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Hi, Sierra Look who's back: After a homeric odyssey through 14 teams in three nations, slugger Ruben Sierra has landed in Seattle, where his game is back in style

May 06, 2002
May 06, 2002

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May 6, 2002

Hi, Sierra Look who's back: After a homeric odyssey through 14 teams in three nations, slugger Ruben Sierra has landed in Seattle, where his game is back in style

Ruben Sierra arrived for work recently in a garish multihued
leather jacket with a playing-card motif, set off by a snappy
black leather fedora with the brim curled up. He changed into his
Seattle Mariners uniform, replete with custom-tailored pants
whose elastic stirrups wrap around the bottoms of his spikes.
Then he went out and, batting lefthanded, smashed a home run to
the opposite field on a pitch six inches off the outside corner
by Anaheim Angels righthander Lou Pote. Sierra rounded the bases
in a stutter-step boogie that no one short of Gregory Hines could
duplicate. It was Sierra's 265th career homer, the sixth most in
history by a switch-hitter, which sounds impressive until you
learn that the man owns more pairs of shoes than big league
dingers.

This is an article from the May 6, 2002 issue Original Layout

If it wasn't obvious last season, when Sierra was voted American
League Comeback Player of the Year by his fellow major leaguers,
it's now as impossible to miss as one of the
tropical-fruit-colored suits he wears to the ballpark: After
blowing through 14 teams, 10 major league organizations and six
leagues in three countries--and that's only since 1995--Sierra is
back in style.

At week's end the 36-year-old outfielder and designated hitter
had the major leagues' highest batting average (.389) and had
helped carry the Mariners to the best record in baseball (18-7).
His 12-game hitting streak in April was the longest since he
began his eight-year world tour.

"I don't hear about going to the Hall of Fame anymore, like when
I was young," says Sierra, who in 1989 was runner-up for the
American League MVP award after batting .306, socking 29 homers
and driving in 119 runs for the Texas Rangers. "I would be
hearing it if I'd known then what I know now. But I can't look
back. Now I think I can put up Hall of Fame kinds of numbers. I
think I'm better than I was back then because of my mind. I have
the same ability, but now I also have the experience and
knowledge."

Sierra is also an accomplished salsa singer, yet he has more
releases from baseball (four) than he has in his CD catalog
(three). How Ruben got his groove back is the story of someone
who had made $38 million in the majors but still wanted so badly
to keep playing baseball, even when baseball didn't want him,
that he sought employment with the Cancun Lobstermen and the
Atlantic City Surf.

"Ruben's a great teammate and a real piece of work," says Seattle
second baseman Bret Boone. "I've seen him wearing white belts and
white shoes and all kinds of stuff. What's really impressive is
that the guy was the man back in the '80s. And he really found
out how humbling baseball is. For him to stick with it, riding
the buses after he had been at the top, really tells you
something about his passion for the game."

"Ruben's playing for the right reasons," says former Rangers
general manager Doug Melvin, who brought Sierra back to the big
leagues in 2000. "He loves being around the ballpark and playing
baseball. I think that's what kept him going."

The paso fino horse is bred and prized for its unique gait. When
the horse is at corto, or trotting speed, it moves its right legs
forward nearly in unison, then its left legs. The result is the
Rolls-Royce of equine rides, remarkably smooth. The rider isn't
jostled in the saddle. This famous stepping pattern comes
naturally to paso finos, who also are coveted for their beauty
and sleek physiques. The best paso fino show horses have no
exaggerated musculature.

Sierra knows what makes a great paso fino. He keeps and breeds
between 50 and 60 of them--they can sell for $200,000 to $1
million each--on a ranch in Ocala, Fla. He shows paso finos at
competitions in Florida, the Dominican Republic and his native
Puerto Rico. How strange, then, that Sierra ruined his own career
by exaggerating his musculature.

At the start Sierra was bound for stardom, and he knew it. As a
teenager in the Rangers' system, he told teammates, "I'm going to
be the greatest player in the history of this franchise." At 21
he became only the sixth player in history to hit 30 home runs
and drive in 100 runs in a season before his 22nd birthday. At 23
he led the American League in RBIs, slugging, total bases and
triples and barely lost the MVP vote to Milwaukee Brewers
outfielder Robin Yount. Three years later, in 1992, he was the
second-highest-paid player in the game, with a $5 million salary.

"Ruben was thought of in the way people talk about [Montreal
Expos rightfielder] Vladimir Guerrero now," says Melvin. "He had
a great arm, he could run, he could hit for power, and he could
hit for average. He was a better overall player than Juan
Gonzalez."

Then, in the winter of 1991-92, not satisfied with having driven
in 531 runs in five full seasons, the 6'1" Sierra bulked up from
215 pounds to 235. He did so, he says, by lifting weights,
downing protein drinks and supplements, ignoring stretching
exercises and not doing his running. "I'd had good numbers," he
says, "and I thought if I got bigger and stronger, I could double
them."

Instead the paso fino lost its smooth stride. Sierra's numbers
fell. In August 1992 Texas traded him and two other players to
the Oakland A's for Jose Canseco, another bulked-up slugger in a
parallel decline. In July '95, with Sierra batting .265, the A's
traded him to the New York Yankees for yet another exaggerated
muscleman gone bad, Danny Tartabull. The underperforming Sierra
had been in disfavor with Oakland manager Tony La Russa, who
called him "a village idiot" after Sierra claimed that A's
general manager Sandy Alderson didn't understand baseball because
he hadn't played it professionally.

Word spread around baseball that Sierra's ego had grown with his
muscles. He wore outlandish jewelry and had cut a CD whose cover
photo showed him bare-chested and cooling himself off with a
garden hose. In New York, Sierra moaned about his playing time.
Joe Torre, who became the club's manager at the start of the '96
season, once called Sierra the only Yankee he had managed who
didn't understand the team concept. Sierra says that the Yankees
misunderstood him and that he was under stress because he was
going through a divorce. At the 1996 trading deadline, three
months before New York would win the World Series, it dealt
Sierra to the Detroit Tigers for first baseman-designated hitter
Cecil Fielder, prompting Sierra's infamous complaint about the
Yankees: "All they care about over there is winning."

"I faced him when he was in New York," says lefthander Jamie
Moyer, now a teammate of Sierra's in Seattle, "and he was stiffer
as a hitter. You could tie him up with pitches easier than when
he was in Texas."

Sierra admits, "I lost my flexibility because I got too big. It
was a mistake. I couldn't pull the inside pitches like I used to.
But in those days I didn't have anybody to supervise me like
players have today. Now I make sure I talk to the young players:
'You want to get big so when you look in the mirror, you look
good? That will hurt you on the field.'"

After the trade to Detroit his struggles worsened. Sierra began
to lose bulk, but his bat speed did not return. The Tigers traded
him to the Cincinnati Reds two days after Fielder and the Yankees
won the 1996 World Series. The Reds released him six weeks into
the '97 season. The Toronto Blue Jays picked him up. After
assigning him to Triple A Syracuse, the Blue Jays brought Sierra
up for 14 games, then released him. Before the '98 season the
Chicago White Sox signed him, but they released him after 27
games.

"One of the toughest times for me was with the White Sox," says
Sierra, who batted only .216 with Chicago. "I really felt like I
was going to have a good year, but I didn't play at all." One day
while Sierra was with the White Sox, his son Ruben Jr., then
seven, asked him on the phone, "Dad, why don't I see you on
television anymore? Why don't you play like you used to?"

Tears came to the father's eyes. Then he told the boy, "I'm not
the manager. I have to wait for my chance to play."

The New York Mets picked up Sierra after Chicago dropped him but
kept him buried for the rest of 1998 at Triple A Norfolk, where
he hit .259 in 28 games. In 1999, the only job he found, for a
salary of $3,000 a month, was with the Surf, a team in the
independent Atlantic League, for which he hit 28 homers and drove
in 82 runs in 112 games. The next spring the Cleveland Indians
invited Sierra to their camp. They cut him on March 20. He became
the designated hitter and rightfielder for Cancun in the Mexican
League. "Baseball is in my heart," Sierra says. "That is why I
kept playing."

Meanwhile, Ivan Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro, two of Sierra's
friends with Texas, lobbied Melvin to give Sierra a shot. Melvin,
who had found success with recycled shortstop Kevin Elster in
1996, figured, What do we have to lose? He signed Sierra on May
1, 2000, to play at Triple A Oklahoma. By September all the
Rangers' internal reports indicated that Sierra, who had batted
.326, had shown the decorum of a Boy Scout. Melvin promoted him
to the big leagues, and though Sierra hit only .233 in 60 at bats
in September, Texas re-signed him for 2001.

Sierra again started out in Oklahoma. One month later he was back
in the majors. Playing outfield and designated hitter, he ripped
23 home runs and drove in 67 runs in 94 games to complete one of
the most improbable comebacks in history. He became only the
second player (Steve Bilko was the first) to go at least six
years, including one or more spent entirely in the minors,
between 20-homer seasons. Sierra's last such season had been in
'94 with Oakland, when he hit 23 home runs. "The sense I got from
Ruben was, he owed the Rangers fans something," Melvin says. "It
was almost like he wanted to apologize for letting them down in
his prime."

Seattle general manager Pat Gillick was so impressed with
Sierra's comeback that last July he called Melvin and offered to
trade a Double A pitching prospect, righthander Jeff Farnsworth,
for Sierra. Melvin, however, had Sierra in his plans for this
season and would consider trading him only for a player who could
provide immediate big league help. "As it turned out, I wasn't in
the plans," says Melvin, who was fired on Oct. 7. His
replacement, John Hart, made no effort to re-sign Sierra.

Gillick called Melvin again, this time to get his opinion on
Sierra's attitude while with the Rangers. Melvin said Sierra was
a model citizen, so Gillick signed him to a one-year, $1.9
million deal. After watching Sierra for a week in spring
training, Gillick said, "I think he's going to have a big year.
Not just a good year. I mean a big year."

"I can see in his eyes that he's happy and having fun," says
Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez, whom Sierra has
temporarily replaced while Martinez recovers from a ruptured left
hamstring. "Every day he's smiling. And he's swinging the bat
great. He's been in a zone."

"He's dangerous," Angels manager Mike Scioscia says, "because he
makes hard contact and hits the ball to all fields but is strong
enough to drive it out of the park. He keeps his bat flat through
the hitting zone for a long time. You don't see that with a lot
of power guys. Most power guys have holes you can pitch to. Not
him."

The Mariners enjoy Sierra's personal style nearly as much as they
appreciate the way he swings his big 35-inch bat. In his home run
trot, for instance, Sierra takes a stutter step before he touches
each base. "I just slow down to make sure I don't miss the base,"
he says, unconvincingly. In spring training, expecting to become
the Mariners' leftfielder, Sierra commissioned Mizuno to craft
him a green-white-and-blue fielding glove. Then there are his
clothes. Lots of them, in "red, orange, anything," Martinez says.
Going deep for Sierra means venturing into one of his many
closets.

"Even when I was a boy, when my mother would give me a little
money, I would go and buy clothes," Sierra says. "You know how
people have a hobby? That is my hobby."

Sierra, back to 215 pounds, wants to get to his first World
Series in style. He says he will not wear the same clothes twice
all season. "Maybe the same shirt, something like that, but not
in the same combination," he says. He is stepping smoothly and
proudly. Once again he is a paso fino.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RICH FRISHMAN Fashion statement Sierra's new Mariners mates marvel at his gaudy .389 average and his even flashier wardrobe.COLOR PHOTO: AL BEHRMAN/AP Back firing After six years away and five operations, a rejuvenated Rijo had won his last two starts for the Reds.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMONCOLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN

Back from Oblivion
Like Seattle's Ruben Sierra, the veterans listed below were on
big league rosters at week's end after spending at least one
season--and in some cases several--away from the majors.

Player, Team, Position Age
Carlos Baerga RED SOX, 2B 33

First Stint in Majors
1990-99, three clubs, .291 average; three-time All-Star with
Indians

Where He Went
Batted .315 for Long Island Ducks of Atlantic League in 2001

Record Since Returning
2002: 7 for 21, one RBI

[Player, Team, Position] [Age]
Willie Banks RED SOX, RHP 33

[First Stint in Majors]
1991-95, '97-98, six clubs, 31-38, 4.93 ERA

[Where He Went]
3-3, 3.94 for Orix Blue Wave (Japan) in 1999

[Record Since Returning]
2002: three relief appearances, 10.12 ERA

[Player, Team, Position] [Age]
Joe Borowski CUBS, RHP 31

[First Stint in Majors]
1995-98, three clubs, 5-7, 4.43 ERA

[Where He Went]
Split 2000 with Newark Bears of Atlantic League (6-3, 5.50 ERA)
and Monterrey Sultans of Mexican League (4-2, 3.19 ERA)

[Record Since Returning]
2002: 12 relief appearances, 1.59 ERA

[Player, Team, Position] [Age]
Julio Franco BRAVES, 1B 40

[First Stint in Majors]
1982-97, '99, six clubs, .301 average; '91 AL batting champion
(.341)

[Where He Went]
A hit in three languages: Chiba Lotte Marines (Japan), '98,
.290 average; Mexico City Tigers, '99(.423) and 2001 (.437);
Samsung Lions (Korea), 2000 (.327)

[Record Since Returning]
2001: Batted .300 in 25 games 2002: 47 at bats, .149 average

[Player, Team, Position] [Age]
Chris Hammond BRAVES, LHP 36

[First Stint in Majors]
1990-98, three clubs, 46-55, 4.54 ERA

[Where He Went]
Househusband for wife Lynne, three kids

[Record Since Returning]
2002: nine relief appearances, 0-1, 2.87 ERA

[Player, Team, Position] [Age]
Dave Hollins PHILLIES, IF 35

[First Stint in Majors]
1990-99, six clubs, .261 average; '93 All-Star with Phillies

[Where He Went]
Triple A with Blue Jays, White Sox, Devil Rays, Orioles andIndians organizations

[Record Since Returning]
2001 (Indians): 1 for 5 2002: 0 for 7

[Player, Team, Position] [Age]
Darren Holmes BRAVES, RHP 36

[First Stint in Majors]
1990-2000, seven clubs, 32-29, 4.47 ERA, 58 saves

[Where He Went]
Recovered from spinal-fusion surgery

[Record Since Returning]
2002: 13 relief appearances, 1-0, 1.29 ERA, one save

[Player, Team, Position] [Age]
Jose Rijo REDS, RHP 36

[First Stint in Majors]
1984-95, three clubs, 111-87, 3.16 ERA; '90 World Series MVP
with Reds; '94 All-Star with Reds

[Where He Went]
Five surgeries on right elbow; founded baseball academy in
native Dominican Republic

[Record Since Returning]
2001: 13 relief appearances, 0-0, 2.12 ERA 2002: six appearances
(two starts), 2-0, 1.89 ERA

Long, Strange Trip

Here is Ruben Sierra's baseball itinerary from his rookie year
(above) to his Seattle stint (below).

1986 Texas Rangers
1992 Oakland A's
1995 New York Yankees
1996 Detroit Tigers
1997 Cincinnati Reds
Syracuse SkyChiefs
Toronto Blue Jays
1998 Chicago White Sox
Norfolk Tides
1999 Atlantic City Surf
2000 Cleveland Indians
Cancun Lobstermen
Oklahoma RedHawks
Texas Rangers
2001 Oklahoma RedHawks
Texas Rangers
2002 Seattle Mariners