Nine Shortstops in a Field of Dreams

Cesar Izturis is one of the better (defensive) shortstops to come out of Venezuela. (via NewJack 984)

I have always thought there should be a real tribute to Field of Dreams. So I was glad when I read that the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees were going to play a game on that baseball field.

The more I thought about it, the more it matched with an idea I’d been thinking of for a long time. A game only possible in my head. Venezuelan TV broadcasters are always speculating about the all-time ideal team of Venezuelan players who played in the major leagues. The trivia is always the same, and it gets old, so I changed the challenge to this: What’s the best team you could make of Venezuelan shortstops who had played in the majors for at least one season as regulars?

***

The first players I visualized in my team were Luis Aparicio at shortstop, Omar Vizquel at second base and Gus Polidor in right field.

The most unforgettable scene of Field of Dreams is that night at Fenway Park, pure adrenaline, all that asphyxiating atmosphere only baseball competitiveness can provide, the kind of feeling we only experience as we go into one of those cathedrals of baseball. From the middle of the stands midway between first base and right field, Ray Kinsella looks to the board and becomes petrified. The name of Moonlight Graham shines up on the board.

I look to the field and watch my imaginary team of shortstops. Aparicio runs to the gap between third and second base to reach a scorching grounder with the tip of his glove’s webbing. He immediately rises from the clay and throws a bullet to first base from his knees. Vizquel whistles from second base. Aparicio lowers his face as he flattens the ground with the tip of his right shoe.

During his rookie season with the White Sox, Aparicio couldn’t find the calm to attack all those grounders hit to his position. But he settled in with time, and that calm during the hardest times of the game remained with him for the rest of his career, as in that August 11, 1961 shutout where Billy Pierce hurled a shutout and Aparicio hit a homer to win 1-0 over the Kansas City A’s. Or the May 25, 1972 contest, when Marty Pattin pitched another gem to lead the Red Sox to a 2-1 victory against the Baltimore Orioles: In the bottom of the third, Aparicio plated  Tommy Harper with a single to right field, then stole second base, went to third base on a sacrifice fly to center field by Duane Josephson and scored on a passed ball by Elrod Hendricks.

Watching a game at that Iowa field where Field of Dreams was filmed is, for me, a distant fantasy. I can only touch it by imagining Vizquel, bare-handing a grounder as he lunges forward. Only he could throw the ball backward and unbalanced, without looking, to Aparicio to start a double play. In my vision, Vizquel attacks the ball, so focused, so fast, so precise, like that time at Luis Aparicio El Grande Stadium in Maracaibo. He was playing shortstop for the Leones del Caracas against Aguilas del Zulia in the Venezuelan winter league. The batter hit a high pop up between second and third base, but the wind was blowing hard and the ball moved in the air. Vizquel followed it, seeking the best position, and ended up making the catch with his back to home plate.

The same expectation, the same emotion that shone in Kinsella and Terence Mann’s eyes in Field of Dreams, when they got in that van to go looking for Moonlight Graham and found him walking in the middle of the night with his inseparable umbrella–it shines in my mind’s eye, when the batter hits a mammoth line drive to the right-field corner, and Polidor runs and runs to catch it just against the foul pole. He immediately turns 180 degrees and throws the ball all the way to home plate, where Chico Carrasquel gets the ball on one bounce and puts out the runner. Everyone knows that Polidor had one of the best arms for a Venezuelan shortstop, but to make such a perfect throw from the most remote spot in the park? That was really a fantasy that would only Polidor’s Little League manager would believe.

***

The next three ballplayers I would have on my team: Ozzie Guillén in left, Cesar Izturis in center, and Alvaro Espinoza at third.

Izturis was a very dynamic and flexible shortstop who could catch up with the ball in just a blink. I imagine him playing center field almost behind second base. The batter hits a regular grounder up the middle, but Aparicio is shifted toward third and Vizquel is on the infield grass. So the ball passes to center. Izturis takes it and almost threw the runner out. I can’t believe it. This was why he won the Gold Glove.

I hesitate for a while and ask myself, between the stands of Fenway and my seat in front of the TV set, what is the borderline between my dream team of shortstops and reality? But I went to my archives and after looking at a lot of newspapers clips, magazines, and books, I knew my vision wasn’t exaggerating. Izturis had magnificent hands, great footwork, tremendous speed, but until that moment I didn’t know about his amazing instinct to attack a grounder.

***

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Thinking about Field of Dreams, it is inevitable that one thinks of the moment when Kinsella stops the van on the road and that very young guy gets in, ready to play ball, ready to go to that cornfield. It was the same enthusiasm, the same passion Guillén showed in  Venezuelan winter ball league when he debuted. An 18-year-old kid who hit a walk-off single off an experienced Larry Andersen to beat the Navegantes del Magallanes in his rookie season. Ironically, the Magallanes team had refused to sign Guillén when Ernesto Aparicio called to his nephew Luis Aparicio, who was then the manager of the Magallanes team. “I have a good prospect who very soon could be at the big leagues,” Ernesto told his nephew. Luis arranged everything to go scout the kid, but the Magallanes general manager refused to sign him.

Now I imagine him smacking a line drive off the Green Monster. At the last moment, the ball takes a weird bounce, and Guillén has to dive to take the ball backhanded on the tip of his glove. Guillén had some experience playing left field from his days with Tiburones de La Guaira. That group of players, called “La Guerrilla,” was a very talented one, and most of them were shortstops (Argénis Salazar, Polidor, Carlos Café Martinez, Alfredo Pedrique, Guillén). So the manager had the enviable headache of having to play most or all of them in different positions to take advantage of their talent.

I remember the final series of 1992-93 season in the Venezuelan winter league, when the Águilas del Zulia swept my Navegantes del Magallanes. In the middle of my sadness and frustration, some voice in my mind kept saying: “Keep the faith. Wait until next season and you’ll see he will come…” I almost didn’t take that thought into account. The anger and pain were bigger than any other feeling at the moment. I came to think the Navegantes del Magallanes would never win another championship in its life. Then October came, and the 1993-94 season started. There he was, playing shortstop: Álvaro Espinoza, the one who had been the New York Yankees starting shortstop for three consecutive seasons, arrived in Magallanes through a transaction with the Tigres de Aragua.

In the fourth game of that memorable final series against the Leones del Caracas, Espinoza hit a tremendous line drive against the middle of left center field wall at the Estadio Universitario to plate Luis Raven from first base. That tied the game at one in the seventh inning, after the team had been dominated by Ugueth Urbina during the first six frames. It set the scene for a 2-1 victory that tied the series at two games. Espinoza provided some of the courage that team made its brand.

Now in the final innings of this game in my mind, the batter hits an invisible grounder just over the line, behind third base. When the ball begins its detouring to foul territory, there goes Espinoza diving to take the ball. Chest covered with clay, he throws to first base from the ground to make an unforgettable out.

***

The first baseman of my team was Dave Concepción, the pitcher was Enzo Hernandez, and Carrasquel was the armored guy behind the plate.

I imagine Concepción stretching his whole body to grab a wild pick-off throw from Hernandez. On the second pick-off attempt, Concepción has to abandon the base and even jump to avoid the runner. The third pickoff attempt is a real wild pitch that Concepción has to catch by diving all the way to shallow right field, as in his most spectacular plays at shortstop. Concepción developed all those instincts through a long career in the big leagues. He had learned a lot from Sparky Anderson and Tony Perez while collaborating to lead the Cincinnati Reds to four World Series, winning the last two.

In the Venezuelan winter league, he was a key factor in the first three titles of the Tigres de Aragua. I particularly remember two moments. One was the unassisted triple play he performed while playing first base for the Aragua team in a postseason game against the Leones del Caracas. The other moment happened in the majors on June 23, 1971. Concepción was the only baserunner Rick Wise allowed in a no-hitter. In the sixth inning, Concepción drew a walk, breaking Wise’s perfect game.

The batter hits a hard grounder over second base that Aparicio takes almost on the centerfield grass. He makes a lopsided throw to first. But Alfonso Chico Carrasquel takes his mask off. He runs, as the best Olympic sprinter would, to get the ball just few feet in front of the stands, behind the line of shallow right field, holding the runner at first.

Carrasquel, at various points, led the American League in assists (477 in 1951), double plays (102 in 1954), and fielding average (.975 in 1951, .976 in 1953 and .975 in 1954). He’s the Venezuelan with the most triple plays recorded in the major leagues, having been a part of four. As the manager for the Anzoategui state team in a Venezuelan national tournament, Carrasquel was very impressed by the fielding attributes of a very young shortstop named Enzo Hernández. When the team’s delegate told Carrasquel he couldn’t go to a national tournament of the top category with such a young boy playing shortstop, he answered that “if Enzo Hernández isn’t the shortstop of my team, I quit.” So Hernández was the regular shortstop for that Anzoategui state team.

The batter hits a bouncing grounder. Enzo Hernández runs backward and takes the ball behind the mound in the webbing of his tiny glove. Not only a star of the major leagues, Hernández won the championship of the Venezuelan winter league in 1968-69 and 1970-71 seasons in the middle of a streak of eight consecutive postseason appearances with the Tiburones de La Guaira. He led the Venezuelan winter league in double plays (56) 1969-70, and fielding average in the seasons 1974-75 and 1975-76.

And from that position, he throws to first, jumping from the tips of his feet like in his best years with the San Diego Padres.

***

I hope the game the White Sox and Yankees are going to play at that field in Iowa next season can be institutionalized as an annual game. It would be a great and deserved tribute to a movie that expresses, in less than two hours, all the passion, intensity, and obsession that permeates baseball. And in my mind, the team of shortstops plays on, their greatness never ending.

References & Resources

baseball-reference.com

Gómez, Richard. Campeones: Las Series Finales del Beisbol Profesional Venezolano. Caracas: Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional, 2006.

Gutierrez, Daniel, and Efraim Álvarez. La Enciclopedia del Beisbol en Venezuela. Caracas: Fondo Editorial Cárdenas Lares, 1997.

Pensando en Ti Venezuela: una Biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Caracas, 2011.

Una Temporada Mágica. Caracas: Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional, 2006.

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Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.

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