THE OTHER ALOMAR
As the 1997 season cleared the launchpad, it was no surprise to
see the name Alomar dominating the headlines. Roberto Alomar,
the Orioles' second baseman, figured to be an April story (he
was suspended for the first five games this year as punishment
for spitting at umpire John Hirshbeck last September), but it
was Robbie's big brother Sandy, the starting catcher for the
Indians, who was really making news. Through Sunday, Sandy was
leading the American League with a .458 batting average and a
.938 slugging percentage, which shocked everyone, including his
seven-year-old son, Marcus.
"Dad, are you really hitting better than Ken Griffey Jr.?"
Marcus asked over breakfast last week.
"Let's find out," Sandy said. "Go get the newspaper."
"That's awesome, Dad!" Marcus yelled after checking the stats.
"Can I put your poster up in my room?" Previously Marcus had
said that wall space in his bedroom was so tight that he could
squeeze in only posters of Griffey and one other big leaguer:
his uncle, Roberto.
So much attention has been lavished on the immensely talented
Robbie over the past several seasons that it's easy to forget
that Sandy was once considered the better prospect. Sandy was
named minor league Player of the Year in '88 and '89, as a
Padres prospect, and after he was traded to the Indians, he was
the Rookie of the Year in 1990. "When I won the Rookie of the
Year award, everybody referred to Roberto as Sandy's brother,"
he says. "But since then, I've become known as Roberto's brother."
Sandy's career has been hindered by injuries. He was the only
player in the majors to spend time on the disabled list every
season from '91 through '95. "It's been real frustrating for
Sandy," Roberto says. "I know he can do much better than he's
done. But he has played through the pain."
Last season was the first since '90 in which the 30-year-old
Sandy had at least 300 at bats, and he hit .263 with 11 homers
and 50 RBIs and made the All-Star team, though he was needled by
Cleveland teammates who said the votes he received must have
been intended for Roberto. "Sandy's situation is a little like
being Billy Ripken with Cal in the league," says Indians pitcher
Charles Nagy. "It's got to be tough on Sandy because he's missed
a lot of games, and the temptation is to come back and try to
hit a five-run homer."
Sandy hasn't done that this season, but he did hit home runs in
five consecutive games, tying a club record. At week's end his
six homers, 14 RBIs, 11 extra-base hits and 45 total bases
ranked him among the top seven in the league in each category.
Not bad for a guy who usually hits ninth in the order.
Cleveland hitting coach Charlie Manuel credits Alomar's greater
patience for the robust start. "He's always been a contact
hitter who would chase bad pitches and get himself out," Manuel
says. "This season he's working the count more and hitting
better pitches harder. Sandy's learning that he's a much better
hitter than he thought he was."
Catcher Scott Servais stood amid his relieved teammates in the
Chicago locker room on Sunday evening and did his best Harry
Caray impression. "Cubs win!" Servais bellowed after Chicago
barely held on for a 4-3 victory in the nightcap of a
doubleheader against the Mets. Servais's impersonation was a
little rusty, and with good reason. The Cubs hadn't won a game
that counted in nearly six months. They had opened this season
with 14 straight losses, demolishing the National League record
of 10 set by the '88 Braves. So it's no wonder that on Sunday
night the Cubs looked remarkably jovial for a team with a .067
winning percentage. "This is a huge win for us because we've
been the laughingstock of baseball," said first baseman Mark
Grace. "Now we have to look positively at the next 140 games.
It's a little too early to be saying, 'Wait till next year.'"
Or is it? While the Cubs trail the first-place Astros by only 8
1/2 games in the Central Division, history predicts a bleak
future for teams that get off to a terrible start (chart). The
'97 Cubs haven't produced any evidence that they will buck that
powerful trend. At week's end Chicago was last in the league in
batting (.189), home runs (seven) and runs (40). The Cubs led
the league in errors, with 23. Their pitching staff had a
batter-friendly 4.68 ERA. Before Sunday's victory, of the 126
innings Chicago had played in '97, it had held the lead after
Fortunately, when you play for the Cubs you learn to be an
optimist. "Nobody believed we would lose 14 games in a row, so
maybe we can surprise everybody and run off 14 straight wins,"
said shortstop Shawon Dunston through the smoke of a teammate's
victory cigar. "Who knows? This might be the beginning of a
It might be....it could be....it isn't.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has often said that
there should be a special place in the Hall of Fame for setup
men. La Russa formed that opinion after many seasons with the
Oakland A's watching pitcher Rick Honeycutt thrive in obscurity,
throwing flawless eighth innings only to hand the ball to closer
Dennis Eckersley, who would then soak up the limelight in the
ninth. "Historically, setting up has never been considered a
glamorous role," says Indians veteran setup man Paul
Assenmacher. "It's like being an offensive lineman in football.
If you do your job right, nobody notices."
Enter the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, whose overwhelming dominance
brought new glamour to setup men last season, when he struck out
130 batters in 107 2/3 innings of middle relief. He was the
perfect complement to closer John Wetteland, who saved 43 games
but was usually used for only one inning. Rivera's role in New
York's drive to the World Series championship was considered so
critical that he placed third in the Cy Young voting, the first
time a middle reliever has ever finished in the top five.
"Nobody talked much about setup guys until last season," says
Dodgers reliever Darren Dreifort. "Mariano Rivera changed the
way the job is perceived. He gave the role some dignity."
Yet, the first thing that teams seem to do when they have a
successful setup man is make him a closer or trade him to some
other team that needs a closer. The Blue Jays did it when they
had Duane Ward and Tom Henke in the late '80s; the Angels did it
a couple of years ago when they had an unhittable Troy Percival
setting up Lee Smith; the Indians did the same, letting Julian
Tavarez go in a trade after he'd been brilliant setting up Jose
Mesa the last two seasons. And now the Yankees, who let
Wetteland sign as a free agent with the Rangers, have installed
Rivera as their stopper. A year ago the Yankees had a 79-2
record when they held the lead after seven innings; last week
alone they blew five late-inning leads (including a blown save
by Rivera, his third this year) and at week's end had a 6-6
record in games they led after seven innings.
Proving once again that everybody in baseball talks about the
value of setup men, but very few teams truly value them.
IF YOU CAN'T BEAT 'EM....
In a span of four days last week, four pitchers hit home runs.
On April 13 Montreal's Carlos Perez cracked a homer in the fifth
against Colorado, and Rockies reliever Darren Holmes responded
with a long ball against Perez in the bottom of the inning. The
Rockies' Mark Thompson hit a homer against the Cubs on April 15.
The next day, in Houston, Expos reliever Dustin Hermanson
launched the most unlikely homer of the bunch. It was not only
Hermanson's first major league at bat, but it was also just his
third at bat since becoming a professional in 1994.
BAD FROM BEGINNING TO END
History tells us that when a team gets off to a dismal start, it
has pretty much consigned itself to the second division for the
rest of the season. Before the Cubs' 0-14 debut this year, the
teams listed below had achieved the five longest winless starts
ever--with predictably grim results at season's end.
YEAR TEAM START FINAL RECORD FINISH (GAMES BACK)
1988 Orioles 0-21 54-107 Last (34 1/2)
1920 Tigers 0-13 61-93 7th (37)
1904 Senators 0-13 38-113 Last (55 1/2)
1988 Braves 0-10 54-106 Last (39 1/2)
1968 White Sox 0-10 67-95 9th (36)