NEW YORK, April 1, 2000
I remember when sandy Alomar Jr. and Todd Zeile were rookies. Ten years ago. Crazy, huh? Ten years. Back before all the Gold Glove awards and the All-Star Games and the as-told-to biographies on the bestseller lists. Before the money was delivered, twice a month, in an armored car to the big houses on a hill.
Ten years ago. I remember talking with Alomar in the short spring of 1990 in Tucson, where the Cleveland Indians trained. Zeile was in St. Petersburg, Fla., then, with the St. Louis Cardinals. It seems like only last week.
There was a strike that year. Or was it a lockout? Something. The owners and the players had been arguing for a long time, probably about money, and the training camps opened four weeks late. I remember the mad dash to cover stories that were usually spun out at a much slower tempo, to the sound of tourist dollars being removed from wallets.
Alomar and Zeile were an obvious topic that year. Spring Training, Opus 1: The Arrival of the Phenoms. Two kids. Two catchers. Alomar had been universally picked to be the American League Rookie of the Year. Zeile had been universally picked to be the National League Rookie of the Year. The catching market had grown stale by 1990—Carlton Fisk, at 42, was still with the White Sox; Bob Boone, at 42, was with Kansas City—and the appearance of these kids was a major development.
"I've been in baseball for 29 years," said Indians bullpen coach Luis Isaac that spring. "Sandy Alomar is the best catching prospect I've seen since Johnny Bench."
Isaac's counterpart in St. Louis, Dave Ricketts, was equally enthusiastic about Zeile, though somewhat more cryptic. "What is it that they say? A million Frenchmen can't all be wrong?" Ricketts said. "The kid has done well on every level he has played."
There were none of the usual qualifying statements about either player's having "to prove himself and win a job down here." Both rookies' names were written on their teams' lineup cards in indelible ink. The Indians had traded heavy-hitter Joe Carter to the San Diego Padres to pick up Alomar, outfielder Chris James and infielder Carlos Baerga. The Cardinals had chosen not to re-sign All-Star catcher Tony Pena. Commitments had been made.
Alomar was supposed to be the better defensive catcher. He was big—6'5", 200 pounds—and looked as if he could throw a baseball through the cinder-block walls of the locker room at Hi Corbett Field. He had a basketball body. Power forward. "You wait and see how he develops as a hitter," Isaac said. "He's only 23 years old now. He still has some baby fat. Most Latin players don't mature until they're 26 or 27."
Zeile, then 24, was supposed to be the hitter. "He reminds me of Ken Boyer at the plate," one St. Louis sportswriter said. "Just the way he stands up there." At 6'1", 190 pounds, Zeile could have been an option quarterback. He even looked a bit like Doug Flutie, the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner.
The best part about both players, it seemed then, was that they were natural catchers, not graduates of some crash course on the care and handling of pitchers. Alomar was given his first full set of catching equipment on Christmas Day, 1973. He was seven years old. At 15, Zeile asked his father to park the family car with one tire resting on his new catcher's mitt in an effort to make the mitt loose and comfortable.
"You do all those things with a mitt," Zeile said. "I remember soaking my new mitt in a bucket of water overnight. Anything. I've finally decided the best way to break in a mitt simply is to catch a lot of baseballs with it, but I've tried everything. Shaving cream? For the lanolin? I still do that once in a while."
For both of them, catching was simply fun. Alomar liked looking at the game from behind the plate and liked being able to see what everyone else was doing. Zeile liked the action and being involved in the fundamental workings of the game while everyone else except the pitcher had to watch and wait. "I was one of those kids who had to be in charge," he said. "No matter what game we were playing, I was the one making up the rules. The one who said, 'It's my ball. We'll do what I say.' "
Alomar grew up in Salinas, Puerto Rico, but spent most of his summers in various U.S. cities. His father, Sandy Alomar Sr., had been a utility infielder for 15 years with seven big league teams. Summers were spent in Chicago or Anaheim, Calif., or New York City or Arlington, Texas. Baseball was the family business. Sandy Jr. and his brother, Roberto, could go to as many home games as they wanted.
As a kid, Roberto, who is a year and a half younger than Sandy, wanted to know everything about the game, to break it down into pieces and study each part. Sandy Jr. was more casual. Night games ended late. He would rather be home, get some rest and be ready for the next day's adventures. When the brothers played ball in Salinas, Roberto always wanted to bat first, to be in charge. When their father brought home a new bat or glove, Roberto immediately claimed it as his own. It was never "our bat." It was always "my bat." Sandy Jr. did not argue. He had his catching equipment. Roberto was an infielder.
For a while it appeared that the Alomars would remain together as a family unit in the family business. In the late '80s, when the father was a coach for San Diego, both sons signed with the Padres. Roberto made the jump to the majors first, in 1988, as a second baseman. Sandy expected to make the jump in 1989, after hitting .297 with 16 homers and 71 RBIs in '88 for Triple A Las Vegas and being named co-Minor League Player of the Year. The Padres, alas, already had a Rookie of the Year catcher in Benito Santiago.
Sandy Jr. was sent back to Las Vegas at the start of '89, and the trade rumors increased. After a slow start he exploded, hitting .306 with 13 home runs and 101 RBIs. Again he was named Minor League Player of the Year, and the deal was made with Cleveland in the off-season. So much for the family connection.
"I had two feelings when the trade was made," Sandy Jr. said. "The first was that I was happy because I finally would have my chance. The second was that it was sad that the family was being broken up. But we never had been together much, anyway. I was in Las Vegas. My father and brother were in San Diego. What are you breaking up if you're only together in September, anyway?"
Zeile grew up in Valencia, Calif., outside Los Angeles. He was the compulsive baseball mind in this family, though his father, Todd, had played fast-pitch softball, and his brother, Mike, was a solid centerfielder in junior college. Playing baseball was all that the younger Todd ever wanted to do.
He signed with the Cardinals in 1986, after his junior year at UCLA, then began the climb through the minor leagues in measured, one-year jumps. He joined the big team in August '89 in the midst of a pennant race. The Cards had made it known that they were not keeping Pena, and it could have been an awkward situation: St. Louis's catching future and catching past side by side in the same dugout. As it turned out, it was quite pleasant.
"I can't say enough about Tony Pena," said Zeile, who hit .256 that season, with one homer and eight RBIs. "He did everything he could to help me. The first night I came up, there was a long rain delay. He told me that the first night he played in the majors there had been a rain delay, and he didn't bat until after midnight, but it was the start of a long career. He said he hoped the same thing would happen for me."
The big story with Zeile was that he was married to Julianne McNamara, a gold medal winner in gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics. They met in a folklore class at UCLA. Zeile had been nervous about asking her for a date even before he knew who she was. When he found out, his nervousness doubled. A friend finally made the introductions. The marriage was in January '89. At training camp the following spring, Zeile said, "I'm the only one here whose wife has signed more autographs in her life than her husband."
Even Alomar wanted Julianne's autograph. He and Zeile had met only once, a year earlier, at the Triple A All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio. Alomar had thought about asking her for an autograph at the pregame banquet, but he decided against it because he knew what a bother signing autographs can be. Later Alomar told me that Zeile shouldn't worry about trailing his wife in the autograph department.
"As soon as these kids get your rookie card, they're all over you," he said. "Mine was out last year. The kids had 'em in Las Vegas. They'd have a half dozen of them, then come back with a half dozen more."
Rookie cards. I remember the innocence of the time. Back then Alomar wondered what he would do the first time Rickey Henderson got on base. Zeile wondered about how he would handle Joe Magrane, a Cardinals lefthander with a variety of pitches. Another one of Alomar's challenges was learning how to catch knuckleballer Tom Candiotti. During camp that year, the Indians' coaches made Alomar go behind the plate whenever Candiotti was throwing. Alomar was trying to use a big, floppy glove for the first time. His normal glove, which he called his baby, was stitched together in a dozen places. He said it reminded him of a prizefighter's face. He had used it through three minor league seasons and had taken it with him to the bigs as a trusted friend.
I remember Zeile describing the subtle changes a catcher has to make in style along the way, usually after lessons have been pounded into him. At UCLA, Zeile had initially guarded the plate, standing tall, fearing nothing. Then he was knocked out during a collision at the plate and missed about 10 games. After that he got smarter and went for the tag instead of waiting to be run over. Alomar had knee surgery in '88 after a collision of his own. His only broken finger, however, had come while trying to catch a football.
I remember.... I remember this was a beginning. I remember thinking, How many times would these two young guys bend and unfold in the coming years? How many collisions would they face? How many clutch hits would they make? It's hard to imagine now, but back then most of the baseball public had never even heard their names. And the now familiar debate—who is better, Alomar or Zeile?—had yet to begin in taprooms across the land. That spring of 1990 was Alomar's and Zeile's last moment of anonymity, the countdown before the blast-off.
I remember that Alomar had two stripes shaved into the left side of his short haircut. He said they were there for luck. I remember that Zeile wore the number 27. He said his real choice would be seven or five.
"I've always had a single-digit number," he said. "But there weren't any around when I got here. Both seven and five are worn by coaches. I suppose I could get one of those numbers if I asked. No big deal. But I think I'll wait and see how this year goes before I do any of that."
How time flies.