COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The first ground ball Roberto Alomar scooped up in the majors, the one that jump-started his path to 10 Gold Gloves, 12 All-Star appearances and two World Series titles, is lost in the haze of years that only Baseball-Reference.com can cut through.
But the first tears Alomar shed as a professional are not.
Watching a career as glittering as Alomar's from start to finish is something special.
But what still stands out most about Alomar, to me, is the day he cried bitterly at 20 in a dingy spring training clubhouse in Yuma, Ariz., when the Padres cut him at the end of camp in 1988. Man, did he want it all, and quick.
Always before, Alomar had been allowed to play with the older kids. So why not now?
|Roberto Alomar accumulated 10 gold gloves, 12 All-Star appearances and two World Series titles. (Getty Images)|
"I never was afraid of the ball hitting me. I always loved to be out there with the big guys. And I think because I have that opportunity ... I was blessed to have a guy who played in the major leagues who had the chance to take me to different ballparks, and I had the chance to be surrounded by major leaguers."
It took only a couple of weeks for the Padres to figure out what Alomar already could see through tear-filled eyes: For a kid who danced around second base like a prima ballerina, there would be no holding back. He spent only a couple of weeks in the minors that year before being summoned to the majors for good.
He debuted on April 22, 1988, and on Sunday will become only the third native of Puerto Rico to be enshrined in Cooperstown, following Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda.
"When I was a little boy, you know, I knew that I had God-given talent and I wanted to be just a ballplayer," Alomar says. "I did play other sports, but I always wanted to play the game of baseball. Watching my dad play, I always wanted to be just like him. ... I always loved the challenge. I always loved to play with kids older than myself.
"And I think that helped me to become a better player every day. And [older brother] Sandy knows that when I was a kid, I always loved to win. That's the mentality I had since a young age."
His father forged a steady 15-year career and his brother was an All-Star catcher, but it was Roberto whose quickness, bat speed, glove work, agility, switch-hitting ability and acumen on the bases produced brilliance.
His game was a water-color painting come to life: Fluid, with bright colors and no defined boundaries.
Who was better with the glove at second base during the past two or three generations? Joe Morgan? Maybe. The list stops there. And we can debate Alomar or Morgan all evening at the bar at the Otesaga Hotel, where the two men -- and the other living Hall of Famers returning for this summer's induction -- will be staying this weekend.
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Who was a better all-around second baseman in the game's history? Morgan? Rogers Hornsby? Frankie Frisch? All in the debate, and the list doesn't extend much further.
And here's the thing: Alomar was signed by San Diego as a shortstop at 17 in 1985.
"The Padres asked me if I can play second base and I said, 'No problem,'" Alomar says. "Then, I think I had a better chance to come up as a second baseman, through the minors and all the way to the big leagues, just because they had Garry Templeton at shortstop at the time."
No problem? No. He was a precocious talent in San Diego in the spring of '88, so magical that his glove and bat together made both his tears and any worries about rushing him quickly evaporate. It was as if he was on an accelerated course when he moved from shortstop across the second base bag, and he never slowed down.
Pat Gillick, also being enshrined this weekend in what's an especially poignant baseball celebration for Toronto, acquired him in a megadeal with San Diego in December 1990, that helped set the stage for the Blue Jays' back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.
Alomar reunited with Gillick again in Baltimore, helping take the Orioles to their last two playoff appearances (1996 and 1997), then moved on to Cleveland as a free agent, where he helped the Indians win two division titles in his three years. At the end, with the Mets, White Sox and Arizona, his career faded rapidly, seemingly as quickly as that '88 ascent.
Still, how one of the best-fielding second basemen in history did not make Cooperstown on his first ballot remains as big a robbery as some of those hundreds of ground balls over the years that seemed like base hits until Alomar stole them away.
All the ones that followed Glenn Davis' bouncer to second in the fourth inning of a 3-1 Padres win over Houston on that long ago April day in 1988.
Yes, that was the first ground ball Alomar fielded in the majors. On the field that day were a couple of men who already were well on their way to Hall of Fame careers, Tony Gwynn and Nolan Ryan. You never know where the path to Cooperstown begins, or whom you'll encounter along the way.