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Roberto Alomar's brilliance still on display

12/2/2009

You say you are young, and didn't see Roberto Alomar play?

No problem. You get a chance to witness the brilliance of Roberto Alomar just about every night on a major league baseball field, when infielders make plays that Alomar all but invented and popularized.

A shortstop, like John McDonald, goes to his right to glove a ball and suddenly slides to a stop -- like he's slamming on the brakes -- and then pops up and throws to first base, cutting down the runner. That's Roberto Alomar. Some longtime scouts say they can't remember anybody playing in this style until Alomar came along.

A second baseman ranges for a ground ball near the bag as a runner breaks from first base. Using only his glove, the infielder grabs and then flips the ball to the shortstop, who steps on second and then fires to first to complete a double play. That's Alomar, whose hands were among the best in the majors, even when he didn't actually have a ball come into contact with his skin.

You see Derek Jeter lunge to field a ground ball up the middle, as a fast runner moves up the first-base line. But rather than throw to first in a futile attempt, Jeter whirls and glances at the runner who has stopped just past third base ... and then throws behind him to A-Rod, for a quick tag. That's Alomar, whose ability to cut down runners on relays and ground balls was extraordinary.

There may be Hall of Fame candidates with better statistical credentials -- others will get more votes, others who played harder and were better teammates and who conducted themselves better. But Alomar, at his best, may have played the game better than all but a small handful of his peers over the past quarter-century, and his impact on how the game is played is tangible. In the same way that Michael Jordan helped shift basketball from a game built on the jump shot into a contest of slashing bodies, Alomar altered the landscape of what was possible for infielders.

"He had something that not many players had -- this ultra-instinct," said Pat Gillick, who first came to know Alomar when the prospective Hall of Famer was a child playing at Yankee Stadium; as a general manager, Gillick later acquired Alomar twice, first for the Blue Jays and then for the Baltimore Orioles. "He was sort of like Wayne Gretzky. You know how Gretzky had this sense of where the puck was going to be, and where all the players on the ice were. That's what he had.

"Instinct, to me, is doing something without thought, because if you need the thought to make it happen, then by the time you have the thought, it's too late. That's what Alomar had -- an inborn trait."

And that vision was honed by many years of trailing his father, Sandy Alomar Sr., to ballparks, playing games with other kids, getting comfortable with major league surroundings. "He played with a combination of athleticism, grace and agility that is just rare," said Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "Some guys have the grace, some guys have the quickness, some guys have the strong arm. He had the full package.

"I'll be honest with you -- among the players I've watched in 18 years, he was among the most complete players I've ever been around. His defense, of course, and he had the ability to impact the game in every way possible -- at the plate, drop a bunt down or hit a home run."

Gillick was sitting behind home plate for the 1992 championship series, when the Blue Jays still hadn't won a championship and the Oakland Athletics were still regarded as the pre-eminent AL power. Dennis Eckersley took the mound in the top of the ninth inning with a two-run lead, in the late afternoon shadows. "The lights weren't on," Gillick remembered, "you couldn't see anything."

But Alomar -- who would hit .423 in that series -- pulled a two-run homer into the right-field stands, to tie the score; the Blue Jays would go on to win in extra innings. "I don't know how he hit the ball," Gillick said. "I don't know how he saw the ball. It was such a clutch play for us at the time."

Alomar turned the franchise around in Toronto, believes Gordon Lakey, who worked as a Jays scout, under Gillick. "Robbie was a manager on the field, in the way he looked at the game," Lakey said. "He was able to see everything. You know, he had great range, but he didn't have range based on speed, he had great range based on angles. And Robbie had this unique ability to stop a ball without the ball ever entering his glove."

Like Omar Vizquel, Alomar would sometimes feed his throwing hand by essentially ricocheting the ball off the pocket of his glove into his right hand, rather than taking the time needed to squeeze the ball into his pocket before pulling it out of his glove with his bare hand. "Robby was such a good baserunner, too," Lakey said. "He had an awareness that other players didn't have. ... I don't think I ever saw Robby get trapped off a base and picked off."

In 1999, Alomar went to the Indians and played alongside Vizquel, whose defensive talents and skills were equal to those of Alomar, and Shapiro remembers the two of them working together in spring training and marveling. Somebody wrote at the time, Shapiro recalls, that watching infield practice was like watching ballet -- like watching a performance.

"It was almost like they both knew how gifted they were, and they had fun with it," Shapiro said. "They were practicing a lot of different things" -- improvised plays -- "and it was almost like they did it to keep it interesting."

Said Lakey: "I think he is a Hall of Fame player -- he was dominant at his position. He might be one of the one or two best second baseman ever."

I agree. I covered Alomar in 1996, in his first season with the Orioles, and his play in the first half of that year remains the greatest exhibition of baseball talent I have ever seen. He hit .353 in that first half, with 36 extra-base hits, but his brilliance went way beyond that. It seemed he altered game after game with some remarkable cut-off throw or some play in the first-base hole, or a baserunning play in a big spot, or maybe he just kept a ball in the infield with a dive to his right.

He could be moody, he could be petty, and he was among the great quote revisionists I've ever dealt with, denying he said things that he said. He was a frustrating personality to deal with for a beat reporter. In time, his reputation for being a clubhouse loner -- unlike his brother Sandy, who was a friend to everybody -- may have scared off teams. But Alomar was a unique baseball player, a brilliant performer in the art of playing baseball.

You say you are young, and can't remember seeing Alomar play? I say that while you might catch a lot of imitations these days, you missed a great show. You missed a Hall of Famer.

The incident

If there was a need to address some kind of problem with Roberto Alomar, said one talent evaluator who worked with him, you had to do it strategically. You couldn't just barrel into the conversation bluntly about how he made a mistake. "He's a very sensitive guy, and he didn't like criticism," said the evaluator. "When you talked to him about something that needed to be corrected, you needed to start out with something positive. You couldn't go right to the negative."

He sometimes seemed wounded by slights, no matter how minor. And this is part of the reason I will always believe that Alomar was never the same after he felt the full brunt of fallout from the John Hirschbeck spitting incident, which occurred at a time when I covered Alomar and the Baltimore Orioles for the Baltimore Sun.

The Orioles were in Toronto for a season-ending three-game series, fighting to make the playoffs. Hirschbeck was the plate umpire and during Alomar's at-bat in the first inning, there was tension between the two men. After Alomar made an out and returned to the dugout, Hirschbeck threw him out of the game. From the press box in the SkyDome, we could see Davey Johnson rush out of the Orioles' dugout, shouting at the umpire, Alomar right behind him, all of them moving close together.

But a couple of innings would pass before any of us in the press box realized that Alomar had spit on Hirschbeck. Somebody mentioned it -- I can't remember who -- and between innings, I went upstairs to the Orioles' TV booth and mentioned the buzz about Alomar and Hirschbeck to Baltimore broadcasters Mike Flanagan and Mel Proctor, and asked if they could replay the confrontation. And sure enough, it was all very clear: Alomar winding up and spraying saliva all over Hirschbeck's face.

Immediately after the game, team sources said that as Johnson had run out to the umpire, he had said, "You can't throw out my best player." And Hirschbeck had replied, "I don't care about that (12-letter-word)." There would be great speculation and some reports in the weeks that followed that Hirschbeck had used other words, and Robbie's own version of what was said evolved over time. But I don't believe that, because that night, at the time it happened, nobody said anything about that; all anybody said was that Hirschbeck referred to Alomar as a (12-letter word).

Alomar was among the last Orioles to speak to reporters that night, and he came out so late that I returned to the press box before he came out. Jason La Canfora -- who would go on to fame and glory for the Detroit Free Press and Washington Post and, currently, for the NFL Network -- was working as an intern at the time for the Sun, and I asked him to stay behind to wait for Alomar while I went to write the game story. When Jason returned to the press box, he said, "You're not going to believe what Robbie said."

I listened to the tape, and it was stunningly awful. Alomar took issue with Hirschbeck for the ejection -- not surprisingly -- but went on to say that Hirschbeck's personality had changed since the death of a young son. Later, Robbie would say that the reporters had twisted and altered his words; this was an outright lie. The words were his and his alone.

The Orioles and Blue Jays had a day game the next afternoon, and I remember waking up and immediately hoping that Hirschbeck would see the morning newspapers, which contained Alomar's incredibly inappropriate reference to his late child, in the privacy of his hotel room. This way, I hoped, Hirschbeck would have a chance to absorb the words, process them, and deal with them internally before going to the park.

Hirschbeck hadn't been available after the game the night before, so two other reporters and myself knocked on the door to the umpires' room to get an update on whether Hirschbeck had filed his report about the spitting incident with the American League office. Hirschbeck cheerfully invited us back into the dressing room and updated us on where everything stood with the league office. I stood there and listened to him and remained hopeful that at the very least, somebody had seen Alomar's comments and called him to give him a heads-up.

There was a pause, as Hirschbeck waited for the next question. I asked Hirschbeck if he had seen Alomar's comments in the morning paper. "No," he replied. "Why? What did he say?"

The three reporters in the room began relaying Alomar's comments to him, and Hirschbeck was speechless, tears and rage filtering into his eyes. Jim McKean, the longtime umpire who was part of the crew, saw all of this happening and politely asked us to leave. I was no more than five feet out the door when Hirschbeck burst out of the umpires' room, screaming for Alomar, running toward the door of the Orioles' clubhouse nearby; he was deep inside the clubhouse, within view of Alomar, when he was restrained by the others. It was sad, and terrible.

Hirschbeck did not work the game that afternoon, but was back on the field the next day. A week later, he publicly forgave Alomar, and in time, the two men made their peace, thankfully.

But Alomar was booed thickly on the road during the playoffs that year, in Cleveland and in New York, and he continued to be booed; it bothered him a lot, and I think he was affected, for the worse. It was as if some of the joy that he drew from the game just disappeared after that.

Alomar had several more excellent seasons, the last of which came in 2001, when he hit .336 with 66 extra-base hits and 30 steals for the Indians. But more and more, there were stories of his being a disruptive clubhouse presence, jealous of others, difficult for his managers; to some of his teammates, he just didn't seem very happy. His batting average dropped 70 points in his first season with the Mets, and just two years later the career of the brilliant baseball savant was finished, far sooner than anyone who saw his intellect and instinct and athleticism a decade before would've imagined.

Many sons of ballplayers who go on to become major leaguers themselves seem to last longer, perhaps because this is the life they know. Ken Griffey Jr. just finished his 21st season, at age 39. Barry Bonds, the son of Bobby, played at 43 years old. Sandy Alomar Jr. took his last swing at age 41. But Robbie Alomar was finished at age 36, and I will always wonder if his career would have played out differently if not for those ugly days in Toronto at the end of the regular season in 1996.

The trade

Alomar was part of one of the greatest blockbuster deals of all time, a trade between the San Diego Padres and Toronto Blue Jays that involved four players who were All-Stars in the first summer after the deal was made. The Padres swapped Alomar and Joe Carter for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez, in a deal that was negotiated in mere hours, and according to former Jays GM Pat Gillick and former Jays scout Gordon Lakey -- who are both now with the Phillies -- nobody went into the room even thinking about including Alomar or Fernandez in the trade.

The Padres were looking for a left-handed hitter and wanted McGriff, and the Blue Jays wanted a right-handed hitter, Carter. The Blue Jays' party went to the room of Joe McIlvaine, who had just taken over as the Padres' general manager, and after they sort of settled on the McGriff-for-Carter matchup, McIlvaine -- who was in need of a shortstop -- asked Gillick if he would ever consider trading Fernandez, who was 28 years old and had already won four Gold Gloves as a shortstop.

What Gillick knew, from the newspapers, was that Alomar had balked at the notion of playing shortstop, and now here was McIlvaine, asking him for a shortstop. "Joe," he responded, "would you ever consider moving Alomar for Fernandez?"

McIlvaine replied, "I like big deals. Let's sit on it."

The Toronto party, which included Moose Johnson, left the room in a giddy daze. "We've got a real chance to get this deal done," Gillick told the others. He always wanted to bring along his assistants so that they could read conversations, and now one of them had a suggestion: When Gillick met again with the Padres, he should ask for young pitcher Greg Harris, as well.

When Gillick got together with McIlvaine again hours later, he did ask for Harris. "But he pulled it back quicker than he could say it," Lakey recalled.

And the deal was done.

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Elsewhere, Alomar tells Bob Klapisch he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Alomar won't get a first-ballot vote from Bill Livingston.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Braves signed Billy Wagner, colleague Jerry Crasnick confirms, and also offered arbitration to Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, David O'Brien writes.

A rival executive said this morning that he likes the deal for the Braves, because Wagner comes to them at a discounted rate. "He's probably an $11 million-a-year closer if he's not a Type A free agent," said the executive. "So they get a potentially high-impact pitcher on a short-term obligation." Said another executive: "It's a value signing. You wouldn't want to give up the draft pick, but because he came to them for less than what he'd normally cost, it's probably worth it. ... He was throwing the ball great in September."

But not everybody loves the deal. From a talent evaluator: "I don't get it at all [for the Braves]. Yes, the salary part is fine, but you're talking about a lot of risk there -- 38 years old, coming back from Tommy John surgery -- and you need those picks; those picks are invaluable. I know they could be thinking that they could get back picks for Soriano and Gonzalez, but if I'm in their shoes, I'm trying to collect as many picks as I can."

2. Heard this: The Rockies and closer Huston Street are far apart in early discussions on a multiyear deal, with Street reportedly seeking something in the area of three years and $24 million. If the two sides can't reach an agreement before next July, the Rockies will consider trading the closer before he becomes eligible for free agency after the 2010 season.

3. The Indians have alternatives at catcher, so rather than pay Kelly Shoppach $3 million for 2010 -- a rebuilding year -- it makes more sense for them to play Lou Marson, and to continue to develop star prospect Carlos Santana, who could be in the big leagues by the middle of next season. Shoppach still has upside -- his ball-in-play rate indicated he was somewhat unlucky last season -- and some evaluators like him as anything from a part-time catcher to possible everyday guy; as a backup, he provides tremendous insurance. Now the Indians will take a full look at Marson, as Santana progresses through the minors.

4. The Rays traded for Shoppach, and their plans for Dioner Navarro are unclear.

5. The Texas Rangers admit that they took awhile to refund money to fans for possible playoff tickets.

6. Heard this: There is work to be done before the prospective bidders for the Texas Rangers will reach the $500 million asking price.

7. The Mariners offered arbitration to Adrian Beltre. It's hard to imagine that he would get more in annual salary for 2010 than he would if he simply accepted arbitration, but on the other hand, Beltre would get only a one-year deal through arbitration, versus the three-year offer he might get from a team like the Red Sox (for less annual salary).

8. The Rockies offered arbitration to Rafael Betancourt. Again, it's hard to imagine Betancourt's making more money in 2010 than by simply accepting arbitration -- and of the Type A's offered arbitration, he could be the player whose market is most affected.

9. The Phillies signed Brian Schneider to a two-year deal. I find it fascinating that the Phillies and Mets obviously have very, very different reads on Schneider's skills. The veteran was essentially tossed out the door by the Mets, and on the flip side, the Phillies gave him a two-year deal.

10. The Phillies could take a run at Placido Polanco.

11. The Angels offered arbitration to John Lackey and Chone Figgins.

12. The Dodgers are the neglected kids in the McCourts' divorce proceedings, writes T.J. Simers. The Dodgers didn't offer arbitration to any of their prospective free agents -- including Randy Wolf, who is drawing a whole lot of interest.

13. The Giants, in the end, decided not to offer arbitration to Bengie Molina. There are a bunch of players available now who won't cost the Giants a draft pick, writes Andrew Baggarly.

14. Mark DeRosa was offered arbitration by the Cardinals, along with two others, Joe Strauss writes.

15. Heard this: One high-ranking rival executive believes that Matt Holliday will sign with the Mets. (To be clear, this was a prediction, and not hard information.)

16. The Royals didn't offer arbitration to Miguel Olivo, Bob Dutton writes.

17. The Twins took the first step toward bringing back Carl Pavano, by offering him arbitration.

18. The Grady Sizemore investigators are making progress, writes Paul Hoynes.

19. The Brewers continue to save their money for starting pitching -- they didn't offer arbitration to anybody, Anthony Witrado writes.

20. The Cubs and White Sox offered arbitration to ... nobody, Dave Van Dyck and Mark Gonzalez write.

21. You can't blame Roy Halladay for wanting to avoid the trade-rumor circus, writes Bob Elliott.

22. The Orioles don't have any timetable to fill the opening in their front office, writes Dan Connolly.

Other stuff

• Joe Girardi gave sliding lessons to a quarterback. I kind of wonder if sliding is one of those skills that you either learn as a kid or don't really learn to do well ever.

Jed Lowrie is trying to prove his worth to the Red Sox.

• A couple of Washington Nationals are having a Twitter race, and the loser gets a mullet, Dan Steinberg writes.

• There's a lot of interest in Jermaine Dye, but not from the White Sox, writes Joe Cowley. Within the same piece, there could be a telltale sign about Bobby Jenks' future.

• The Marlins got shares checks.

• A Reds-related Q&A, from John Fay.

• The Florida governor met with the Cubs, about a spring training site.

• Preliminary results in the death of the wife of pitcher Scott Schoeneweis were revealed.

• The number of stimulant exemptions in Major League Baseball rose again, Ron Blum writes.

• Sad news: Old Reliable has passed away, at age 96. The news was announced by the Yankees, writes old friend Dick Goldstein.

• Great news: Vin Scully is coming back.