Bob Elliott reports for the Toronto Sun on Roberto Alomar’s election to the baseball Hall of Fame. This story hits close to home since the Alomar’s are from my home town and I have known the family since as far back as I remember. Congratulations to all of them.
The scene is played out all over the world by childhood dreamers. “Wake up, wake up,” mom cries. Then, a few minutes later mom hits the replay button: “Wake up, time to go to school.”
So many mothers go through this on school days, until finally giving the ultimatum: “I’m not calling you again.”
The above scene repeated itself time and again in a certain bungalow in this Puerto Rican city of 30,000. And from under the covers came the words from a partly asleep, partly awake, full-time dreamer: “But Mommy, I don’t have to go to school, I’m going to be a major-league ball player.” This boy woke up, went to school and lived the dream.
Maria Alomar, mother of Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar, retold the story — a mother’s story with a mother’s pride and a mother’s gleam in her eye — in her living room the other day.
The youngest player ever elected to Cooperstown, hails from one of the oldest areas in the New World. Indeed, Christopher Columbus landed in San Juan back in 1493.
The Alomar family has lived in the same house on Monserrate Street in Salinas for the past 48 years. Maria wed Sandy Alomar in 1963. First, Maria gave birth to a daughter, Sandia, then Sandy Jr. and then Robbie, the youngest.
Robbie was born in nearby Ponce and came home to Monserrate Street a few days later. This past Monday, Luis Fortuño honoured him at the Governor’s Mansion in San Juan and he still came home to Monserrate Street.
Alomar now lives in Tampa, but this is the only real home he has ever known, far away from any talk of divorce proceedings. Here is where mom cooks his favourite meal: rice, beans and chicken, with garlic. “Oh my, he loved my garlic,” Maria said.
After falling eight votes short a year ago, voting members of the Baseball Writers of America Association showed Alomar a lot more love, naming him on 90% of the ballots. ESPN’s Jayson Stark points out Alomar’s jump of 126 votes this year over last, tied Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio who enjoyed a 126 vote bump in 1982 when he went from 12% to 41.9%. And Alomar had the largest jump in the history of this voting system by a returning candidate the year he got elected. The next closest was catcher Yogi Berra who captured 97 more votes.
Yet that outpouring of affection was easily matched by the four main women in his life: mother Maria; her sister Lourdes Velazquez, Robbie’s aunt; sister Sandia and her nine-year-old daughter Maria Alejandra. They gathered the other day to tell tales of Robbie’s early years.
Sandia, Robbie’s older sister by three years, remembers her brother’s major-league dreams. Robbie would tell her “when I grow up I’m going to be just like my dad, I’m going to be a second baseman in the major leagues. No, I’m going to be better than my dad, I’m going to be the best second baseman ever.” Big sis would counter the way most older sisters would, saying, “Robbie, you are living in fantasy land.”
Sandy played 15 seasons in the majors, Sandy Jr. 20 years and Robbie 17. The Alomar family tree stands almost as tall as the Alou family which has branches for Felipe, Matty, Jay and Moises. The three Alomars combined for 5,237 games, 20,425 at-bats and 5,128 hits. Altogether they were in 19 all-star games, won 10 Gold Gloves, had 337 post-season plate appearances and won two World Series in four tries. Sandy Jr. won a rookie of the year award and Robbie won ALCS MVP and all-star game MVP honours. There are over 60 trophies in the case covering one side of a wall in the family home, mostly “poppy” Sandy’s and Robbie’s haul as a youth player. The best are at Robbie’s house in Tampa or Sandy’s in Ohio. The walls of the living room are adorned with pictures, the best a shot of Sandy and Maria with their three children on Family Day at Yankee Stadium in 1976. “The next year they put the pictures from Family Day into the Yankee yearbook,” Sandia remembers. “Roy White’s family, Catfish Hunter, Lou Piniella and us.”
Maria remembers 1976. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner bought the players’ wives warm coats to wear to World Series games against the Cincinnati Reds. We see more pictures of Robbie as a Jay hopping over Cal Ripken on a double play at the SkyDome; Sandy Jr. with the Cleveland Indians; Sandy managing his two sons with Ponce in winter ball in 1996; a plaque commemorating Robbie’s induction into the Puerto Rico’s Hall of Fame; Sandy being elected in 1989…
Maria’s favourite picture of her Hall of Fame son?
Maria gets up off the couch and goes to another room and returns with a huge framed picture of Robbie in a Jays uniform, hat off, smiling. “He looks so relaxed,” Maria said. “Robbie loved playing in Toronto, the people there were so good to him. “He may have played longer with the Cleveland Indians, he may have had better years there and he enjoyed being there with Sandy, but he liked Toronto the best because he won there.”
Maria said Robbie called former Jays manager Cito Gaston his “father in Canada.” On visits to Toronto Maria would stay at the SkyDome Hotel. Her son would come home two hours after the game and watch the replays. “I’d say, ‘Robbie relax, relax,’ and he’d say he had to see why he made an error or a mistake. Then, he’d call me in to show me what he did wrong: ‘Look, I was moving too fast.’
“He would watch baseball, play baseball, eat baseball.” Chimed in nine-year-old Maria Alejandra, part innocence, part mischief, we’re not sure which: “Uncle Robbie ate a baseball?”
Sandia recalls Robbie watching the 1984 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the San Diego Padres at home in Puerto Rico. “The games from the coast started four hours later,” she said. “I remember saying why are you looking so serious at this World Series?” Robbie answered “because I’m going to be a San Diego Padre.” A year later Sandy and Robbie were signed by Padre scouts Luis Rosa and Sandy Johnson. “So much for his fantasy land,” Sandia said.
Before signing, Sandy was into karate, motorbikes and “other dangerous stuff,” according to Maria, and was a fan of daredevil Evel Knievel.
Meanwhile, Robbie was baseball, baseball, baseball. “He started Little League at six years old and he’d play every position — except catching,” Sandia said. “Robbie thought catching was too rough.”
Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día newspaper carried seven pages on Alomar’s election to the Hall, El Vocero and Primera Hora four pages each. He was on the front page of all three tabloids.
“When Robbie was young he was so quiet, so shy,” Sandia says. “He liked school. He just didn’t want to go. I’d tell him you have to go if you want to play ball.”
On Monserrate St., the Alomars own three houses in a row. Maria and papa Sandy live in the middle house, daughter Sandia is on one side and the other belongs to Sandy Jr., when he brings his family home in the off-season.
Maria sat in her front room watching the Jays in the 1992 American League Championship Series against the Oakland A’s. Closer Dennis Eckersley struck out Ed Sprague with two men on to end the eighth with a 6-4 lead in Oakland. Devon White led off the ninth with a single to bring up Alomar. “I was praying for a home run, we needed a home run,” Maria said. Alomar pulled the 2-2 pitch to right.
A no doubter.
Alomar threw his arms into the air. Robbie circled the bases. Maria ran around the house in ultimate joy.
Canadians waiting for their Thanksgiving dinner jumped in the air.
Many a Thanksgiving dinner was delayed as the Jays didn’t win until the 11th inning to move within a game of their first trip to the World Series.
“I was so proud of Robbie,” Maria says.
Robbie heard or read what people said about him.
“People used to say he was wrong for sliding into first,” Maria said. “I asked him once and he said ‘I slide into second, why shouldn’t I slide into first.
“Once he phoned excited that Peter Gammons said some very nice things about him on the TV.”
A baseball wife, Maria watched the Indians: Robbie bunted the runners over and the next two hitters made outs. Maria told Robbie: “Play for yourself, play for your numbers.”
Maria says Robbie replied: “Mommy, I play for my teammates and the fans who pay to see us play.”
An explanation of Latin American custom is needed: Grown men seldom use the terms mother or father. We remember the first time we were in the Dominican talking to tough-guy George Bell and being shocked when he kept saying “mommy and poppy.”
The end came in the spring of 2005 with the Tampa Bay Rays. Many thought it was Alomar’s eyesight which made him retire.
But a mother knows. “It was his back, think of how many times he dove for balls, slid head first stealing or was knocked down at second.”
Maria wanted him to keep playing … to get to 3,000 hits. “He always said when he started playing and his uniform wasn’t dirty from diving at the end of the game he’d quit,” Maria said.
So who is your favourite?
“Uncle Robbie,” said Maria Alejandra with a nine-year-old’s giggle, “but I like Sandy too.”
“Robbie,” said Sandia, “then Sandy, then my dad.”
“Robbie, he’s like a son,” said Lourde. “Some weeks I’d be here six nights a week when the boys were young.”
The Jays’ affection for the Alomars is deeper than Robbie having his name on the Level of Excellence on the 500 Level or wearing a Jays cap into Cooperstown in July. Sandy would have been a coach had the Jays hired Don Baylor as manager to replace Cito Gaston. And Sandy Jr. was one of the three finalists for the manager’s job to replace Gaston before the Jays hired John Farrell.
If you are a mother you may like this next part. If you are a mother who had a son or daughter go off to college and watched the phone calls home fade from four times a week to twice a week to every other week … well you will love this part. Maria says Robbie calls her every day. “I’m not kidding, every single day he’s away he calls,” she says. “He’ll say ‘thank you mommy, you are the best mom.’
“He’ll call, say ‘bless me mommy’, I’ll say ‘God bless you’ and he’ll be happy.”
For the original report go to http://www.torontosun.com/sports/baseball/2011/01/12/16867871.html