At a Booster Luncheon in Toronto honoring Blue Jay second baseman Roberto Alomar several weeks ago, a woman stood up during the question and answer period—her jaw set firmly and fire in her eyes—and demanded to know why, after a full season in Toronto, Alomar was still living in a hotel room at SkyDome, the building in which the Blue Jays play their home games. The question set off such a buzz of clucking and head-nodding in the room and in the collective Canadian consciousness that it was picked up and replayed that evening on the network news. "Living in a hotel isn't that permanent," the woman, a devoted Jays fan named Susan Daniell, explained later. "I think a lot of people are nervous Robbie might leave town in the middle of the night. I mean, who lives in a hotel anymore?"
Alomar, who at week's end was second in the American League in batting with a .346 average and was in the top 10 in hits, runs scored and stolen bases, may be in the vanguard of a generation of athletes who never leave the buildings in which they play. This is the second year that Alomar has lived in a suite at the SkyDome Hotel, because, as he cheerfully concedes, it is too much trouble to go out and get a life of his own. "You have to go through all kinds of stuff to get furniture and cable," he says. "All I really need is a bed, and that's about it. I have cable in the room, I have a fridge. If I need laundry done, I call the laundry, and if I need food, I call room service."
From his wake-up call in the morning (and here the baseball purist likes to imagine a switchboard operator who can play the earsplitting, traditional ballpark cavalry charge) until he returns to his room at night and hears the Mantovani music that is beloved only by hotel chambermaids, Alomar exists in a world that is climate-controlled, air-filtered and exquisitely isolated from the real one outside SkyDome's mammoth walls. This child of the Caribbean now sometimes goes days without seeing the sun, his skin radiating a pale fluorescent glow and his pupils always dilated, as if he were a bottom-feeding fish. Alomar's world is one in which mints magically appear on pillows, no towel is ever used twice, and breakfasts ordered from room service—in seeming defiance of the immutable laws of nature—cost $27.
"He's got his own menu and everything over there," marvels teammate Joe Carter, who has been married for 11 years. "Comes home from a game and eats whatever he wants. Damn!"
According to a room service waiter who declined to be identified for this article—at one point he went so far as to hold a platter of chicken fingers in front of his name tag to conceal it—Alomar's favorite meals consist of a hamburger, a Coke and something called a chocolate fantasy, or the chicken and shrimp stir fry with no shrimp. "He is not a great tipper, no, no, no, no," the waiter said, dribbling honey-mustard sauce down the front of his jacket. "Fifteen percent or less, never more. I think rich people are not very good tippers."
To keep Alomar from getting any ideas about checking out of SkyDome as a free agent, the Blue Jays gave him a new four-year, $18.5 million contract in February. It made him the best-paid second baseman in the game for about a month, until Ryne Sandberg signed a four-year, $28.4 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. You might think Alomar would be one sorry second-sacker since Sandberg signed for $7.1 million a season, but it simply isn't so. "When Sandberg signed, people said, 'Roberto, what about now?' " Alomar says. "But I don't let money determine my happiness. Ryne Sandberg earned his money. I think I can live with $18 million. How many 24-year-old guys are earning the kind of money I make? I just try to do well, and we'll see what happens with the next contract."
This is about as close to making a joke as Alomar ever comes, and he allows himself a sly smile. He was voted the Blue Jays' most popular player by a 2-to-1 margin over runner-up Carter in a newspaper poll last year, and it is widely believed that after only slightly more than a season in Toronto, Alomar is already more popular than any hockey player in town. That's a first for Canadian baseball, eh? Only Sky Dome itself—with its Jumbotron scoreboard and 11,000-ton pop-top roof—is more beloved in Toronto. And if Alomar can just figure out a way to make the top of his head retract on sunny days, even that could change.
To girls of a certain age in Toronto, he is the closest thing to a matinee idol, perhaps because of the wavy hair and smoke-colored eyes that make him something of a Latin Luke Perry. And he is catnip to the older crowd, too, because of "that cute little accent that reminds you of Ricky Ricardo," as one woman put it.
"We've had girls running up and down the halls, knocking on every door trying to find his room," says John Kalimeris of the hotel's security staff. "You wouldn't believe some of the things I've been offered by girls to take them to his room. When he comes back from the games, we have a special route for him that bypasses the lobby so people can't follow him back to his room. Once we get him to his own floor, people who have been watching the game from one of the sky-boxes walk right by him and don't even know who he is. When you're walking down a hotel corridor, the last person you expect to see walking toward you is Roberto Alomar."
Well, maybe not the last person—not since Alomar settled comfortably into the neighborhood of the American League's top hitters and blew his own cover. Through Sunday he was batting .392 at SkyDome this season. But did you ever know a kid who didn't lead the league in hitting in his own basement?
It could just be that Alomar's most startling number is 24, the preposterously callow age at which he has been performing these prodigies. "He seems like he's about 30," says Oakland A's third baseman Carney Lansford. "He looks so experienced up there, you never expect him to take a bad swing." When Alomar felt he had swung at some bad pitches in a recent game against the A's, he went to the batting cage after everyone else had gone home and hit for 20 minutes. Alomar was still home before any of his teammates, of course, because he never left. They should hang one of those signs over his locker that says IF YOU LIVED HIRE, YOU'D BE HOME BY NOW. The extra batting practice paid off the next night, when he went 3 for 4.
"For him to have accomplished what he has at this age is really mind-boggling," says Larry Hisle, the Blue Jays' hitting coach. "You have to remember that most players that age are just making it to the big leagues. Robbie has already been an All-Star twice." Dave Winfield, Toronto's 40-year-old designated hitter, believes Alomar is already the game's best second baseman and may soon be the game's best player. "He's very precocious for 24," Winfield says. "You can count on him because he wants to be out there. Some guys don't really enjoy it. They're good at it, but they don't need it. He does." Jay manager Cito Gaston thinks Alomar may already have begun to approach the limits of his ability. "Let's face it, you can only get so good," Gaston says. "How much better would you want him to be?"
Oddly, it was Alomar's mother who had the most trouble answering that question when he was growing up in Salinas, Puerto Rico. Maria Alomar was left to raise Robbie. Sandy Jr. and their sister, Sandia, for eight months of every year while her husband, Sandy, who played in the major leagues for 15 seasons, was away. "My mom always gave us confidence to do what we wanted to do," Robbie says, "but she never wanted me to be a baseball player." Maria insisted her children attend Catholic school, and the only thing she demanded of Robbie was that he study hard. "I love baseball, but I know how hard it is to be good," Maria says, "so I wanted him to prepare for another life." Sandy Jr., who is two years older than Robbie, seemed to prefer driving dune buggies or just about anything else to baseball. "Sandy didn't like baseball that much, and I always did," Robbie says. "He always wanted to be a pilot or something." When Sandy's talent became so unmistakable that he had to play, what he turned out to be, instead, was the American League's Rookie of the Year in 1990 as a catcher for the Cleveland Indians.
The Alomar boys spent their summers shadowing their famous father around the ballparks where he worked. Robbie remembers meeting Nolan Ryan when his father was a teammate of Ryan's on the California Angels. Fifteen years later, when the San Diego Padres called Robbie up from the minors, he got his first big league hit against Ryan, who was then pitching for the Houston Astros. And when Ryan, now a Texas Ranger, threw the seventh no-hitter of his career last season, against the Blue Jays, it was Alomar who made the final out of the game.
The Padres signed all three Alomars, and in Robbie's first professional season, Sandy Sr. coached both his boys in Charleston, S.C., in the Class A South Atlantic League. When Sandy Jr. got stuck behind the Padres" All-Star catcher, Benito Santiago, he was traded to Cleveland in 1989. In '88, at the age of 20, Robbie thought he had made the big leagues after an impressive spring training, so he was stunned when the Padres sent him to Triple A. "I remember when he was sent down he was crying," says Santiago. "He was crying because he was mad, not because he was sad." It was as close as Robbie's career has ever come to a setback. "He said to himself, O.K., they sent me down when I can play in the big leagues," Santiago says, "so I'm going to go down and bust my butt, and when I come back, they'll never send me down again." Nine games later he returned to the big leagues, as if he had called up room service and ordered himself another chance.
He made it work this time, though it wasn't always easy. He was the youngest player in the National League on Opening Day of 1989 and suffered through a calamitous April, committing 11 of the 28 errors that would lead all second basemen in the league that season. "I was too aggressive then because I wanted to make every play," he says. "I anticipate the play more now. People say to me, "Roberto, you make tough plays look so easy," but that is the only way I can do it."
He started doing it with Toronto in 1991 after he was traded to the Blue Jays with Carter for shortstop Tony Fernandez and first baseman Fred McGriff. But he has learned from his mistakes and through Sunday had made only two errors this year. He will probably still make more errors than other second basemen because he is able to get his glove on so many balls. "He'll go out in rightflield and throw you out at first," Carter says. Nobody has better range." And there are few players with Alomar's capacity to completely disrupt an opposing team's defense, as he demonstrated last season with 53 stolen bases—second best in the league—including 21 swipes of third base in 22 attempts. "He puts pressure on teams in so many ways," Hisle says.
After games, a kitchen service elevator—often loaded with garbage—brings Alomar home, where the red message light on the telephone in his room is always flashing. The hotel switchboard intercepts all his calls and diverts most of them to the formidable Betty John, whose official title with the hotel is director of communications. Alomar calls her Mom. "I protect him body and soul," John says. "Lots of fans call for him, so I screen his calls and decide which ones should go through. If he's resting, I don't let any calls through. I also make sure his clothes are properly done, that he's eating properly and that he gets his rest."
Alomar gets his rest by endlessly watching his hotel room television, which functions as a movie sixplex, featuring a carefully balanced selection of film titles like Father of the Bride and Naughty Nymphos. Although 70 of SkyDome's guest rooms exist in a kind of virtual reality, with windows that overlook the outfield of the ballpark, Alomar told friends he selected a room that overlooks a railyard instead because—and we are quoting here—"I want to get away from baseball when I'm home."
He says he is on a first-name basis with many of the maids who clean his room. "I talk to them," he insists. But one housekeeper, shielding her name tag with a feather duster, was asked if Alomar ever speaks to her. "Never," she replied. "No, never, ever." Then, backing away rapidly, she volunteered. "He's very neat. Very neat, yes." And she was gone.
Until Alomar puts down some roots, people in Toronto will remain nervous. "When I came here, I didn't know what kind of life they had in Toronto," he says. "I thought it was going to be like Montreal. I never liked to play in Montreal because they speak a lot of French there. But Toronto isn't like that. I'm having fun here." Just then the minibar guy barged into Alomar's room, pushing a cart loaded with $8 minibottles of cognac and $9.75 jars of cashews. "Good game last night, eh?" he offered amiably. "Do you have everything you need?"
Alomar looked around his home away from dome. "I've got it all right here," he answered, "eh?"