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Sports Illustrated Magazine Time Inc.

Mystery Man: Without Fans Or Fanfare, Jose Vidro Has Established Himself As The Game's Best-Hitting Second Baseman

Phil Taylor

Quote: "Some guys who hit .300 do it with two outs and nobody on, but that's not Jose," says Frank Robinson.

June 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Sports Illustrated Magazine Time Inc. All rights reserved.

The visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field in Atlanta is equipped with a big-screen television and the latest in baseball video games, both of which the Montreal Expos were enjoying a few hours before a recent game against the Braves. At one point Expos second baseman Jose Vidro walked past the TV while paging through a magazine just as the virtual Vidro smoked a double into the right-centerfield gap. Later, when someone mentioned to him that he's just as dangerous a hitter in computerized form as he is in real life, Vidro was momentarily confused. "Oh, was that me up there?" he said. "I wasn't even paying attention."

Sometimes even Jose Vidro doesn't notice Jose Vidro, which makes him no different from much of the rest of the world. A career .306 hitter, he had a 21-game hitting streak earlier this season and through Sunday had cranked out more hits (595) over three-plus seasons than *NSYNC. But Vidro is only slightly better known today than he was when he broke into the majors in 1997. "He's a good test to give a baseball fan," says Montreal shortstop Orlando Cabrera. "'Do you know who Jose Vidro is? No? Then you don't really know baseball as well as you think you do.'"

At week's end Vidro, a 27-year-old switch-hitter, led the National League in hits (90) and batting average with runners in scoring position (.406), and was third in doubles (21), fourth in batting average (.335), 12th in RBIs (47) and 12th in total bases (134)--and was tops among NL second basemen in all those categories. "I knew he was a hitter, but I didn't know he was this good a hitter," says Frank Robinson, who is in his first year as Montreal manager. "Some guys who hit .300 do it with two outs and nobody on, but that's not Jose. He's one of those guys who becomes an even better hitter in the clutch."

The Braves discovered that in their 4-3 loss to Montreal on May 29, when Vidro drilled a three-run double off closer John Smoltz in the top of the ninth inning, wiping out a 2-1 Atlanta lead. Yet after the game autograph seekers in the parking lot rushed over to Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero while Vidro walked unimpeded to the team bus. Guerrero, a three-time All-Star, was formerly the least recognized star in the game but has relinquished that title to his teammate.

The soft-spoken Vidro enjoys being able to stroll the Montreal boulevards accompanied by his wife, Annette, and their six-year-old son, Jose Jr., without the hassles that come with celebrity. "I've wondered what it would be like to walk down the street and be recognized by a lot of people," he says, "but I honestly don't feel like I'm missing something."

Vidro occasionally does let on that he would welcome some of the recognition he deserves. The night before the National League All- Star reserves were to be announced in 2000--he would finish that season, his best yet, with a .330 average, 24 homers and 97 RBIs-- Vidro slept with his cellphone on all night in case someone called to tell him that National League manager Bobby Cox had named him to the team. In fact, he got the good news the next day and then became teary when he talked about it with reporters. "Maybe it comes from being an Expo all these years," he said recently, "but I never really expect to be noticed." (Through Monday, Vidro was second in this year's fan balloting, only 9,000 votes behind 12-time All-Star Roberto Alomar, who was having an off year--.267 with five homers-- for the New York Mets.)

In addition to averaging only about 8,000 fans a game at Olympic Stadium, Montreal has been on local television only three times this season (on a French-language channel) and is only occasionally seen on network games. Its players are so underexposed that with the exception of Guerrero, they probably could switch uniforms without the average fan catching on. However, even if the Expos received the fame victory would bring--and they were making strides in that direction, with a 35-33 record through Sunday--Vidro would still be an unassuming, unspectacular player, destined to remain unheralded in a hockey-mad culture. His teammates sometimes call him Machine, as in hitting machine, and he plays with an efficiency that is admirable but not eye-catching. At 5'11" and 195 pounds, his body is solid but not sculpted. He has average speed but rarely steals a base. He has good power but doesn't send the ball into orbit.

Away from the field Vidro, who is in the second season of a four- year, $19 million contract, is no more noticeable than he is on it-- except when he's driving his Porsche 911, the latest evidence of his weakness for sports cars. "If he was flashier, people would probably talk about him more," says Expos first baseman Andres Galarraga. "But that's not the way he does things. Jose doesn't play for attention, he just plays."

When he was growing up in Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico, Jose grabbed his glove every day after school and headed for the fields in the center of town. "I didn't like soccer that much, and I wasn't that good at school," he says, "so baseball was what I did every day from the time I was five years old." His father, Jose Sr., works as a foreman at a Frito-Lay factory, and his mother, Daysi, was an office worker for Sunkist Foods. In 1992, when he was 17, Vidro was Montreal's sixth-round draft choice. Expos scout Fred Ferreira signed him for a $30,000 bonus, and for the next five years Vidro honed his skills and his English as he moved up the Expos' minor league ladder. That stage of his career went smoothly, except for a touch of loneliness, which he remedied by marrying Annette, his hometown sweetheart, after his second season.

Throughout his career Vidro has played with a quiet determination- -sometimes too quiet. Last year a fastball from Houston Astros righthander Roy Oswalt hit Vidro in the batting helmet. He missed one game, then talked his way back into the lineup. Vidro played two more games, concealing his headaches and blurred vision, before admitting he was ailing. (His injury was eventually diagnosed as a mild concussion, which kept him out of the lineup for two weeks.) "He's one of the toughest guys in the league, and that's what makes guys on this team respect him so much," says Cabrera.

At times Vidro seems embarrassed by the attention he does get. Suggest that he might someday be compared with Alomar, whom he idolized as a teenager, and he puts up his hand to put a stop to such heresy. "No, no, no," Vidro says. "I'm just happy that I'll be able to tell my grandchildren I played in the same league as him." Ask Vidro about the comparison some have made between him and Seattle Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez, and Vidro dismisses the notion. "I have heard people say that, and it is not fair to Edgar," he says. "Maybe I am starting on the same road as he did, but I am far away. Far away."

His protests aside, Vidro is similar to Martinez in his consistent, line-drive-producing stroke. "You very rarely get him to take a bad swing," says Smoltz. "He's the toughest kind of hitter because he's got the power to take you out of the ballpark, but he doesn't go up there swinging for home runs."

Vidro is not as gifted with the glove as he is with the bat. He cut his errors from 11 to 10 to nine in the past three seasons; at week's end he was tied for the most miscues among NL second basemen (seven), but he also led in total chances (343). Vidro has worked hard enough on his defense to erase any doubts that he could handle the position full time. It was that uncertainty that prompted the Expos to bring journeyman second baseman Mickey Morandini to spring training in 2000, after Vidro had hit .304 in his first full season. "What disappointed me was that I had had a very good year, and I had still gone to winter ball during the off-season to try to get better," Vidro says. "Then I come to camp and I have to compete for my job." Vidro played so well that spring that Montreal eventually shipped Morandini to the Philadelphia Phillies for $50,000.

Vidro is the baseball version of a gym rat. "He never has to be encouraged to put in the work," Ferreira says. "He used to call me from spring training to tell me that the club didn't have enough arms to throw all the batting practice he wanted to take."

Vidro spends even more time at the ballpark during the first several weeks of the season, when his family is in Sabana Grande until Jose Jr. finishes the school year. After he arrives in Montreal, the boy often accompanies his dad to Olympic Stadium, but that hasn't been enough to change Jose Jr.'s mind about who his favorite player is: Alomar. "That's O.K.," Vidro says, smiling. "He's just like me. My favorite player was Alomar, too. But at least Jose could ask me for my autograph."

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