Alomar will rise to occasion as curtain goes up on an era

April 01, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

He's Baryshnikov in cleats, baseball's answer to Michael Jordan, an artist with a warrior's heart. You don't have to be a baseball fan to appreciate Roberto Alomar. But if you're a baseball fan, you'll appreciate him that much more.

He does the big things, he does the little things, he does everything. And today, he takes the grand stage of Camden Yards, a stage befitting his immense talents, a stage where his Hall of Fame ability will be appreciated like never before.

He has played in a beach town (San Diego) and a hockey town (Toronto). Now, he gets to play in a baseball town, where even the return of the NFL would be dwarfed by the Orioles' first postseason appearance since 1983.

It's time.

First, owner Peter Angelos hired the best management team in the game. Next, general manager Pat Gillick hired many of the best players. Now, manager Davey Johnson will try to mold this $48 million collection into the best team.

Alomar is the linchpin of this new era, a six-time All-Star, and still only 28 years old. The Orioles signed him for three years, acquiring the offensive catalyst they lacked, and instantly forming one of the best double-play combinations in major-league history.

"I predict he'll be in the running for the MVP award," said Buck Martinez, the former major-league catcher who followed Alomar closely as a TV commentator for the Toronto Blue Jays and ESPN. "He has the ability to do anything on the baseball field."

We saw it when he hit his dramatic home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 American League Championship Series. We saw it when he tortured the Orioles with his clutch hitting and acrobatic defensive play for Toronto. And now, we're going to see it every day, for 162 games.

That's right, 162 -- not 112, the Orioles' total two years ago, or 144, the total last season. Baseball is back for real this time, complete with a full schedule and a fan-friendly TV contract. How fitting that in Baltimore, a town where the support barely waned, the reward is Alomar.

Camden Yards, that's what made it all possible. It bears repeating -- Camden Yards transformed this franchise. In three successive seasons, the Orioles have added Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla and now Alomar. Baltimore may not be as big as New York, but its baseball team can sure buy as many players.

Indeed, Baltimore is a city not unlike Kansas City, home of the Royals, today's Opening Day opponent. Yet, the Royals are caught in a small-market trap, slashing their payroll to survive. Their double-play combination is Bip Roberts and Jose Offerman -- lounge singers, compared with the Orioles' Simon and Garfunkel.

Alomar and Cal Ripken -- one born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the other in Aberdeen, Md., so different, yet so alike. Alomar plays with an uncommon flair, an uncanny grace. Yet, if he were merely a showman, Ripken wouldn't want any part of him. Instead, Ripken can't wait to turn their first double play.

Each grew up in a baseball family. Each developed tremendous baseball instincts and a love for the game. The first time they played together this spring, Alomar stunned Ripken with a perfect relay throw to the plate. It wasn't just the physical act that impressed Ripken, but the mental acuity, Alomar's sense of where the runner was and his decision to throw home.

Just as playing with Alomar excites Ripken, playing with Ripken will rejuvenate Alomar. He sulked over Toronto's decline last season, and his attitude became such a question that the Orioles initially thought another free-agent second baseman, Craig Biggio, might be a better fit for their club.

Sound familiar? Two years ago, the Orioles pursued Will Clark before Palmeiro, thinking he would be a superior clubhouse leader. They lucked out when Texas signed Clark, recently named one of the 10 biggest jerks in baseball by Sports Illustrated. Palmeiro is the better player and the better fit.

Alomar got a less lucrative contract than Biggio did in Houston, and perhaps that will motivate him the way Texas' decision to sign Clark motivated Palmeiro. Alomar said this spring that Latin players suffer from a lack of respect. The rush to sign Clark and then Biggio appears to support his case.

Mostly, though, Alomar is motivated by winning, and suddenly he appears hungry again. One day this spring, he and Bonilla played an afternoon exhibition in West Palm Beach and another in Fort Lauderdale that night. Then there was the game against Toronto in Dunedin, where he was booed by Blue Jays fans.

"As soon as they booed him, I went, 'Oooh, I wish they wouldn't have done that -- we're in for it now,' " Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston told Martinez. Sure enough, Alomar went 3-for-3 with a double and sacrifice fly, and played spectacularly in the field. "He has that ability," Martinez said. "He can really turn it on."

Alomar, a switch-hitter, does whatever is necessary at the plate, whether it's moving a runner over or delivering a leadoff double in the ninth. He'll even switch bats occasionally according to the situation. And he's certainly not content with his game -- he yearns to improve his .257 lifetime average against left-handers.

His defense?

"I used to love watching him make a great play, then watch him as he watched it under the JumboTron," Martinez said. "As a former player, that never bothered me. I thought, 'Go ahead and look. It was special.' "

He's Baryshnikov in cleats, baseball's answer to Michael Jordan, an artist with a warrior's heart.

Actually, Martinez put it best.

"He's a ballplayer, man. He's a ballplayer."

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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