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Claire: Venezuela's great shortstops

Claire: Venezuela's great shortstops

There was a story in Chicago earlier this week having to do with uniform numbers, but the real story goes far beyond a number displayed in a scorecard.

Every time a player changes teams at the Major League level there always is the issue of the number that player will be assigned.

When the great shortstop Omar Vizquel signed with the White Sox this offseason, he set in motion a natural conflict related to the uniform number he would wear.

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During the 21 seasons of his remarkable Major League career, Vizquel has worn No. 13 on all four teams he's played for, and there has been nothing but good luck with the number for the slick fielding shortstop from Venezuela.

However, the uniform No. 13 for the White Sox belongs to a man who wasn't willing to give it up, and rightfully so. That would be the team's manager and former shortstop, Ozzie Guillen.

"When I signed here, the first thing Ozzie said is, 'Forget about No. 13. That is going to be my number'," Vizquel told MLB.com. "I would love to wear it, but what Ozzie has done for the White Sox, with the world championship, No. 13 already has a name. To me, it's another Venezuelan wearing it. It's in good hands."

The term "good hands" couldn't be more appropriate. That's what made both Vizquel and Guillen great shortstops in a long line of Venezuelans who played the position.

The issue of the appropriate uniform number was resolved when a Hall of Fame shortstop from Venezuela, Luis Aparicio, who made his case for Cooperstown during his days with the White Sox, stepped into the picture.

Aparicio, 75, happily agreed to let his No. 11 come out of retirement so that Vizquel could use the number.

It was a kindly decision by Aparicio, and highlights the real story behind the uniform numbers -- the remarkable history of great shortstops from Venezuela.

It's a story that dates back 60 years, one that began when the first Major League player of note to come out of Venezuela was a shortstop -- Chico Carrasquel.

Carrasquel was originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, but there was a fellow by the name of Pee Wee Reese who was a roadblock for young shortstops. So Carrasquel was sold to the White Sox, where he played for six seasons and was selected to the All-Star team four times.

"After Carrasquel, it seemed as though every young player in Venezuela wanted to play shortstop," recalls veteran scout Mel Didier of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Carrasquel had created a shortstop competition in Venezuela that ultimately cost him his job with the White Sox. He was traded after the 1955 season because the White Sox had a 22-year-old shortstop ready to take his place -- Aparicio.

Aparicio went on to win nine Gold Gloves between 1958 and 1970. He was traded to the Red Sox in December of 1970 by newly appointed general manager Roland Hemond.

"I took a lot of heat for that trade, because Aparicio was very good and very popular in Chicago," recalls Hemond.

The White Sox didn't come up with another regular shortstop until Hemond made a trade with the San Diego Padres in December of 1984. "I told our scouts to find the best fielding shortstop in the Minor Leagues because we needed someone in a big way," says Hemond.

The shortstop the scouts identified and Hemond traded for was Guillen, from Venezuela, of course. Guillen was to play 13 seasons for the White Sox, and he was a Gold Glove winner in 1990.

The link of shortstops from Venezuela to play for the White Sox now runs from Carrasquel to Aparicio to Guillen to Vizquel. They have combined for a remarkable 21 Gold Gloves, with Vizquel's 11 leading the way.

It hasn't only been the White Sox who have benefited from shortstops exported by Venezuela.

Dave Concepcion won five Gold Gloves in six years between 1974 and 1979 as a key figure on the "Big Red Machine" of Cincinnati.

Concepcion was the class of National League shortstops ... until a fellow by the name of Ozzie Smith came along.

And just what is it that that has led to the parade of outstanding shortstops from Venezuela?

"The shortstops from Venezuela seem to have a great understanding of the game," says Didier. "The position requires talent and common sense. I've been fortunate to see all of the great ones, from Carrasquel to today's young guys, and they have great pride and an understanding of the players who have come before them from their country."

Former Major League pitcher Phil Regan faced Aparicio during his playing days and has spent the past 20 years as a manager or coach in the Venezuelan Winter League, including a role as one of the first managers for a young Vizquel.

"All of the great athletes playing baseball in Venezuela want to play shortstop," says Regan. "They are guys with great athletic talents and with sure hands. You also see very few throwing errors by the young players."

Regan said he considers Vizquel the best shortstop he has ever seen from Venezuela.

Vizquel will turn 43 on April 24 and knows his days of being a Major League player are nearing the end of the line.

It is quite fitting that he will celebrate that birthday in a White Sox uniform and in the footsteps of Carrasquel, Aparicio and Guillen.

The uniform number doesn't really matter. It's the talent that counts, and Vizquel has played in a fashion that will be deserving of Hall of Fame consideration.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice-president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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