Indians brotherly to Alomar

May 12, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

CLEVELAND -- In the second half of the 1997 season, an Oriole noticed that second baseman Roberto Alomar no longer was getting to balls up the middle that he usually fielded routinely.

The player, sensing that Alomar was sulking in response to former manager Davey Johnson's infamous fine, confronted his higher-paid teammate, asking him what was wrong.

"We're not all making $6 million," the player said. "I could use the playoff money."

Alomar didn't respond.

Baseball people routinely describe him as "high maintenance," but the environment is different in Cleveland, where Alomar is again emerging as one of the best players in the game.

It's different, because if Alomar, 31, enters one of his funks, his brother, Sandy, 32, will bring him into line.

No one with the Indians puts it so bluntly -- in fact, general manager John Hart said last night that he would have signed Roberto even if Sandy had not been a cornerstone of the franchise.

Still, the Indians knew they could give Roberto a chance to play in a perfect situation, at a defining moment of his career. If the nine-time All-Star is to regain his standing as a future Hall of Famer, the time is now.

And all the Orioles can do is watch him from afar.

Alomar hit a sacrifice fly to drive in the go-ahead run against his former team in Monday night's 6-4 Cleveland victory, and his leadoff double triggered the Indians' six-run fourth inning in last night's 11-6 triumph.

Yes, the Good Robbie is back -- "a real happy puppy," according to Indians bullpen coach Luis Isaac, who knew the Alomar boys when they were growing up in Puerto Rico.

Roberto entered last night tied for the American League lead with 31 runs scored, and ranked among the top 10 in batting average (.339), on-base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.585) before going 1-for-5 with a run scored.

"My sense is that Robbie is probably going to move to another level," Hart said. "He's at a stage of his career where he's saying, `There are some things I can do personally in this game. This is the kind of ballclub I can play for, a community that is going to support me.'

"I think Robbie has a chance to go to the next level of his game, and who he is in the game. Look at his 10 years, all the Gold Gloves, the All-Star appearances, the Hall of Fame-like numbers. Until the John Hirschbeck incident, there was not a blemish anywhere.

"All of a sudden, attention was called to Robbie. Then you go under a microscope. But enough distance is gone there. Robbie has made his due penance. The damage has been done. I think Robbie is ready to emerge, not just on the field, but in his mark on the game."

Of course, club officials in Toronto and Baltimore said similar things before Alomar pouted his way out of both cities. His hot start in Cleveland follows a familiar pattern -- Alomar had career years in his first season with both the Blue Jays and Orioles.

Only later did the Bad Robbie -- the Immature, Easily Distracted Robbie -- emerge.

He grew disenchanted his final season in Toronto after leading the Blue Jays to two World Series titles, squabbled with two managers in Baltimore, brooded over the double standard for Cal Ripken. But it's difficult to imagine him unraveling the same way in the commanding presence of his older brother.

Sandy warned him about the demands of the Indians' strength and conditioning coach, Fernando Montes. And Roberto reported to the Indians in the best shape of his career, after working all winter with the personal trainer of his fiancee, tennis star Mary Pierce.

Perhaps he would have done that, anyway -- coming off two injury-marred seasons, Alomar knew that he needed to renew his commitment to the game. But playing with Sandy -- his teammate in San Diego for eight games in 1988 and '89 -- offers other added benefits.

"It's more than what I expected," Roberto said. "To watch your brother every day, see your brother hit a home run or get the winning RBI, you enjoy it. I never thought it would be like this. You never know it until you see it, feel it, experience it. It's great.

"There are a lot of things that aren't just about the game of baseball," Alomar continued. "Watching your nephew [Marcus, 9] and niece [Marissa, 6] grow up, taking them to the movies, those things are very important. I'm not only a baseball player, but an uncle and part of an extended family."

He never could have achieved such contentment in Baltimore, not even with an owner and fans who backed him at the lowest moment of his career. But even in the unlikely event that the Indians fail to keep Sandy beyond 2000, there's too much at stake for Roberto -- signed through 2002 -- to regress now.

He finished his three-year Orioles career with a .312 average, the best in franchise history (minimum, 1,200 at-bats). But last season marked the first time in seven years that he did not hit .300. His seven Gold Gloves at second base are two short of the record held by Ryne Sandberg. And he's almost certain to add to his five career postseason appearances with Cleveland.

In other words, there is much he can still accomplish, and when he wants to play, few can match his all-around talent.

The Good Robbie is back. The Bad Robbie might never return.

Oh, brother.

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