When Carlos Santana left for the Phillies last month, I wrote about how his departure is symbolic because he was the first piece in the team that we see today. The first quality player of the new era, the first stone upon which this whole run has been built. It all has to start somewhere. The Phillies are hoping for the same thing out of him, though they have a couple rough hewn rocks of their own to create around, as well. What’s interesting though, Santana isn’t the first young catcher that heralded a great Cleveland run.
The ‘90s Indians first big name to show up and perform was, of course, Sandy Alomar, Jr. Somehow history repeated itself back in 2010, exactly 20 years later. Like Santana, Alomar was never the best on the team, but damn if he wasn’t vital to their success.
Its weird that Alomar even came from a west coast National League team that didn’t have space for him, just like Santana. Alomar at least didn’t get his knee blown up, and won a Rookie of the Year. And, you know, could play solid defense behind the plate. Its actually amazing to think that, between Sandy’s departure in 2000 and Yan Gomes’ emergence in 2014, the Indians didn’t have a very competent regular defensive catcher. Not to knock Victor Martinez or Santana or anything — both had spectacular talent at the plate — but each was an adventure when wearing the mask. For this alone, I think Alomar is a little underrated.
In the book Glory Days in Tribe Town, Tom Hamilton talks about how important Alomar was to the Indians. As he put it:
Sandy is often the fifth or sixth player mentioned when people take about the Indians of the 1990s. He should be right at the top because of his leadership and his commitment.
On a team that had Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, the other Alomar, just a host of incredible, Hall of Fame caliber talents, the man who has seen more Tribe baseball than any of us holds Alomar in this highest regard. That’s got to count for something, even if it’s utterly impossible to really count what that “leadership” and “commitment” meant to the team. Maybe it’s getting others to buy in to a new manager, or fostering a sense of fraternity and camaraderie that can be so vital in the long baseball season. Maybe it’s hogwash. But without Alomar, who knows if a locker room that held hotheads like Belle, loveable airheads like Manny and the hardworking Thome would have buttoned together.
In 1997, when Alomar was actually healthy for most of a season (117 games), he posted a .900 OPS and nabbed a bunch of MVP votes. Between that and his Rookie of the Year award, is there any Indian since Jacob’s Field opened that has more “what if” surrounding him? Grady Sizemore had two or three very good years before degrading due to his own rash of injuries, at least. The talent was only unveiled occasionally and it was amazing, but Alomar’s presence seemingly meant something more than numbers.
That’s the thing about Alomar, he was kept around and keeps sticking with the Indians. It baffles me that he hasn’t earned a shot as a manager with some other club, but he’s got to be at least a great guy to have around. Despite the injuries and only playing more than 100 games four times in his entire career, he forged a decade long stint with the Indians. And then when he came back to coach with them he’s lasted through two different managerial regimes in Cleveland, which is a bit of an outlier. I can’t think of other bench coaches aside from a couple pitching whisperers like Don Cooper that stick around after the guy who hired them is ousted.
Sandy is more than just a coach. He’s part of the team; part of the organizational history. Like a useful mascot almost. If a team is winning, having people like that around isn’t really needed. Winning is the greatest unifier in sports, but in the hiccups that are sure to come, and in the arguments about play time and probably jealousy over money that inevitably leak out in as rich a game as baseball, a soothing voice is vital. Alomar was that with the Indians as a player, as he once counseled Omar Vizquel to cool it about being upset in a contract dispute with management. He even had Belle’s respect. And he’s still there for a reason, calming and holding sway behind the scenes, keeping the team, a team. So what if he wasn’t a real star, at least when compared to his compatriots in the 90’s. Is there any player of the last 20 years that’s as Cleveland as Sandy Alomar? May his shadow reign never end.