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The Record, Bergen County, NJ
Alomar Can See The Light; Expects Great Things In '03
by BOB KLAPISCH
January 1, 2003
The epicenter of the Mets' new empire isn't Tom Glavine or Cliff Floyd or Art Howe. It's not Fred Wilpon's money or GM Steve Phillips' obsessive need to keep transforming the roster. For the Mets to flourish in 2003, they need to realize two non-negotiable goals: First, Mike Piazza has to hit closer to his .321 career average. And second, Roberto Alomar needs to stop, exhale slowly, and retrace his steps that led him to a summer of petty disputes in the clubhouse and on-field mediocrity.
That means not obsessing over his .266 average and how many infield hits he lost to Shea's thick infield grass, or how many potential home runs were caught in the ballpark's deep power alleys.
It means not fighting in-house wars with other Spanish-speaking players, such as Roger Cedeno, with whom he argued about who was better looking. Or Rey Ordonez, whom Alomar considered arrogant and undisciplined.
And it means accepting the reality that with New York's energy level comes an unspoken mandate: living in the same universe as the Yankees, every game at Shea matters. Every game is like its own apocalypse. And after finishing in last place in 2002, the Mets' margin for error has evaporated altogether.
Alomar knows this list. He knows it by heart. He insists, "I've done a lot of thinking, and I know I'm ready for New York now. I know what to expect now with the fans, the media, just New York in general."
He pauses just long enough for emphasis, then says, "I'm not just going to have a good year. I'm going to have a great year."
The Mets are so heavily relying on Alomar, club officials have periodically called him at home in Puerto Rico, simply to ask about his physical and emotional well-being. Alomar finished 38 points below his career average and batted under .300 for only the second time in the last 11 years. He failed to make the All-Star team for the first time since 1989 and saw his streak of four straight Gold Glove awards come to an end.
So when Phillips reached out to the second baseman before Christmas - asking if there was anything the Mets could do for him - the GM was speaking for the entire organization.
The Mets want to know if Alomar is truly happy in New York, a question they'll have to answer before committing to a long-term contract. Alomar, who'll turn 35 on Feb. 5, is eligible for free agency after the 2003 season and says if he doesn't have a multi- year deal by Opening Day, he's testing the market and will not give the Mets a hometown discount or advantage.
But that's not to say Alomar is looking for the door. Quite the contrary.
"I love being a Met, and this is where I want to stay, to play and finish my career," he said by telephone the other day. "I think we're going to be a better team this year, and I want to be part of this."
Alomar says the Mets helped themselves by trading Ordonez, who, in the second baseman's words, "offended everyone" by calling Shea fans stupid last September.
"Rey didn't understand that everyone was frustrated, including the fans," Alomar said.
"They had a right to express that. Maybe Rey was just trying to get traded. Maybe that's what he was doing. But it was the best thing for him and the team to move on."
Alomar will now be paired with Jose Reyes, the 19-year-old prospect who, despite never having played higher than Class AA, will be given the chance to win the shortstop job in spring training. It will be Alomar's responsibility to mentor the rookie, a task he welcomes. But he says the Mets have to help Reyes assimilate as well.
It's still a shock to Alomar that the Mets don't employ a Spanish- speaking coach or have any Spanish-speaking executives. The gap between the club and its Latin players is so wide, Alomar says, "There are players on this team, like Timo [Perez] and [Armando] Benitez, that no one knows about. Those guys are afraid to speak because of the language problems, and that's not right."
Alomar is pushing heavily for the Mets to hire his friend, Ray Negron, as the club's liaison to its Latin players. The Puerto Rican- born Negron once worked for the Yankees, helping Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry battle their drug addictions, and after working with the Indians, where he became friends with Alomar, is now employed by the Rangers.
The Mets are interviewing Negron on Jan. 15, according to Alomar, who says, "This is a guy who can help our clubhouse."
"We don't have a bad clubhouse, because we have great guys. But there were some little problems that we had," Alomar said. "We need to come together, be closer. Ray can help the Spanish guys, because they have no one to speak for them."
Alomar won't lie about his self-interest in this matter: Negron was at his side in Cleveland during his best year, 1999, when Alomar batted .323 with 24 home runs and 120 RBI.
Think the Mets aren't craving such production from Alomar in 2003? If all it takes is hiring a spiritual guru ... well, put it this way: when Jason Giambi insisted the Yankees hire his personal trainer, Bob Alejo, last year, the club made him a "batting practice pitcher" in a matter of days.
Of course, Alomar alone can't rescue the Mets. He hints the club made a mistake allowing Edgardo Alfonzo to leave, and, despite the impressive additions of Glavine and Floyd, says, "We still need another right-handed hitter. Whoever we get at third base has to be able to hit in the middle of our lineup."
Still, Alomar has every reason to look forward to 2003. As he put it, "All the little things that went wrong, I think that's in the past now. We're going to be a good team."
He says. He hopes. And just for emphasis, he crosses his fingers ever so tightly.