Heart and soul of the Indians Catcher: Sandy Alomar has emerged as an inspirational leader, a force on offense and the pitchers' best friend.

October 08, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

As Sandy Alomar circled the bases after his home run Sunday, it appeared as if he were soaring. And as he thrust both arms up during his home run trot, it was almost on cue that the 43,863 fans at Jacobs Field did the same -- a spontaneous moment of joy that Alomar yesterday was almost apologetic about.

"I have never, ever had a feeling like that before," Alomar said, still managing to smile about the hit that set up the Game 4 win. "I'm not the type of guy to show anybody up, and I don't want anybody to feel that way. But I just threw my arms up because I was so excited that I gave my team a chance to win a game."

Sure, phenom Jaret Wright won two games -- including the clincher -- in the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees. Marquis Grissom picked an opportune time to end a slump and drive in two big runs. And Jim Thome supplied the big defensive play late in the game that thwarted a potential Yankee rally.

But make no mistake: The 1997 Indians have Alomar's fingerprints -- or perhaps catcher's mitt -- all over them. And Cleveland's second appearance in the AL Championship Series in three years has much to do with the five-time All-Star, who will face his younger brother, Orioles second baseman Roberto, in the series.

"He's done an unbelievable job, not just this past year, but over the years," said pitcher Charles Nagy. "When you go out there, he has such a tremendous confidence behind the plate that I'm like, 'Sandy, whatever you want me to throw, I'll throw.' He's definitely one of our MVPs, and I don't know where we will be without him."

They would likely be home. Which many expected of a team that, falling short of a World Series title the previous two years, was retooled in the off-season. Gone were three of the team's top offensive performers (Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga). Alomar picked an appropriate time to have his best offensive season, with career highs in hitting (.324), doubles (37), home runs (21) and RBIs (83).

Alomar's production comes when he had put together two injury-free seasons in a row for the first time in his career. Alomar, who, at 6 feet 5, plays with a quiet grace, probably would have had better statistics had he played in more than 125 games.

"He's done it for the whole season, and every time we needed somebody to come through, he's the one that has always been there for us," said shortstop Omar Vizquel. "It's hard to have a year like that, to carry a team and to be in the highlights every day. And that's what he has done."

Many rave about his offense, but manager Mike Hargrove likes to talk about Alomar's defense, especially the way he has handled a pitching staff that struggled.

"The way he has developed and helped our pitching staff and his game-calling has helped us win ballgames as much as his offense," Hargrove said. "I feel that he is one of the top catchers of the game today."

That was never clearer than in the Division Series, when Alomar helped guide Wright to two victories, including the clincher in Game 5. When Wright got into trouble by walking three batters in the first inning of Game 2, Alomar's comforting words helped guide the rookie out of peril.

"He knows the hitters, and he's a good target," Nagy said. "He has definitely helped me over the years."

Because Alomar has the longest tenure with the team (he was Rookie of the Year in 1990), he is, on occasion, the man who players look to for guidance.

"He's a team leader, by far," said outfielder Bip Roberts. "Off the field, he's always positive. He's always talking to the pitchers about what they could have done, about what they're doing. He's one of the guys where it's just a good feeling being around him."

Still, don't refer to Alomar as the elder statesman.

"I have the longest time here as an Indian, but a lot of these guys have eight to 10 years' experience in the big leagues," Alomar said. "They know exactly what they're doing, and what to do. We don't have to baby-sit anybody here."

Their battle against the Yankees showed they can play well, unlike the playoffs the previous two years -- when certain players tended to talk about how well they could play.

"This is a lot different playoffs, and all of these guys are playing with heart," Alomar said. "We have given all that we have in the last five games. It was like a World Series for us. Hopefully, the next week we can do the same."

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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