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Keystone craftsmen

Alomar joins Vizquel to give Indians one of game's slickest infield duos.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 1999


WINTER HAVEN -- It is mid-morning and the Cleveland Indians are going through their pre-game workouts before facing the Phillies in a spring training game.

Roberto Alomar, one of the newest additions to an already powerful team, is fielding ground balls at second base.

Hordes of media are watching. Fans who begin to trickle in also are watching. And some of the Phillies, who are warming up down the third-base line, are watching, too.

Tired of routine grounders, a laughing Alomar decides to get creative. He fields a hard-hit grounder deep in the hole to his left (glove side). In one motion -- without straightening up or using his throwing hand -- he scoops the ball behind his back and into the glove of Omar Vizquel on the bag 10 feet away. He does it accurately, over and over again.

The display alone is worth the price of admission.

"Now that Robbie is here I don't need to have a perfect spot or a perfect throw," Vizquel said. "The guy is so creative and can do so many things. For me, it's a pleasure to play with him."

There have been some great duos. Remember Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell? Joe Morgan and Dave Concepcion? Ozzie Smith and ... anybody?

Well, move over folks, because live from Winter Haven is one of the most dazzling double-play attractions the game has seen in years.

It's Omar and Roberto. It's a shortstop who doesn't miss and a second baseman who doesn't remember missing. It's an infield locked down like Death Row.

"I usually don't enjoy watching people take ground balls," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said. "But watching these two guys take ground balls, it's pretty special."

When Alomar departed from the Orioles in the off-season to sign a four-year contract with Cleveland, it was heralded as a reunion of a premier second baseman with his older brother Sandy, one of the game's best catchers. At the time, even Alomar said playing with Sandy was a main reason to join Cleveland.

But not overlooked since the Nov. 19 signing has been what Alomar's arrival means to the Indians defense. Pairing Alomar with Vizquel, who often is first mentioned in debates about the best shortstop in the game, has given Cleveland remarkable strength up the middle. Between the two there are 13 Gold Gloves (Alomar has seven) and hours of highlight-reel clips.

In 1998 they had 16 errors between them (Alomar 11). All-Star shortstop Alex Rodriguez committed 18 on his own.

"They are exceptional players, that's for sure," Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch said. "They can do things offensively, but defensively, when you look to the middle like that, you know you can count on getting the most out of them."

Taking into account the pedigree, it would be easy to assume that coupling two of the game's best would be an automatic fit. But Vizquel and Alomar aren't taking anything for granted. They are spending spring training getting to know each other's preferences.

"We still have to get to know each other, the things I like to do and the things he likes to do," Alomar said. "I think so far we are communicating really well. The main thing is to have great communication and play the game we know how to."

Added Knoblauch: "Omar makes the routine plays and makes the difficult plays look routine, and Alomar is the same way. It'll be interesting to see how they work together. You would almost expect that they are going to be an outstanding double-play combination."

The other element to Alomar's debut in an Indians uniform is where he and Vizquel fit into such a loaded lineup. If he recaptures the form that saw him bat over .300 for six straight years through 1997 with Toronto and Baltimore, Alomar could hit No. 3 behind Kenny Lofton and Vizquel.

Last season, Alomar entered spring training with a severely sprained ankle, and he never found the stroke that saw him set career highs in hits (193), runs (132), home runs (22) and RBI (94) in 1996. In 1998 he batted .282 with 166 hits, 14 homers and 56 RBI.

"You always want to play with a ball club that wants your service," Alomar said. "This is a great ball club, a great bunch of guys, and I feel real, real happy here. I'm hungry for another ring."

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