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Tigers' infield lessons from a master in Omar Vizquel

LAKELAND, Fla. -- You are a singer at the outset of your career, and your personal coach is Frank Sinatra.

You are a college student studying how to compose classical music, and your teacher is Mozart.

You have moved up to an advanced class in painting, and your instructor is van Gogh.

Young infielders in Tigers camp no longer have to imagine such a feeling. Omar Vizquel is their infield coach.

The gold standard

Eugenio Suarez, a 22-year-old infielder, has been on the rise in the Tigers' farm system. He's from Venezuela, as is Vizquel. Suarez thinks so much of Vizquel that he has carried a photo of him in his wallet.

"He is my favorite baseball player all my life," Suarez said. "It's special because I'm here with him now. For me, he's the best shortstop in baseball."

This also is a view held by many veteran baseball observers. Jim Leyland said that Vizquel was the best shortstop he'd ever seen, ranking him ahead of even Ozzie Smith. When the Tigers got Jose Iglesias last season, general manager Dave Dombrowski said Iglesias had been compared to Smith and Vizquel -- the double gold standard at shortstop.

Vizquel played 24 years in the majors, from 1989 through 2012. He employed a combination of athleticism, grace, efficiency and know-how at shortstop that we might not see again.

In his first year after he retired as a player, Vizquel became a coach last year in the Angels' farm system. This off-season, shortly after Brad Ausmus became the manager, the Tigers went to work on recruiting Vizquel as their infield and baserunning coach.

"He has 11 Gold Gloves," Suarez said. "He's a good person, a good professional, a good baseball player."

Suarez said he told Vizquel about how Vizquel is his favorite player.

"It's weird when you find another generation of players that has been looking at you as one of their idols, and all of a sudden you are their teacher," said Vizquel, 46. "To me, the most important thing is to try to help them become better players. Maybe some day they can establish themselves in the big leagues and say, 'Wow, I got Omar to help me on a couple of things, and it really worked out for me.'"

At some point in spring training, Suarez likely will get sent to the minors. Then he no longer will be around Vizquel every day.

But for now, as Suarez said, "My favorite player is my coach. Incredible. It's a dream every day."

Poised for progress

Nick Castellanos is a young infielder who is due to see Vizquel every day during the season. The Tigers want Castellanos, 21, to take over as the everyday third baseman.

Castellanos worked out profusely at third in the off-season in Miami, and Vizquel visited him for two days of practice.

"We worked on coming through the ball, getting your feet set up early and the backhand," Castellanos said. "The backhand was something I told him I wanted to work on a lot."

Castellanos was asked what he sees Vizquel do that exemplifies why he won 11 Gold Gloves.

"He just floats to the ball," Castellanos said. "It's ridiculous. We were catching ground balls on the same field. He took a couple with me. It was like, 'Man, is this guy just getting lucky with all these hops?'

"He just puts himself in a position where he gets the hop he wants. He picks and chooses when he wants to catch the ball, which is pretty incredible to see."

In training camp, said Castellanos, Vizquel always ends up hitting him grounders. "He wants to see my progress," Castellanos said.

Welcoming Lombardozzi

Hernan Perez, 22, has played a few dozen games on the infield for the Tigers. For now, it looks like he's headed back to the minors to start the season. But he could be summoned to take over at shortstop if Iglesias has to go on the disabled list.

Like Suarez, Perez said that having Vizquel as his coach "is a dream. Talking to him, you can learn little things you didn't know before. I'm learning every day from him."

Steve Lombardozzi is due to be the backup shortstop. The Nationals, who traded him to the Tigers this off-season, were dubious of his ability to play short.

"We want Lombardozzi to be comfortable at short," Ausmus said.

Can Vizquel help Lombardozzi feel more comfortable?

"I don't think there's an infielder that Omar can't help," Ausmus said.

(c)2014 Detroit Free Press

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