Jose Mesa, Omar Vizquel, Retaliation

Mesa-Vizquel: Just When We Thought it was Over, they Dragged us Back In

This is Part 2 of our excerpt from a passage that was ultimately cut from the final version of The Baseball Codes, concerning the protracted, on-field battle between Omar Vizquel and Jose Mesa.

Part 1 can be read here.

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Things became interesting in April 2002, when Vizquel’s biography, “Omar! My Life On and Off the Field,” was released. The shortstop didn’t waste time laying into Mesa within its covers—on the very first page, Vizquel talked about that fateful World Series Game 7, in which Cleveland’s closer could not finish off the Marlins:

“The eyes of the world were focused on every move we made. Unfortunately, Jose’s own eyes were vacant. Completely empty. Nobody home. You could almost see right through him. Jose’s first pitch bounced five feet in front of the plate, and as every Cleveland Indians fan knows, things got worse from there. Not long after I looked into his vacant eyes, he blew the save and the Marlins tied the game.”

That passage sent Mesa into a sustained rage, counting down the days until he’d next share a field with his former friend. Two months after the book came out, Cleveland visited Philadelphia, where the pitcher had signed as a free agent after the 2000 season.

In the ninth inning of their first post-memoir meeting, Mesa delivered a fastball into Vizquel’s back. Vizquel did not approach the mound. Neither man commented after the game—Mesa refused to talk and Vizquel left the building before the clubhouse opened to the media. But Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel was pretty clear about what happened. “Yeah, he meant to hit him,” he told reporters. “I think it was on purpose.”

Mesa was fined $500, and the feud seemed to settle as the clubs didn’t meet again that season—not to mention that Mesa had finally exacted a measure of revenge.

As the saying goes, however, there’s always next year. When 2003 rolled around, it didn’t take long for the rivalry to ignite anew.

Because Philadelphia and Cleveland weren’t scheduled to meet during the regular season, spring training provided Mesa his only opportunity. The teams met on March 11, but the reliever could only view it as an opportunity wasted after new Indians manager Eric Wedge (who by this point knew all about the tension between the two) short-circuited things by removing Vizquel before Mesa came into the late innings of the game.

So the pitcher took the only shot available to him—through the press.

“If I face him, I’ll hit him,” he told the Bucks County (Pa.) Courier Times. “I won’t try to hit him in the head, but I’ll hit him. And if he charges me, I’ll kill him. If I face him 10 more times, I’ll hit him 10 times. Every time.”

Vizquel clearly broke an unwritten rule by criticizing his former teammate in print, but with his comment, Mesa just as clearly broke a rule of his own—never admit to hitting a guy on purpose. The standby sentiment—“I was trying to pitch him inside and it sailed”—is fairly unassailable in baseball’s court of law . . . unless a pattern develops or the pitcher admits to his intentions.

Or, in this case, both.

By this time, Vizquel said publicly that he wasn’t trying to offend Mesa with his book, that he was simply trying to offer insight from a player’s perspective to his literary fans, and that he’d like to put the unpleasantness behind him.

Mesa’s response: “If he comes to apologize, I will punch him right in the face. And then I’ll kill him.”

Comments like this make reporters dance with glee. Media members bounced between clubhouses, getting reactions from each guy every time the other said anything on topic. Vizquel expressed slight regret; Mesa said Vizquel was stupid. Vizquel said he’d fight if that was what Mesa really wanted, comparing the potential bout to Roy Jones Jr. taking on a much bigger John Ruiz; Mesa said to bring it on. Vizquel retracted anything he previously said that could be construed as an apology. It didn’t matter that the Phillies and Indians weren’t going to see each other again until 2004. This sort of drama was too good not to play up.

Philadelphia general manager Ed Wade spoke to Mesa, knowing that his reliever would probably garner a long suspension if he backed up his words with actions. Baseball’s czar of discipline, Bob Watson, said he hadn’t seen anything like it since “Ball Four” came out and made Jim Bouton the object of scorn in clubhouses across the league. Phillies manager Larry Bowa intoned that Mesa was simply a fiery guy and didn’t truly mean what he said, saying, “They used to be great friends. I don’t know what happened, but it was personal.” (This didn’t stop Bowa from mirroring Wedge in that spring training game, intentionally keeping Mesa on the bench against the Indians until Vizquel had left the contest.) To shield himself from the heat, Mesa eventually said that the feud was over and he was ready to get back to playing baseball.

This is a lot of preventative maintenance for a situation that, according to the unwritten rulebook, should have been over after the first time Mesa drilled the shortstop.

Read Part 3 of the series here.

– Jason

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