Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 15 – Sandy Alomar
Steve Eby | On 19, Mar 2017
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Some baseball players have a special connection with a city because of their outstanding talent. Some players have a special connection because of their outstanding personalities.
Former Indians catcher Sandy Alomar had both.
Still a fan favorite more than a decade and a half after he wore #15 as a player for the Cleveland Indians, Alomar currently serves on the Major League coaching staff as the Indians look to defend their American League Central Division crown. A 20-year veteran with seven different teams, Alomar lived out his childhood dreams and followed in the footsteps of his father, former Major League infielder Sandy Sr., while playing more than half of his career with Cleveland.
“When I was a kid my father played Major League Baseball, so baseball was always there,” Alomar said of growing up in Puerto Rico during an interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night in 2014. “I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I used to go to Winter Ball and come to the US and watch him play over here.”
Alomar was not alone in his journey, as he had a younger brother, Roberto Alomar, who would also make a huge impact on the game of baseball, and later, the Indians organization as well.
“My brother and I always wanted to be baseball players,” Alomar said of he and Robbie. “We got to hang around Major League players and locker rooms ever since we were kids, so we learned the professional way at an early age.”
Both Alomar boys got their professional careers started with the San Diego Padres in the late 1980’s. It was the start of a dream-come-true scenario that was cut short when the elder Alomar was traded to Cleveland prior to the 1990 season.
“Through our lives, Roberto was my roomie. We slept in the same room – we didn’t have separate bedrooms. We played together all the way growing up and we were signed by the same organization…the San Diego Padres. When I got traded to Cleveland, our goal was always to play Major League Baseball together. We did play a little bit together in San Diego – a very little bit.”
A dream scenario that was put on hold ended up eventually turning into a dream scenario for the Indians, who had just acquired one of the game’s best young catching prospects. Alomar was traded from San Diego because they already had a superstar catcher, Benito Santiago, blocking his path. The Padres received Cleveland’s best player, Joe Carter, in return and also gave outfielder Chris James and young infielder Carlos Baerga to the Tribe in the deal. Alomar’s stock was extremely high at the time of the trade, but the future All-Star Baerga was a bit of an unknown.
“It’s not that he wasn’t supposed to be very good, (it was that) he wasn’t fully developed yet,” Alomar said of his longtime teammate Baerga. “When Carlos got traded here, he was still in the developing process.”
Alomar knew that the future was bright for Baerga and saw a potential steal for the Indians.
“He was always a good hitter. Carlos always could hit. It wasn’t that he wasn’t a good Major League player, it’s that he wasn’t a good Major League player yet. When Carlos got traded with me I was like, ‘Wow, Carlos Baerga is coming with me and they don’t know how good of a player they’re getting. We were excited.”
Alomar and Baerga helped rejuvenate the downtrodden franchise into a team on the rise in the early ’90’s. Alomar appeared in three straight All-Star Games from 1990-92 and won a Gold Glove and the 1990 American League Rookie of the Year Award as well. By the time the Tribe moved to Jacobs Field in 1994, the team that was full of young budding superstars was ready to contend.
“We knew that we had a good enough team to do it,” Alomar said.
The 1994 Indians were young, exciting, and explosive when the player’s strike cancelled the remainder of the season and the playoffs in early August. The Tribe was just one game behind the division-leading White Sox and were sitting in the AL Wild Card seat when the season stopped abruptly. When the ’95 season got its delayed start, Alomar and his teammates were ready to do more than just contend.
“When we finished in ’94, I thought there was a lot of promise for ’95,” Alomar recalled.
Unfortunately for Alomar, his spot to join the magical season was put on hold due to injury – a common theme that plagued Alomar throughout the beginning of his career. After playing 132 games during his rookie season, Alomar had been limited to just 51, 89, 64, and 80 over the next four years. When he wasn’t able to debut in 1995 until June 29, it was disappointing for the 29-year-old backstop.
“In ’95 I was diagnosed with a micro fracture in my left knee. Nobody knew what I had and they initially thought I was out for the year,” Alomar said. “It was devastating. I had the surgery done because I had no choice and I remember Fernando Montes saying that I was going to be back in three months, guaranteed. It was kind of unprecedented, but I was able to come back in three months and performed well.”
Alomar was able to contribute 66 games for the Tribe in ’95 and batted .300 for the first time in his career. The Indians took the American League Central by storm that summer and finished with a 100-44 record for the strike-shortened season.
“Just to have the chance to win 100 games and make it to the playoffs was unbelievable,” Alomar said.
Alomar’s favorite memory of that summer came on the day that the ’95 Indians put an end to the franchise’s 41-year postseason drought.
“Just the fact that the day that we clinched,” Alomar said, “we put the nail in the coffin and said, ‘We’re in the playoffs…finally!’ That day was very exciting for the city and we had the opportunity to be in the postseason.”
The Tribe swept the Boston Red Sox in the Division Series and then won a thrilling ALCS against the Seattle Mariners to make the franchise’s first World Series appearance since 1954. Alomar, like most of Cleveland’s hitters, struggled somewhat against Atlanta’s mighty pitching staff, but he also had one of the Series’ biggest hits in Game 3 against Braves closer Mark Wohlers.
“I (knew that I) had to hit against the closer and he was going to attack right away,” Alomar said. “You want to get one swing in on a closer before there are two strikes. He just happened to throw a pitch over the middle-away part of the plate and I just went with it. It went over first base and down the line and we tied the game. It was exciting to give us a chance in that game.”
The eighth inning RBI-double tied the ballgame that the Indians would eventually end up winning, allowing the Tribe to avoid a 3-0 series disadvantage. The Tribe would end up losing the Series in six games, as the Braves would win their only World Series during their long playoff stretch.
The Indians and Alomar would get (and fall short) on another crack at a World Series title in 1997 when they were defeated in a heartbreaking seven games by the Florida Marlins. Alomar was the team’s best hitter for the entire season and then put the ball club on his back for the postseason.
“Yeah, 1997 was a special year,” Alomar said of his .324 batting average with 21 home runs and 83 RBI. Alomar posted a career-high in all three Triple Crown categories that summer.
In addition to his postseason heroics, Alomar also had a special moment in the All-Star Game, which was hosted at Jacobs Field. In the seventh inning of a tie game, Alomar took the Giants’ Shawn Estes out of the park for a two-run home run and wound up winning the game’s MVP Award.
“Just to have a chance to play in the All-Star Game in front of your home fans – being there and enjoying the crowd – and then having an opportunity to win the game in a key moment was like a dream come true,” Alomar said of his fifth of six All-Star Games. “I didn’t even think I was going to get a chance to play, but to get the chance to win the game in the seventh inning and hitting a home run was unbelievable. It was a surreal moment.”
After another All-Star season in 1998, Alomar got a chance to revisit one of his old dreams at the start of the 1999 campaign. With Baerga having been traded three seasons prior and a revolving door of players at second base, the Indians signed Sandy’s brother Roberto to one of the best free agent contracts in franchise history. It was an awesome reunion for the two brothers on one of baseball’s best teams.
“When the opportunity really presented itself in Cleveland he ran over here,” Alomar said of his brother. “We were so excited and we had a great time.”
The brothers would play together for the 1999 and 2000 seasons, which turned out to be two of the younger Alomar’s best in a Hall of Fame career.
“I got a chance to see my brother play and now he’s in the Hall of Fame. I’m glad I got the chance to see him play at his top level in his prime.”
In addition to being in the same lineup as his big brother, the Gold Glover Roberto also got to pair up with Cleveland’s defensive wizard of a shortstop, Omar Vizquel. Even though Sandy had played a countless number of games with both fielding magicians, even he was in awe of what the duo could do defensively.
“I had the privilege to be behind the plate while those two guys were playing together,” Alomar said. “It was a pleasure to watch two guys who were magicians with their gloves. Their Baseball IQ and awareness were real sharp. It was fun to call the game because you knew that if they hit a grounder up the middle, they were out.”
With a younger and cheaper catching option, Einar Diaz, ready for Big League action, the 33-year-old Alomar was let go via free agency following the 2000 season. He spent multiple seasons with the Chicago White Sox and also some short periods with the Colorado Rockies, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and finally the New York Mets through 2007. After the ’07 season in New York, the 41-year-old Alomar had done enough catching and looked forward to the next step in his impressive baseball career.
After retiring from playing, Alomar quickly got hired by the Mets to be their catching instructor. Alomar’s goal of being a manager one day was no secret, and the former catcher has been rumored as a possibility for many jobs since.
“I had a pretty good transition from being a player to being a coach,” Alomar said of his first gig with the Mets. “For me, it was easy to become a coach, so when the New York Mets gave me the opportunity it was great.”
Alomar worked for the Mets in both 2008 and 2009 before he was hired back by his old team when manager Manny Acta took over in 2010.
“When the Indians called me to be the first base coach I was ecstatic,” Alomar said. “I had a chance to come back as a coach for the organization that gave me my first real Major League opportunity. I was ecstatic to be back.”
Alomar has remained with the organization – and even served a short term as Interim Manager – through Acta’s firing after 2012 and serves as manager Terry Francona‘s first base coach for the current Indians. Despite not wearing his playing spikes anymore, Alomar’s goal for his longtime organization remains the same as it did as a player – and it is one that Tribe fans everywhere hope comes to fruition.
“I want the World Series,” Alomar said. “That’s what we’re all here for. That’s the piece…the trophy…that we want here.”
Photo: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images