in San Francisco. During the four seasons he spent with the Giants, he was the most consistently fun player to watch, as well as being among the most outgoing and honest players in the clubhouse.
(Quick sidebar: During an off-day interview I did with him shortly after his arrival in San Francisco, Vizquel asked if there was a nearby place we could grab lunch. When I suggested a Cambodian restaurant that was close to where we were, he was at first apprehensive, but gamely went along for the ride. He then ordered enough to feed a family of four, sampled everything and finished most of it.)
When it comes to the unwritten rules, Vizquel is most noteworthy for his ongoing affair with former teammate Jose Mesa. The two, once close friends, became estranged, then angry, then violent. To hear Vizquel tell it, he has little idea why his former pal is so pissed off.
To hear Mesa tell it . . . well, Mesa won’t tell it. Or at least he wouldn’t tell it to me, going from cordial to irate in an eyeblink, jumping off his clubhouse chair and screaming profanities as soon as Vizquel’s name was brought up.
The first draft of The Baseball Codes contained 2,700 words detailing their feud. It was good stuff, but we ultimately decided that the numerous code violations it contained couldn’t be broken out into individual chapters, so it served as an easy cut.
Which doesn’t make the story any less compelling. Suffice it to say that while 2,700 words of bonus material is waaaaay to long for a single blog post (heck, this introduction alone is pushing the limits of endurance), it might make for a good serial. And there’s only one way to find out.
Find the first part below. Updates daily thereafter.
Baseball has an unwritten rule urging restraint from publicly ripping your teammates. There’s another unwritten rule that stipulates clubhouse dissent should be kept behind closed doors, away from the press. There’s an especially prevalent unwritten rule mandating that those associating with hot-headed Dominicans who throw 95 mph should do what they can to avoid pissing them off. Or at least there ought to be.
Once upon a time, Jose Mesa and Omar Vizquel were comrades. When Vizquel was traded from Seattle to the Cleveland Indians in 1994, he automatically gravitated toward Mesa, who had joined the club two seasons earlier. They were both from Latin America. They had lockers next to each other. They were companions on the road. Vizquel referred to the pitcher as one of his best friends, and was a frequent mealtime guest at Mesa’s house. He was trusted enough to drive Mesa’ kids to school.
It was an interesting way to begin a relationship that would one day devolve into the longest continual bout of over-the-top retaliation in big-league history.
Where it started to go wrong is anyone’s guess—Vizquel isn’t sure and Mesa won’t talk—but it was likely at Indians spring training in 1998.
Cleveland was coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, in which Florida staged a ninth-inning rally against Mesa to tie it, then went on to win the contest—and the title—two innings later. As the world was to learn when Vizquel’s autobiography came out four years down the road, the shortstop was something less than impressed with Mesa’s effort that night.
In the interim, though, even Richard Dawson couldn’t have mitigated this feud.
The following spring, when Indians players arrived at training camp in Winter Haven, Fla., everything appeared to be fine. Players were loose, laughter came easily and there was no mistaking the sense of anticipation on a team that had largely the same cast returning from the outfit that, in its most recent game, came within two outs of a championship.
But something was eating at Mesa. Maybe he was internalizing the October defeat—certainly a deadly practice for any closer. Maybe teammates were needling him. Maybe too effectively. Maybe one of them was Vizquel.
When the Gold-Glove shortstop stepped to the plate against Mesa in an intra-squad game shortly after camp opened, their relationship began showing early signs of wear. Vizquel slapped a Mesa pitch over the left-field wall for a home run, then proceeded to goof his way around the bases—running sideways, waving his arms, generally making a spectacle of his trot. Were this a regular-season game, the shortstop would have been in flagrant violation of showing up the opposing pitcher. Such a display would have virtually guaranteed at least one fastball-inflicted bruise in ensuing at-bats. But this was a meaningless game against his own club, a simple workout in an empty stadium, and Vizquel’s actions could easily be taken as a guy in a good mood horsing around with his pals.
Mesa didn’t see it that way. And if there’s a common trait among hard-throwing pitchers, it’s that they have long memories when slighted. “I was just doing all this goofy stuff and he took it in the wrong way,” said Vizquel. “Some guys don’t like that kind of stuff, but it was just a practice game. I don’t really know (why he got so mad). I was just a little guy and he’s a real macho guy, and maybe he didn’t want to be shown up by a little guy like me.”
At that point, Mesa privately began to fume. Over the following months the pair’s rapport devolved, but in July, before it could reach a boiling point within the Indians’ clubhouse, Mesa was traded to the San Francisco Giants.
The next time the two saw each other was during the 2000 season; by that time the pitcher had moved on again, to the Seattle Mariners. The Indians jumped out to an 8-2 lead, and in the seventh inning Mesa was inserted into the game for some mop-up work. Vizquel was the fifth batter he faced.
The right-hander’s first pitch came high and tight, and Vizquel glared at the reliever. Mesa came back with a second fastball, just as hard and just as close, barely missing Vizquel’s right thigh. The shortstop—at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds giving up six inches and 60 pounds to his opponent—started slowly toward the mound. The benches and bullpens emptied, with players streaming between the two, preventing punches from being thrown. Neither man was ejected and the at-bat continued.
With a 2-1 count, Vizquel grounded to second base to end the inning. This pleased Mesa, but it wasn’t enough. The pitcher waited for Vizquel along the first base line, and punctuated the ensuing stare-down with an index finger in the shortstop’s face. The confrontation was again intercepted by teammates before it could escalate, and again both benches emptied in the process. Both Mesa and Vizquel were led to their respective dugouts without further incident. That was how it began.