Alomar always has been player Prospect grows up: Felipe Alou knew Orioles second baseman was something special when Alomar was a teen in Puerto Rico.

March 31, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Sleep beckoned for Felipe Alou as he lay in bed watching the first game of the 1993 World Series. He was tired, and besides, he'd seen plenty of World Series games in his lifetime, played in some in 1962.

And then something drove him to his feet, something he had never seen, something he was sure had never been done, something that would keep him awake for four hours after the game, calling his brothers late into the night.

The Philadelphia Phillies' Lenny Dykstra had hit a soft line drive to right -- a hit, Alou thought, in every other game that had been played, ever. But Toronto second baseman Roberto Alomar had anticipated Dykstra's swing correctly and gotten the best possible jump and dived, his landing carrying him almost behind the first baseman. He caught the ball.

Felipe Alou phoned his brothers, feeling a need to share the moment, the same way he called them after the first time he saw Alomar play, as a teen-ager in Puerto Rico. This one, he told them then, is a special player. Someone seemingly born to play baseball, he thought.

That was more than 10 years ago. Alomar is a six-time All- Star now, regarded as one of the best to ever play his position, and he's 28 and beginning his first season with the Orioles.

But Alou knew in 1985 that Alomar would be a great player. "I saw a hell of a prospect," said Alou, Alomar's first professional manager, in winter ball. "He could do everything. He could run, field, hit. He could turn a double play. Incredible. I managed a lot of young players, but he was the best I had ever seen. He was a natural, and definitely had some instincts that you just don't teach."

Even at 17, Alomar had the mental toughness, Alou thought, that many major-leaguers never acquire. The kid was still in school, asking for permission to arrive late to practice because of his classes, carrying his books to the ballpark, and yet it seemed to Alou that nothing intimidated him. Alomar felt sure he belonged and sure he was going to succeed.

"My starting second baseman was Al Newman, a major-league player," Alou said. "I think Roberto Alomar was probably a better player than Newman was, at that time."

Alomar has been immersed in baseball his entire life. His father, Sandy Alomar Sr., played in the majors for 15 years and played in winter ball, and Robbie would insist that he had to go with his father to all games. "I liked to watch my dad," Roberto said.

His older brother, Sandy Jr., now a catcher with the Cleveland Indians, would go through a stage when he didn't play baseball, when he preferred dirt bikes and volleyball. Roberto always loved baseball.

His mother would bring his school assignments to the ballpark, and Sandy Alomar remembers seeing his son sitting in the dugout or clubhouse and doing his homework. He would play catch with other children, improvising little games. A Cardinals scout saw Roberto playing pepper at age 6, and stopped his father. "Can I sign him now?" the scout said.

Roberto thrived on competition and hated to lose, to the point where he would cheat to win, his father says. If Roberto was playing pingpong or cards, he might creatively adjust the scores, something that infuriated his older brother. "I don't think it was a matter of trying to cheat," Roberto says now, smiling. "I think it was a matter of trying to win the game. Nobody likes to lose. I didn't like to lose. I wanted to win, in everything."

When he played baseball in the neighborhood and something happened that he didn't like, he would pack up his equipment and leave. Same thing in Little League: If things weren't going his way, he would pout. Sandy would render the worst punishment imaginable: "I would take them out of the games," he said. "He couldn't stand that."

Gradually, as his parents reasoned with him, Roberto matured. His obsessiveness for winning eased, but his overpowering love to play baseball didn't. He watched the game intensely on television. (It's something he still does. After playing five innings in the Orioles' exhibition Tuesday, Alomar showered and dressed, and rather than leave, he sat in the clubhouse and watched the last four innings on television, leaning forward in his chair.)

Roberto was about 12 or 13 when Sandy Alomar began to think his son might be a great player. He had an unusual ability to maintain his balance when jumping or running, this incredible flexibility, and confidence, the mental toughness that Felipe Alou saw later. If Alomar had a bad day, went hitless in four at-bats with a couple of strikeouts, he would wave it off. I'll just get three hits tomorrow, he would tell his father. Sandy Alomar said: "He was never afraid of making a mistake."

He watched the 1984 World Series between San Diego and the Detroit Tigers and announced to his father that he would be a major-leaguer and play for the Padres, at Jack Murphy Stadium.

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