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Roberto: It's The First Name In Baseball In Puerto Rico From Clemente To AlomarSlumping and Aging at 35, Alomar Is Still Enthusiastic

Roberto: It's The First Name In Baseball In Puerto Rico From Clemente To Alomar

By Bob Herzog

April 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Newsday, Inc. All rights reserved.

San Juan - The white stately columns at the entranceway to Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico lend an appropriate touch of foreshadowing to the featured exhibit inside. They suggest a touch of royalty, a touch of class, a touch of historical significance. They suggest the presence of a hero.

The hero is a native Puerto Rican who touched the lives of many during his 38 years on Earth and who continues to touch many more, a little more than 30 years after his tragic death. For the debut of a 22-game slate of regular- season major-league baseball games on this diverse tropical island, the omnipresence of Roberto Clemente is just the right touch.

"He is the biggest star in Puerto Rico. You still hear people speaking his name.

Everybody knows his story," said Mets second baseman Roberto Alomar, the best of the many modern-day native sons. "He's an idol, a guy who everybody respects and that we look up to. If you talk about Puerto Rican ballplayers, the first name is Roberto Clemente."

That Alomar shares the same given name as Clemente is a nice touch too, because if the former Pirates rightfielder is the first name in Puerto Rican baseball, then the first family is the Alomars. Father Sandy had a 15-year career as a major-league player and remains in the game today as a coach for the Colorado Rockies. Roberto is in his 16th season, as is his brother, catcher Sandy Jr., with the White Sox.

That's why nobody was prouder to be introduced to a cheering crowd of nearly 18,000 people Friday night at Hiram Bithorn Stadium here than Roberto Alomar. He is carrying the torch from one Roberto to another and will likely join Clemente in the Hall of Fame when his career is over.

It's no stretch to say that Clemente helped blaze a trail for the Alomars, for Rey Sanchez, for Jose Vidro, for Ivan Rodriguez and for so many other Latino players from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and South America.

That's why the Roberto Clemente exhibit in Santurce at Puerto Rico's largest and most respected art museum is so popular and so perfectly timed to be here during the debut of the Montreal Expos' trial run as a transplanted team in 2003. The exhibit opened on Dec. 15, 2002 and closes on May 4, 2003. Entitled "HOME: A

Celebration of Roberto Clemente's Spirit and Passion," it has attracted a steady stream of Puerto Rican residents of all ages and many fans from Pittsburgh, according to a member of the Puerto Rico Tourist Company.

Clemente's name and legend are so ingrained here that his life story is used as a tool in classrooms to teach children how to read and speak English. "You've got to admire him. He really made a difference to the people of Puerto Rico," said Sanchez, the Mets' shortstop. "Every coach teaches kids about him. It's an excellent way of showing kids about dedication and desire and how it can make you a great player and a great person."

Alomar and Sanchez said every school-age kid in Puerto Rico knows Clemente's story, which is beautifully presented in the multi-media museum exhibit that takes great care to touch on Clemente's life both as a ballplayer and as a humanitarian.

Clemente's first contract with the Dodgers is under glass, co-signed by his father because Roberto was not yet 18. It is for a $5,000 annual salary to play for the minor-league Montreal Royals and included a $10,000 bonus. There is a ticket stub from his first major-league game against the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 17, 1955.

The price? $2.75. And one from his final game against the Mets on Sept. 30, 1972 when he collected his 3,000th hit off Jon Matlack. That ticket originally cost $4.15.

There are photographs, paintings, sculptures, videos, stamps, coins, baseball cards, uniforms (flannels to double-knits), Gold Gloves, Silver Bats - a veritable treasure trove of memorabilia about No. 21.

His life off the field isn't ignored. There are photos and memorabilia that pay tribute to his charitable work in his home country and his devotion to children.

And, of course, there are photos and newspaper articles detailing his shocking death in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972. The plane went down in the ocean not far from his hometown. It was loaded with medical supplies, clothing and food for the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente's body was never recovered, but his spirit has never left this island.

Such genuine altruism was as much a part of Clemente's legacy as those whirling throws from the rightfield corner in old Forbes Field or those line drives slashed to all fields on "bad" pitches most hitters wouldn't even swing at. His death made him even more of a hero than his baseball life, and that is the theme of the museum's exhibit.

The first thing a visitor notices is a glass panel with a quote, in Spanish and English, from psychologist Carl Jung about "the universal hero myth."

Another glass panel inside reads: "He was launched into immortality when he became hero to an entire nation whose idolatry of Clemente has elevated him to a place traditionally reserved for saints."

That spirit and passion drives many of the Puerto Rican ballplayers who have followed Clemente into the major leagues and is imbued in many of the fans who are turning out in droves for this weekend's series. Major League Baseball and the Expos, who have a financial stake, hope the enthusiasm doesn't wear off after the initial series.

"Our goal is to take baseball to places where it is deeply rooted in the history and culture," said MLB executive vice president John McHale Jr., explaining why baseball recently has gone to Japan, Mexico City and Puerto Rico and will continue to globalize.

The timing couldn't be better for Alomar, who has been buoyant all weekend, smiling and laughing through news conferences and interview sessions for Spanish- and English-speaking reporters.

"Me and Rey [Sanchez] have been talking about this for a long time. It's such an honor to be able to play here," Alomar said Friday night. "For us, it's a dream come true. You don't expect to have the chance to play in big-league uniforms in Puerto Rico. I'm very happy to have this opportunity. I want to win the games but I want to enjoy myself. I never thought that this was going to happen."

Certainly not when he was playing ball as a kid in Ponce, Puerto Rico, under the watchful eyes of his mother, Maria, while his father was a player for six different big-league franchises.

"I remember in Little League when my mom watched me play," Alomar said. "It's such a thrill to have her here to watch me play these games now ... If I was a kid living in Puerto Rico today, I would tell my dad to buy me a ticket. In Puerto Rico, we don't have the chance to see big-league baseball. This is special."

The price of a ticket to see any of these home-away-from-home Expos games ranges from $25 to $85, and Montreal president Tony Tavares conceded, "Whether these games are considered a success in the long run will be determined by attendance."

There definitely will be short-term success for Puerto Rico, which will realize an $8 million to $10 million economic impact from the games, according to a government official. That money will come from hotels, restaurants, services and the 20 percent income tax on players.

"Even in the States, you pay taxes. It's going to help our country, anyway," Sanchez said with a smile and a shrug.

The fans are not thinking about economics at colorful, cozy Hiram Bithorn Stadium. They cheered long and loud for Puerto Rican-born players Alomar, Sanchez and Vidro during player introductions. The public address announcer surely helped by raising his voice to bleacher-rattling crescendo as he spoke the Latino names, and drifted into typical ballpark PA neutrality for the American names.

However, the fans needed no such prompting when it came to the unscripted actions on the field. Vidro was summoned from the dugout for a curtain call after his eighth-inning home run Friday night. When Alomar made a sparkling defensive play in the seventh inning of the same game, he was given a lusty standing ovation as he came off the field. He also received the loudest cheers during pregame introductions, tipping his cap and bowing to fans on both sides of the field.

"Of course I heard it," Alomar said. "Those were great standing ovations. I'm real proud of all the Puerto Ricans at the game and real proud to be from Puerto Rico. I feel blessed to be able to play in front of my countrymen. Every ovation I got [Friday night] will be remembered forever. This has to be at the top of my list of memories. I expected an ovation, but not like that. It was a beautiful thing."

There have been powerful emotions all around the island this weekend as baseball takes center stage. "Today is an historic day," Tony Bernazard, a special assistant to the MLB Players Association, said before Friday's game. "As I look at this stadium and see these games, I can only wonder, 'What would Roberto Clemente have said if he were here today?' "

Spiritually, at least, Clemente had a box seat for the action.

Slumping and Aging at 35, Alomar Is Still Enthusiastic


May 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEWS YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

MILWAUKEE, May 3 – The first full day of spring training was wrapping up in February 2002, when amid a seeming wealth of talent, Bobby Valentine, then the Mets' manager, wondered aloud of Roberto Alomar: "Why do we have him? I've been asked that by so many people."

That question remains unanswered more than a year later. Alomar, a second baseman acquired in a trade from the Cleveland Indians, was the key to the Mets' season this year. He was the one player with an unexplainable drop-off in his performance last season and with the highest ceiling for improvement.

With some exceptions, Alomar has not returned to form. The Mets ended a five-game losing streak with a 9-3 victory over the Brewers Friday night, carried by their new ace, Tom Glavine (4-2), and an offense that surged for one of the few times this season. But they are still in last place, show inherent flaws in their construction, and ownership has had to answer questions daily on when the general manager, Steve Phillips, will be fired.

Alomar was Phillips's last bold move, and it has turned into a bust. Trading for Alomar was designed to remake a lineup that had been carried for years solely by Mike Piazza.

But Alomar's struggles have carried over to this season. He was hitless in 21 times at-bat before driving in a run with a second-inning single Friday night, again displaying the futility that has baffled the team since last season. What is wrong with him? Is he having a steep decline at the age of 35?

"I think I'm a better hitter, a much better player, but I don't know," Alomar said. "Things happen for a reason."

If the Mets keep losing, Alomar would likely be one of the first to go, although a poor performance might force the Mets to pay for some of his contract. He is making $8 million and is one of the handful of pending free agents the Mets elected not to negotiate with until after the season. . If the Mets decide to break up the team, they must hope a team needing a second baseman will take the same gamble they did.

"He was really hitting before going through this little spell," Phillips said Friday. "Actually, probably one of the best runs we've seen from him over the last year-plus was just before his tailspin."

Alomar was batting .304 before the slump and his nine doubles were among the National League leaders. His increased production coincided with the Mets' series against the Expos in his homeland of Puerto Rico, April 11-14. He was moved to the top of the lineup April 17.

Can Alomar revert to his old self? Phillips said that short burst makes him believe, "it's a realistic expectation."

Alomar's slump began shortly before he played both games of last Sunday's disastrous doubleheader, in which the Mets lost two sloppy games to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Alomar went 0 for 8. He admitted Friday that playing both doubleheader games had left him tired.

Art Howe kept him out of the lineup Thursday for the first time this season. "A player at his age, he needs a day from time to time," Howe said. The manager also removed him from Friday's game with two innings to go, hoping to keep him fresh.

Alomar also noted that for the second straight season the Mets do not have a regular left-handed batting practice pitcher. His hit Friday was just his third from the right side this season, and his average against left-handed pitchers is now .111.

Born right-handed, Alomar batted left-handed so much as a child in Puerto Rico to become a switch-hitter that he now considers that his natural side. He has always hit right-handed pitchers better (.319 compared to .276 against left-handers before hitting .290 and .204 last season).

His play in the field has suffered as well. Once a perennial Gold Glove award winner (he won 10 before coming to the Mets), Alomar has already made three errors at second base, eluded contact in turning double plays (and sliding home) and relied so much on his flip throw that he looks like he's playing softball.

Alomar's ease in the field can resemble a lack of effort and he responded to a question Friday with a wry smile and an almost quizzical expression.

"I know it's tough when the team struggles, but you have to try to keep your intensity up," he said. "I play hard all the time. This is me. I run every ball hard. It can look that way, but it's not effortless when we play.

"My dad taught me you go out and play hard. I go out and give everything I have. If I don't do that, I'll be sitting on the bench."

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