The most important asset for a major league baseball player is not speed or size or strength. It’s mental toughness.
I pride myself on being strong between the ears. At this level of competition, 80 percent of the game is psychological. Unless you have absolute faith in your ability, it doesn’t matter how fast you can run or how hard you can throw.
That’s why I was worried when I went to the mound in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 1997 World Series.
Jose Mesa, our ace relief pitcher, had come in to try to protect a one-run lead. All we had to do was get three outs and we’d win the ultimate title. 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.
I can still remember everything about that day. After all, fewer than 1,000 people in the history of baseball have ever played in the seventh game of a World Series. Bob Feller never did. Lou Boudreau never did. Mark McGwire never did. Neither have Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, or Ken Griffey, Jr. Including the spectacular Yankees-Diamondbacks match-up of 2001, the Series has gone the distance only 34 times in 97 seasons.
Every little kid who ever put on a baseball glove has fantasized about playing in the seventh game of a World Series. That dream only gets more intense when you get to the big leagues.
Some suggested that winning a World Series against the Florida Marlins would have cheapened the dream. After all, the Marlins had only been in existence for five years. Their owners had gone out and bought most of their top players. The franchise didn’t have the rich tradition of the Dodgers or Cardinals or Braves, according to the argument.
Baloney. Any team that makes it to the World Series is a powerhouse. Just to get there, you have to win consistently for seven months. Then you must win a short, intense division series, followed by a longer, more intense league championship series. So I didn’t care who we played. I just wanted that championship ring. I wanted it so badly, in fact, that I would have surrendered several years of my life to get it. Seriously.
I still would.
The only thing that took the edge off the Series for me, from a purely personal perspective, was that all the hitting overshadowed the defense. In the first five games, the winning team scored 7, 6, 14, 10, and 8 runs. The third game, which we won 14–11, was the second-highest-scoring game in World Series history. With all that bashing going on, good defensive plays were overlooked. And, if I do say so myself, I played great defense in that Series. I have all the games on videotape, and I still watch them.
Except for that deadly ninth inning, the ’97 Series was absolutely awesome, both on and off the field.
The first two games and the last two were in Florida, and we had a great time. We stayed at the Sheraton Bal Harbour resort, about halfway between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, right on the Atlantic Ocean. It had a 10-acre swimming pool that wound around through tropical gardens. There was a huge slide, too. I don’t get too excited about fancy hotels anymore, because the team stays in nice places all the time. But this was special. This was like being on a vacation with all of my teammates.
Between the first two games, we had a day off. Our manager, Mike Hargrove, warned us to stay inside, to take it easy and not risk a freak injury. He told us, “Don’t beat yourself up in the sun. Don’t be riding jet skis.” So, naturally, we all went to the beach, caught some rays, and rode jet skis.
During the regular season, wives were permitted to travel with the team only on a couple of designated road trips. But during the playoffs, wives and fiancees were welcomed. That made the postseason even more festive. My wife, Nicole, was there, along with our son, Nico. My mom and dad came, too, and everybody had a blast.
The wives loved the place for another reason: right across the street was a big collection of upscale stores like Gucci, Cartier, and Versace. Ballplayers’ wives are pretty good at shopping.
As the Series moved forward, though, the mood got more and more serious. By the morning of Game Seven, nobody even dreamed of going jetskiing. We barely even left the hotel.
Things had been going so well throughout the month of October that our dream seemed to be right there waiting for us, one short bus ride away in the humid Florida night. We had been living a charmed life.
In the Division Series against the Yankees, we were a mere four outs away from being eliminated, then charged back to tie Game Four on Sandy Alomar’s homer and win it on my infield single.
We worked more miracles in another heart-stopping series against Baltimore. That series included the best bad play I ever made. After splitting the first two games in Baltimore, we returned to Cleveland and staged a five-hour marathon. In the bottom of the 12th, with the score tied, I was at the plate with Marquis Grissom on third. The count went to two balls and one strike. I looked down to third-base coach Jeff Newman, who gave me the signal for a suicide squeeze. I had been warned in the dugout that we might try to squeeze home the winning run, so I wasn’t entirely shocked. But, believe me, my heart was pumping.
They don’t call it a “suicide squeeze” for nothing. You either put your bat on the ball or you die, because your coaches and your teammates will kill you—especially the defenseless guy charging in from third.
Well, I committed suicide. Missed the pitch completely. Randy Myers threw a good slider low in the strike zone, and I just couldn’t get any wood on it. Fortunately, the Orioles’ catcher, Lenny Webster, made an even worse play. He couldn’t catch the ball. It wasn’t a tough pitch to handle; he simply got excited and muffed it. The ball rolled just far enough away that Grissom was able to score. And I lived to play another day.
After a full month of incredible moments like that, we believed we were on the brink of our greatest moment ever. One thing was certain: Game Seven would be the biggest pressure-cooker any of us had ever jumped into.
The atmosphere started growing tense almost as soon as Game Six ended. I had made a really nice play in that game, diving to my right to stop a shot by the Marlins’ Charles Johnson and throwing him out at first, so a lot of people were coming by the hotel room to congratulate me. But I really wasn’t listening to what they were saying, because I was so focused on getting ready for the next game. It was a weird feeling.
I was thinking a lot about Bill Buckner, the first baseman who made the infamous error that helped cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series. I can’t imagine how he felt. The only thing going through my mind was being tough enough not to let something like that happen to me. I certainly didn’t think it would. I live for pressure situations. In my first 55 playoff games, I made only one error.
For a shortstop, the ultimate pressure situation is one out, bases loaded, and the ball hit right at you. The spectacular plays are easier, in a way, because you’re just reacting and nobody expects you to make them. The heat comes when you get a routine double-play ball.
It was funny: during the season, Jose Mesa’s locker was right next to mine. He was having a great year. A couple of times during the summer, I told him, “I wanna see how tough you are in the seventh game of the World Series with the bases loaded and one out.”
Sandy Alomar’s locker was on the other side of me that year, and I said the same thing to him: “I want to see how tough you are when everything is on the line.” Not everybody can handle it.
Mental toughness has been the story of my baseball career—and my life. I could go 0-for-40 and still believe I can bounce back and bring my average up. It doesn’t matter how bad things are in the short run. It’s a long season—and a long life.
A lot of guys have natural ability, but they freak out if they make a bad play or go into a slump, and their careers don’t last. Others guys have solid careers but never reach their full potential. Take Manny Ramirez, for example. Manny is a great, great talent, one of the best hitters in the game. But he could be an even better ballplayer if he knew how to use his mind.
I heard an interview once with the American League’s best pitcher, Pedro Martinez. He says he looks at the hitter’s eyes during his first at-bat, and if he sees the hitter is frustrated, he owns that guy for the rest of the night.
It’s a mind game.
And the biggest mind game of all is Game Seven. After 35 spring training games, 162 regular season games, and as many as 18 playoff games, everything comes down to a single game. One game out of 216 that will make or break the season.
When I finally got to bed the night before Game Seven, I had a lot of trouble falling asleep. I was playing the upcoming game in my imagination, going over every possible scenario. But when I finally drifted off, I slept like a bear in the winter. I think I logged 10 hours.
After I got up, I went with my family to a Cuban restaurant near the hotel for some Latin food. I got my usual—steak, rice and beans, and plantains. The food was good, but the meal wasn’t very peaceful. Several fans recognized me and made a big commotion.
The biggest commotion was only a couple of hours away.
Pro Player Stadium doesn’t have the ambiance of Jacobs Field. It’s really a football stadium, and many of the seats are miles from home plate. But I was enjoying the place. This was a celebration. No matter who won, a big party was going to erupt.
You could gauge the importance of the event by the atmosphere in the locker room. For much of the previous eight months, our clubhouse was a fun, easygoing place, with guys constantly cracking jokes and playing music. But on October 26, 1997, as we pulled on our blue jerseys and gray pants, nobody said much of anything. The guys were in their own worlds. We didn’t even crank up the music.
During batting practice, the field was a zoo. You see all kinds of people at the World Series who don’t usually request media credentials—like Larry “Bud” Melman and Biff Henderson from the David Letterman show (Henderson interviewed our Bip Roberts —Biff, meet Bip. Bip, Biff.) Nearly 900 credentials were issued to organizations from all over the world, including Venezuela.
Salsa music was booming throughout the ballpark, the temperature was 80 degrees, and 67,204 people were in the stands.
What a contrast to the weather in Cleveland, where during Game Four the temperature was 38 degrees, the wind chill was 18, and everybody in the park was wearing heavy gloves and parkas. What are the odds of setting the record for the coldest game in World Series history, followed four days later by one of the warmest games in World Series history?
So we were prepared for anything.
We also had learned—the hard way—not to take anything for granted. In 1996, we won our division by 14 games and fully expected to wind up in our second straight World Series. But the underdog Orioles knocked us out in four games, the crowning blow coming off the bat of Robbie Alomar. I can still see that ball flying into the centerfield stands on a late, sunny afternoon at Jacobs Field.
By the time you get to the World Series, you have spent an entire month living on the edge. The fans love it. They tell me the playoff games are so exciting they get the chills. Well, me, too. It’s every bit as exciting down on the field. Even though you have a job to do, even though you have to concentrate like crazy, you still feel the same emotions as the people in Row Z.
In fact, I even get the chills when somebody on the other team does something great. You feel good for the person who made the play, even though it hurt your own team. That’s because you know how much pressure is on the guy. The average fan has no idea how hard it is to be in those situations, where everyone is looking at you and expecting you to excel. I admire every good play that anyone makes.
Mike Hargrove’s decision to pick Jaret Wright as the Game Seven starting pitcher was controversial. Wright was just a kid, a 21-year-old who had begun the season on the mound in Canal Park in Akron, home of the Double-A Aeros. Hargrove could have chosen Charles Nagy, a 7-year veteran who had won 89 major league games and pitched in two All-Star games.
One school of thought says you go with people who have been there before. Another school says you go with the hot hand. Wright had been on fire. During the playoffs, he was 3-0. Hargrove went for the hot hand. I thought it was the right decision. When a guy has been going that well, you can’t take the ball away from him.
Wright came through. Inning after inning, he mowed the Marlins down. Through six, he didn’t surrender a run. Then he tired in the seventh, and the Marlins finally scored to pull within one. The drama continued to build.
I had pictured all of this so clearly in my mind’s eye that when the game actually arrived, I felt like I was having a dream. I’d already been there. And when the scoreboard said 2-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, I thought I was going to find myself in the exact situation I had talked about all year. I thought I was going to be the guy to get the ball with the bases loaded and one out.
But Jose Mesa wasn’t following the script.
Not long after I looked into his vacant eyes, he blew the save and the Marlins tied the game at two. And instead of that routine grounder coming to me, it went two innings later to second baseman Tony Fernandez—who booted it.
Tony is a great fielder. He owns four Gold Gloves, which are given annually to the best defender at each position. But in the bottom of the 11th inning, with a man on first, he got an easy ground ball that went right under his glove. I couldn’t believe it.
The winning run scored a short time later when Edgar Renteria poked the ball up the middle past Nagy. The instant he hit it, I knew the game was over. It wasn’t hit that hard, but nobody could get anywhere near it.
I felt horrible that we lost, but I felt even worse for Tony. The first thing I did after the game was go over and give him a hug. He is such a hard worker and such a good man. The only thing he cares about is winning.
Tony went through a really rough time when he was an Indian, trying to get some playing time from the manager. Hargrove just didn’t trust him from the very beginning. Tony would start one game, then sit for three. But he hung in there and made some crucial plays for us. We wouldn’t have gotten to Miami if he hadn’t hit a homer in Game Six of the Baltimore series. Heck, he drove in both of our runs in that last World Series game, too.
After the loss, every person in our clubhouse felt as if his gut had been carved out. In 1995, when we lost to the Atlanta Braves in six games, most of the guys weren’t too upset. We were thrilled just to have been in a World Series. But this time, we fully expected to get a championship ring. This time, we knew the drill. This time, we knew how to win—or thought we did.
If you felt lousy watching us lose Game Seven on television, imagine how we felt down on that field, nine months after the start of spring training, coming so close and not getting there.
For a long time after the game I sat alone in the dugout, watching the Marlins running around the field as Queen’s We Are the Champions boomed from the P.A. system and the fans roared and showered the field with confetti. The Marlins’ manager, Jim Leyland, ran a victory lap. It was painful to watch, but I wanted to know what the feeling was like for a team that had just won the whole thing in dramatic fashion.
On the bus back to the hotel, guys were crying. I was so upset I couldn’t even talk.
I blew off the big rally held in downtown Cleveland two days after the game. I had a great time at the first rally, after the 1995 Series, but this was different. This time we should have won. Two outs away. I could taste it. Now I just couldn’t bear the thought of going out in public and talking about that game.
I had to get away.
I took Nicole and Nico back to our off-season home in Seattle, then rounded up three pals and headed to the most remote spot I could think of: the Amazon jungle.
Venezuela is a beautiful country. My hometown, Caracas, is near the coast and 3,300 feet above sea level, so the climate is ideal—between 70 and 90 degrees all year. When you head southeast into the interior, though, you know you aren’t far from the equator. You run into some of the heaviest jungle you can imagine. It’s part of the largest unbroken expanse of tropical rain forest on the planet.
My destination was Angel Falls—the highest waterfall in the world.
Angel Falls is in such a remote location that it was unknown to Venezuelans until the 1930s. It’s named after an American, Jimmy Angel, a bush pilot and adventurer who crash-landed near there while searching for gold. The falls are 3,212 feet high—about 20 times higher than Niagara Falls—with one uninterrupted drop of 2,648 feet—more than half a mile! I had wanted to see it for years. I’d seen so many beautiful pictures of it and heard so many great things from people who had been there.
The water rushes off the top of what we call a tepuyi, a huge rock formation that shoots almost straight up from the floor of the forest. These mesas are scattered about the Guiana Highlands, soaring above the greenery like giant anvils.
You don’t stumble upon Angel Falls by accident. You need a plane, a canoe, and hiking boots. And a little bit of nerve, too.
I rounded up my best pal, Carlos Lopez, whom I’ve known since we played ball together at age nine; my brother, Carlos Vizquel, who is four years younger than us; and my cousin Cesar Ayala, seven years younger.
The four of us took off in a small plane and landed at a remote airstrip, where we were picked up in a 10-person Jeep and driven to some little cottages. When I walked into my room, the first thing I saw was a big lizard crawling up the wall. Clearly, I was no longer at the Bal Harbour Sheraton.
The room had nothing but a little bed and bathroom. No TV. No radio. The top quarter of the walls were made of concrete block with holes in the center and no screens. Lizards and all kinds of weird bugs had the run of the place.
Then things got really primitive.
To reach the falls, we headed up the river, against the current, in a narrow canoe. Two people were jammed side by side in this thing that was about 3 feet wide and 25 feet long. Its tiny, 45-horsepower engine was taxed to the limit. The guide steered around rocks and dodged other stuff and, after a while, we were certain the canoe was going to tip over and we’d be swept away by the current before anybody figured out what had happened.
At one point, we saw the other extreme: the water level dropped so far that we had to get out and push.
Finally, after moving upstream past a long series of waterfalls, we followed the curve of the river around this huge rock and—wham!—there it was.
Angel Falls is just humongous. I knew it was going to be big, but I was stunned at its size. I’ve never experienced anything like it. We couldn’t even see the top when we first got there because it was surrounded by haze. So we stopped and ate breakfast. Several hours later, the clouds cleared out and we could make out the top.
To get a closer look, we walked for an hour through rocks and vines. We were having a great time, singing salsa music, swinging on vines and yelling like Tarzan, and just goofing around.
Halfway up the waterfall, there’s a big, flat rock where people take pictures. Once we got there, the top of the falls cleared up completely and the scene was just magnificent.
This trip was just what I needed. As we hiked through the woods and saw the wild animals and tropical birds, I had a real sense of peace. It was a place where you could forget about everything else in the world and focus on what’s right in front of you. The jungle offered a dose of quiet and isolation after the chaos of the playoffs. I was able to get away from baseball completely. With one notable exception.
There we were, slogging through the wilds of Venezuela, 2,700 miles from Cleveland, and I saw another group of adventurers, one of whom was wearing—I kid you not—a Cleveland Indians cap. I turned to my buddies and said, “Oh my God! Let’s run away from these people.” We were able to dodge them. We had to, because I still couldn’t talk about that last game.
Our own guide was pretty funny. He was acting like a big science expert. We were constantly making fun of him because he was going way beyond what we needed to know. He’d explain the Latin name of the plant we were looking at and all this other stuff that nobody would remember 15 seconds later. We made so much fun of the guy that eventually he gave up. By the end of the trip, he would just say, “Okay, whatever you see, that’s what it is.”
But we actually learned a lot. We learned how the pre–Hispanic Indians lived during their time in South America. They used all sorts of wild plants for medicine. They had plants for pain and plants for burns. We tasted a few that numbed our tongues.
Most of what we put in our mouths was a pleasant surprise. Before the trip, I worried about the kind of food we might get. Food is very important to me. I love to cook, something I picked up from my mother. I was expecting the worst in the jungle, but this stuff was the best food I ever tasted. It was all natural. They grow the tomatoes and onions right there. They raise their own chickens. They have cabbage salads and all this unusual stuff. Oh, man, was it good! Even the breakfasts were great. We were served a little piece of bread that looked like a horn. It was like a croissant, but hard, with filling inside.
My friends kept wondering whether something in the jungle would make a meal out of us. All kinds of interesting creatures are roaming around in there, including jaguars. My country also ranks second or third in terms of poisonous snakes.
The jungle doesn’t give you much room for error. When you’re driving into it, all you can see is the road straight ahead of you. You feel as if you’re at the point of no return. One time, we were driving along and ran over something. I asked the guide to go back, and we took a look. It was a coral snake—black, white, and red, one of the deadliest snakes in the world.
My only real letdown was not seeing an anaconda. The guide said the giant snakes usually come out at night and stay hidden during the day because of the heat. He showed me a couple of big snakes, but no anacondas.
My buddy Carlos kept asking me, “How come you’re not afraid with all the danger that’s out here?” I’d say, “Well, I’m just here to have fun. My mind is open. Whatever happens, happens. The World Series is over, so I can get hurt a little now and it won’t be a big deal.”
Besides, when I’m with a group of people, I’m pretty sure I won’t be the slowest one in the group. If anybody is going to get eaten, it ain’t gonna be me. You think I move fast when Frank Thomas is bearing down on me? Imagine how fast I could move with a coral snake ready to chomp on my butt.^ top
Excerpted from the book Omar!, copyright © Omar Vizquel and Bob Dyer. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Omar Vizquel and Bob Dyer
All-star shortstop Omar Vizquel tells the story of his life in baseball, from the sandlots of Caracas, Venezuela, to Game Seven of the World Series and beyond. It’s a a candid look inside the locker room of those powerhouse . . . [ Read More ]
Omar Vizquel is widely considered one of the best shortstops in the history of baseball. He is well known for his spectacular fielding, clutch hitting, smart baserunning . . . and his quick wit around . . . [ Read More ]
Bob Dyer has served as a feature writer and columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal since 1984. His stories and columns have won 22 regional and national awards. He was one of the lead writers for A Qu . . . [ Read More ]