Pressure is Alexander's toughest shot

July 18, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

Another night, another error.

Manny Alexander is struggling to hold up his end of The Move, in which he plays the role of the person substituting for God in Sunday school.

"He's tense," Alexander's agent, Mike Powers, said yesterday. "I can see it. Everyone can see it. If he was being honest, he'd admit it."

He doesn't need to admit it; as Powers said, anyone can see it.

It's hardly a surprise. When Cal Ripken last didn't start at shortstop for the Orioles, Alexander was 11 years old and living in a shack in San Pedro de Macoris, his hometown in the Dominican Republic.

Fourteen years later, Alexander has pushed Ripken to third base for the past three nights at Camden Yards.

The sheer size of the situation finally hit Alexander on Tuesday night, when he committed an error, botched another play and heard boos. Some friends of his from the Dominican embassy in Washington were in the stands. It was a tough, emotional night.

He finally began to realize that replacing Ripken was, well, kind of a big deal.

"It sounds crazy, but he hadn't thought about that," Powers said.

How? What planet does he live on?

"You have to understand the kid," Powers said, laughing. "He's as laid-back as it gets. Nothing bothers him. He's oblivious to his surroundings. If he got traded tomorrow, he wouldn't blink. He doesn't read the papers. Well, maybe the box scores. But not the articles."

When Orioles manager Davey Johnson told him Monday afternoon that he would start at shortstop that night, Alexander was almost childishly joyful.

"You're joking," Alexander said.

"I'm not," Johnson said.

Alexander smiled all night at getting the chance to play his natural position after waiting so long behind Ripken. The pressure didn't matter; the opportunity did.

But now the pressure matters, too.

"It just hit him, finally, how big it all was," Powers said. "He tensed up. I have been with him for six years and seen him play in some big games in the Caribbean World Series and other places, and I have never seen him like this."

Not that Alexander has never played under pressure. He has played under an even greater weight from the first day the Orioles signed him in 1988 as a young, scrawny survivor of Third World poverty.

"He has been the one to provide for his family," Powers said. "Manny is the oldest. They all grew up in a shack by the ballpark in San Pedro. I have seen a couple of [Dominican Orioles prospects] who were poorer, but not many. You can't fathom how little they have until you see it."

When he played at Frederick in 1991, Alexander lived in an apartment with Cesar Devarez. He walked to the ballpark because he had neither a car nor a driver's license. But he had a future, according to the Orioles, and, most importantly, he was making money.

"He took the money and used it to build his mother and family a house back in San Pedro," Powers said. "He was so proud of it that the first thing he did was put on an addition. Then he built himself a house."

Coming from his background, making a major-league salary -- at any position -- amounts to hitting the lottery. Alexander's baseball skills have enabled his family to escape a horrid cycle of poverty. He is married now, with one young child.

"We finally went and got him a used BMW the other day," Powers said. "To see the pride of ownership on his face, the way things are coming together, it's like watching a flower bloom."

Continuing to bloom through The Move won't be easy, particularly with Ripken moving to third so effortlessly.

Alexander had to be perfect.

Right away, it was too much for him.

"Talking to Pat [Gillick] and Kevin [Malone], I feel like they're committed to this thing," Powers said. "We all know what Manny can do. He will relax, I hope. And that's what this is about, seeing what he can accomplish when he relaxes."

Powers was worried enough after Tuesday night's debacle to call Alexander yesterday morning.

"I just wanted to tell him, 'Hey, relax and have fun and I'm proud of you,' " Powers told him. "That's all I'm going to say to him."

Things weren't much better last night. Alexander committed another error when a dribbler went underneath his glove in the second inning as a Toronto runner passed in front of him. Another round of boos rained down.

He later made a fine running play that drew cheers, but two

errors in two nights is problematic, particularly with Alexander's hitting line against the Blue Jays consisting of one single and five strikeouts in three games. Ouch.

"Manny has been patient with them, done everything they asked, moved around to different positions," Powers said. "I just hope they're patient with him now."

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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