The San Diego Padres were still spring training in Yuma when the baby-faced second baseman with the familiar last name began showing off the talents that have brought him within walking distance of Cooperstown
It was 1988, and Roberto Alomar, son of a former major leaguer and brother of a big-leaguer-to-be, had been exciting scouts since age 14. He had more than held his own as a 17-year-old in high Class A ball, then rose quickly through the Padres’ system.
Now, the major leaguers were getting their first look.
"He came in and awed everybody," said Mark Davis, a relief pitcher for that Padres squad. "He did things you didn’t see other second basemen do. He would dive the other way for a ball, hop up and throw the guy out.
"Robbie was smooth and fun to watch. When you see a kid like that for the first time, you go, ‘Whoa.’ That’s pretty much what he did to everyone on the team and the coaching staff."
Sixteen years — and 2,679 hits, 10 Gold Gloves, 12 All-Star appearances and two World Series titles later — Alomar has refined the second-base position. The native Puerto Rican signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Diamondbacks in January.
"I’m really proud of all I’ve done in the game," Alomar said. "I hoped to win one Gold Glove, but now I have 10. You don’t think about those things all the time, and I think that’s why you achieve them."
The son of 15-year big leaguer Sandy Alomar, the Colorado Rockies’ third-base coach, and brother of Sandy Alomar Jr., a six-time All-Star catcher now with the Chicago White Sox, Alomar came to Arizona’s camp fit and focused after a disappointing past two seasons.
Evidently, the 36-year-old Alomar is still whoa-ing ’em.
"One day we were at Hi Corbett (Field in Tucson), where the dirt is a little bumpy, but he made the plays, shoveled the ball to second, and was smooth," said Davis, now the D-Backs’ bullpen coach. "It’s like he expects the ball to go right into his glove. He makes it look so easy."
The last five seasons, Arizona has been blessed with one future Hall of Famer, Randy Johnson. Now, chances are the Diamondbacks have another.
Alomar needs 321 hits to reach the 3,000-hit plateau, which generally means the player is a shoo-in for induction. Some look at his peerless defense and timely hitting throughout the 1990s and say he is already Hall-worthy.
"Defensively, Roberto is one of the best second basemen of the last 10 or 12 years," said Seattle consultant Pat Gillick, general manager of teams in Toronto and Baltimore that Alomar played for.
"He made plays you don’t think are possible to make. He’s always been a good offensive player, too. . . . He could do everything."
Alomar’s sterling resume has lost some luster since the winter of 2001, when the Cleveland Indians traded him to the New York Mets. The 1 1 /2 seasons he spent in the Big Apple were miserable.
For Alomar, 2002 was a tumultuous season, on and off the field. His defense suffered when he did not click with double-play partner Rey Ordonez and problems in his personal life — specifically his love life — were a distraction.
His average tumbled 70 points to .266 in 2002, and he more than doubled his errors (five to 11) from the previous year. His 11 home runs and 53 RBIs were his fewest since the strike-shortened 1994 season.
"Just being in New York can be a tough situation," Arizona manager Bob Brenly said. "He had some things going on in his personal life, physically he had some things going on . . . and the atmosphere around the Mets was not good the last couple of years.
"You add it all up, and it just made for a real tough situation to show up every day, be positive and try to do good things on the field."
Things got no better in New York last season, and he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in July. For the year, the switch hitter batted .258 — a career low — and just .189 from the right side.
"I’m not making any excuses for the two years in New York," Alomar said. "It just didn’t work out for me. As a ballplayer, you have to take the ups and downs. I’m lucky I’ve had a lot more ups in my career. You just learn from what happens."
However, Alomar believes a big part of the problem was lax preparation. This past offseason, he spent plenty of time in the gym.
"He admitted that he slacked off a bit," said Sandy Johnson, D-Backs vice president and senior assistant general manager. "Unconsciously, maybe he did take a break. But he came in and said, ‘Hey, I need to tighten this up,’ and he did. He worked vigorously. And the dividends are paying off."
Father Time has narrowed Alomar’s range somewhat, and his turning of the double play is no longer lightning quick. But his defensive skills — as he showed on that bumpy Hi Corbett infield — are still plentiful, and his spring batting average in 21 games was .333 (16-for-48).
"I think he’s going to have a good year, I really do," Gillick said. "I think he’s motivated, he looks like he’s in great shape, he says he likes it here. I think he’s going to have a hell of a year."
Alomar learned the ins and outs of professional baseball at an early age, thanks to hanging around with Sandy Sr., an infielder for six teams from 1964-78.
"I was lucky I had a father that played the game and showed me what it takes to play the game at the professional level," Alomar said. "And I was blessed with Godgiven talent. You can’t play the game without that."
That talent was evident in his early teens, as Johnson, then a scout for San Diego, discovered when getting ready to sign Sandy Jr. in 1983.
"He was an amazing kid," Johnson said. "He was a little guy, but he could just fly on the bases, and he had amazing hands. Even though he was just 14 at the time, he was very, very polished — probably as polished of a kid that age as I’ve ever seen."
After that memorable first spring with the Padres in ’88, the attention and accolades started coming in. Alomar began that season in Class AAA but played just nine games before being called up. He has not spent a day in the minors since then.
He was traded to Toronto before the 1991 season. That year brought the first of his 10 Gold Gloves, a record for a second baseman.
Along with his defensive prowess, Alomar earned a reputation as a clutch hitter, as evidenced by his gamewinning home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 4 of the 1992 American League Championship Series. The Blue Jays went on to win the first of two straight World Series titles.
"I’ve been lucky to do a lot of great things in this game for the teams I’ve played for," Alomar said. "The World Series is the best thing you can do as a player, but you have goals for yourself, Gold Gloves, things like that. But this is a team sport, and you treasure the rings more than anything."
Alomar has finished sixth or better in the AL most valuable player voting six times. He has batted .300 or higher nine times. And his career fielding percentage of .987 is the best in AL history.
"I think it’s safe to say we expect Gold Glove-caliber defense at second base," Brenly said. "We expect the guy to be a very intelligent base runner. We expect to turn a lot more double plays this year than we did last year with Robbie and (shortstop) Alex (Cintron) working together regularly."
Alomar isn’t uncomfortable talking about his Hall of Fame chances. They are a reason reaching 3,000 hits is important to him. Ultimately, however, he said his main focus is helping Arizona to success in 2004.
"If I can do that, the individual stuff will come," Alomar said. "You think about the Hall of Fame. A lot of people talk about it, so I hear about it. But if the time comes, it will be a long way from now. I’m concentrating on the things I need to do now.
"When the Hall of Fame wants me, I’ll be ready."