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Nats' Vidro Is at Home in the Game

Second Baseman Finds Peace on the Field, Wherever It May Be

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., March 1 -- Tuesday afternoon, in the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, Jose Vidro surveyed the men around him. Their uniforms hung in the lockers, different from those to which he had grown accustomed, those of the Montreal Expos, with whom he spent his first eight major league seasons. Vidro's destination, when camp breaks in early April, will be Washington, where he has never been. Yet as he looked across the carpeted floor at Space Coast Stadium, he spoke like few others in the clubhouse could.

"This is the place I feel happy," he said. "This is home. My family likes it here. I like it here. What more could I have?"

Jose Vidro, who spent the first eight seasons of his major league career with the Montreal Expos, is a cornerstone of the Washington Nationals. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

From the outside, it would seem Vidro could have so much more -- more money, more security, more marketability, more of the spotlight. A three-time all-star as a switch-hitting second baseman, he was scheduled to be a free agent at the end of 2004. He could have been released from the baseball outpost that was the Expos, a team owned by baseball's other teams. He could have become the next Andre Dawson or Larry Walker or Vladimir Guerrero -- a young star groomed as an Expo, but not a true star until he moved elsewhere.

But for Vidro, home, in the broader sense, is no longer Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, where he was born, or nearby Sabana Grande, where he was raised, playing baseball with tennis balls on makeshift diamonds. His teammates, be they in Montreal or Washington, provide his home.

So last year, more than four months before Major League Baseball announced it would move the Expos to Washington, Vidro sent a message, intentional or not. On May 14, despite the fact that he had no idea where the team would play this season or next or beyond that, he signed a four-year contract worth $30 million. It ensured that Vidro will be the second baseman not only Wednesday, when the Nationals play their first exhibition game, but through 2008, when they are scheduled to move into a new stadium on the Anacostia River waterfront.

"It really was a no-brainer for me," Vidro said. "I knew things were going to change, and change in a good way. And this is the place I feel comfortable. People say I made a mistake, that I could've been better someplace else. But I don't know anyplace else. I know how things are around me here, and the respect that I had here."

In a clubhouse largely full of unknown prospects and journeymen, perhaps no one commands more respect that Vidro. So the contract extension, Manager Frank Robinson said, "didn't go unnoticed."

"He was saying and indicating: This is not a hopeless situation here," Robinson said.

"And the fact that they offered that kind of money," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said, "showed us that the writing was on the wall. There had to be some future for us."

Though so much regarding the Nationals remains in flux, having Vidro locked up is perhaps the best hope that there will be a successful future on the field. With a swing that produces line drives at alarming rates, he has hit .304 over his career. Nationals hitting coach Tom McCraw calls him, simply, "a professional hitter who can hit with anybody."

"When he's healthy, he's as good as there is in the league," McCraw said. "He just produces. No highs. No lows. Just production."

But as with so much about the Nationals, the key phrase in McCraw's assessment is "when he's healthy." Too often, over the past two seasons, Vidro has been hampered. You wouldn't know it by asking him, for he betrays almost nothing. But the artificial turf at Montreal's Olympic Stadium for years was akin to playing on cement, chewing at Vidro's knees. The pain was intense, he said, late in the 2003 season. But the Expos were in contention for a playoff spot, and there was no way he was going to sit. The problems, particularly with his right knee -- which developed tendinitis in the patella -- continued into last season.

Vidro, though, is no drama queen. "He doesn't say anything," catcher Brian Schneider said. "You've got to respect him for it." So even as he hobbled through the first part of last season, he remained quiet. Robinson said he would ask him all the time: How do you feel? The answer was always the same: I'm all right.

"I wanted to play," Vidro said, "but it just didn't work for me."

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