No-surprise department: Deal lit fire under Alomar

On Baseball

July 11, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Don't say you weren't warned. Second baseman Roberto Alomar is having the season of his life in Cleveland, which should come as no surprise to anyone who watched his numbers wane in Toronto, rebound in Baltimore and decline again until he found a new home.

He'll tell you that he was never really healthy the final two years of his contract with the Orioles, and there is some truth to that. But it doesn't really change anything.

The sad fact of the matter is this: Alomar can play about as well as he wants, and he wants to play well this year because he's in a new town and he's been reunited with his brother, Sandy.

That's why some sage baseball observers predicted before the season that Alomar would have a monster year -- perhaps even an MVP-caliber season -- even though the questions about his health and durability had not yet been answered.

He is doing just that. He entered Friday's game batting .331 with 78 runs scored, 12 home runs and 60 RBIs. At the rate he's going, he would score more than 150 runs, hit 24 homers and accumulate 120 RBIs and 40 stolen bases.

Once again, he has emerged as one of the top five all-around players in the game, and only a record RBI pace by teammate Manny Ramirez has kept him from being recognized as the reason that the Indians have the best record in baseball.

Keep in mind, however, that Ramirez was a great player last year and the Indians weren't the same kind of offensive club that is batting about .300 as a team and averaging nearly seven runs per game. The offensive catalyst is Alomar, whose vast talent has bubbled up again now that the focus is off his questionable behavior in Baltimore.

Of course, the Indians would be in first place in the American League Central regardless of any single performance. They have been in first place for all but two days of the last two seasons and they have so much talent that some of it has overflowed to other teams.

The top hitter in the American League -- Tony Fernandez -- was a recent castoff, as was Cincinnati Reds phenom Sean Casey and Milwaukee Brewers offensive leader Jeromy Burnitz. National League RBI leader Matt Williams and San Francisco Giants star Jeff Kent also wore Cleveland uniforms in the past three years. And don't forget Albert Belle, who is a pretty good player when he's not preoccupied with some form of civil unrest.

This is the year of the Indian. Get used to it.

Redefining his position

Former Blue Jays DH Jose Canseco left some big shoes to fill when he left Toronto, and one of the players who has been used in his place this year could probably use one of his cleats for a kayak.

Pint-sized Craig Grebeck -- all 5 feet 7, 150 pounds of him -- had four hits in his last start at DH, a slot usually reserved for more imposing individuals.

Though that performance raised Grebeck's batting average to .404, the Blue Jays have turned the bulk of the DH at-bats over to former Oriole Willie Greene, who at 5-11 doesn't fit the archetype, either, but still towers over the diminutive Grebeck.

Unlikely All-Star

Rookie Jeff Zimmerman is the the most unlikely All-Star of 1999, even though his numbers out of the Texas Rangers' bullpen are absolutely phenomenal (8-0, 0.89 ERA).

He got to the major leagues the hard way, playing in Europe and in the independent Northern League before embarking on a fax campaign that got him a tryout with the Rangers.

Zimmerman was playing for the Winnipeg Goldeyes when the Rangers took a chance on him, buying his contract for -- get this! -- two dozen baseballs. His signing bonus was a plane ticket to spring training.

The guy responsible for taking that chance: Reid Nichols, who used to work in the Orioles' minor-league system before accompanying former Orioles assistant GM Doug Melvin to Texas.

Zimmerman has been so impressive this year that he made the All-Star team as a middle reliever, something that happens about once every decade or so.

Out-of-body experience

Rangers starter John Burkett lost his place in the starting rotation after going 0-3 with a 13.24 ERA in his first five starts this year, but he apparently has worked out his problems. He returned to the rotation recently and is 2-1 with a 2.41 ERA in three starts. The turnaround has been so abrupt, he even surprised himself.

"I was on the mound the other night in Anaheim and I was watching the pitches I was throwing and it was like I was outside my body thinking, who is this guy?" Burkett said.

Forgive and forget

Indians DH Wil Cordero was considered a baseball pariah after a much-publicized domestic abuse arrest in 1997, but he has rebuilt his career and, apparently, has endeared himself to Cleveland fans.

He didn't enjoy the full benefit of the Cleveland All-Star Ballot Scandal, but he did receive nearly 1 million votes (994,336), finishing behind only the popular Canseco.

Climbing the ladder

If there was any doubt that the offensive importance of the shortstop position has changed dramatically in the Cal Ripken era, consider young Alex Rodriguez.

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