In the 1998 offseason, Jose Vidro headed home to Puerto Rico coming off his worst season as a professional baseball player.
He saw his starting second base job for the Montreal Expos go to Wilton Guerrero and his playing time diminish, and before long, he was demoted to AAA Ottawa after a poor start to the season.
Vidro, who had never struggled at any level after being a sixth-round selection in 1992 by the Expos, posted a career-worst .596 OPS, was worth -1.1 fWAR, and saw new second baseman Guerrero outdo him in nearly every statistic.
With a batting average of .220, the highest K% of his career and lowest wRC+ and SLG, Vidro was at a crossroads.
While he was only 23 years old at that point, the struggles of being an everyday ballplayer come at different times for most. He knew something had to change or his days in the major leagues, or even with the Expos, would be numbered.
“My second year in the majors was my worst year in my professional career,” Vidro told Sean Farrell of Baseball America in 2000. “I was trying to do too much and putting too much pressure on myself... I couldn’t sleep, thinking about what I had to do. Physically I felt perfect, but my mind wasn’t.”
In Puerto Rico, he made a decision that offseason that may have saved his career.
In the Major Leagues, you hear of a lot of players who head overseas to Korea or Japan to get right and come back with a new lease on life, but it was different for Vidro, who didn't have to go too far from his own backyard.
Vidro played Winter League baseball in his native Puerto Rico, hoping to get his confidence back, and get his confidence back he did, batting a scorching .417 during that season.
He credits that season and a settling down of his mind while he was at the plate as the reason for what came next.
With the so-called "new lease on life" Vidro did not look back. He worked out in left field initially, but Rondell White took that position back due to injury, and coupled with his hot play and Wilton Guerrero playing poorly, Vidro was back where he belonged.
In his first month back in the big leagues, Vidro's hot bat from the winter carried over. He slashed .294/.315/.529 with a pair of long-balls, and he was in the second base spot to stay.
His 1999 season reaffirmed his turnaround, finishing the year batting at a .304/.346/.476 line with a career-high 12 home runs and a 105 wRC+. He shrunk his K% by nearly 4% and put the ball in play more, finishing the year with a .319 BABIP.
The 1999 season was great for Vidro to get back to where he was before, but his 2000 season completely blew 1999 out of the water. He doubled his home run output, finished with the only 200-hit season of his career, and was named an All-Star for the first time. He set career-highs in nearly every statistic, including sporting a .330 batting average to close the year.
Expos manager Jim Beattie had always had Vidro's back through the struggles, and mentioned that he saw a lot of Edgar Martinez in the second baseman, someone who would develop his power at the major league level. His 24 home runs in 2000 exemplified that, and Beattie also noticed his turnaround and pinpointed why.
“It just seems as if he became more serious," Beattie said to Jeff Blair of The Globe in 2000. "This is a guy who, when he first came up, was in a concern group in the three areas we test for: conditioning, strength, and body fat. He’s worked hard, put himself in better shape and it’s started to pay off.”
Finishing the year with his best line yet, Vidro was rewarded with a new, 4-year, $19 million contract to remain an Expo, and despite financial constraints, team struggles and others, Vidro continued to hit well, earning All-Star selections in both 2002 and 2003.
In 2003, the squad was sold to Major League Baseball and had to split its home games in Montreal and Puerto Rico, playing a portion of its home games at Estadio Hiram Bithorn in San Juan. This helped Vidro more than others, despite the travel, he had some good moments in him back home, perhaps visualizing when he played winter ball again.
In his first game on his home island in front of his mother, Vidro whacked a two-run homer and had "tears in his eyes" running around the bases, but the emotions extended to game three of that series against the Mets.
Facing the Mets in a 1-1 game in extra innings, Vidro stepped up to the plate and slammed a walk-off home run in his native Puerto Rico, with horns blaring and people chanting his name as he raised his fist rounding the bases, a truly indelible baseball moment for a player who never got to experience postseason baseball.
Video truly enjoyed hitting at Estadio Hiram Bithorn, finishing the year with a .328/.432/.567 slash line with three home runs in 21 games in Puerto Rico.
Vidro continued to be solid in the last year of the Expos franchise, but his power numbers and hitting numbers did not extend to the team's relocation to Washington, as the cavernous RFK Stadium swallowed a lot of deep fly balls. He spent two more years in the organization before signing with the Seattle Mariners, where he had one good season left in him before retiring after the 2008 campaign.
Vidro deserves more respect for being one of the best Expos of all-time and one of the best second basemen in the early 2000s, and his numbers tell the story.
In Expos/Nationals franchise history, Vidro sits in the top 10 in Offensive WAR, hits and home runs, while being tied for second with a career .301 batting average as an Expo.
As for being one of the best second basemen of the 2000s, from 1999-2003, Vidro has the best batting average and is second in wOBA and wRC+, finishing third in hits and SLG as well as the top 5 in several other categories.
Nowadays, struggles of athletes are so well-documented, and back in Vidro's day, it was easier to keep that silent.
Vidro, who became one of the best players in Expos history and one of the best second basemen of the 2000s, could have had a different story if not for his decision to play winter ball in 1998. It could have very well saved his MLB career.