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Barry M. Bloom

Alomar joins some elite company

Bloom: Alomar joins some elite company

Alomar joins some elite company
NEW YORK -- They are dedicating a statue at a sports museum in Puerto Rico next week to Roberto Alomar, who has now become the third-greatest athlete in the history of the island commonwealth.

After his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday, Alomar joined the late Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda, who were inducted before him. That's pretty heady company.

Apparently, the statue will replicate the second baseman on the pivot converting a double play. The honor was going to be bestowed whether or not Alomar made it to the Hall of Fame on his second try. Now it's just part of a double-dip celebration that began on his home island with the exciting news.

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"It's a big thing in Puerto Rico," said Alomar's older brother, Sandy Jr., a six-time All-Star catcher himself, when reached in Chicago on Thursday. "There were people in the convention center celebrating his election. It was unbelievable. The reaction of the people was incredible."

It's no wonder. The Alomar family is treated like royalty. Sandy Sr. was a big league ballplayer for 15 years and raised two sons who were far better players than he was.

The women are the backbone of the family. The older sister, Sandia, used to work at the Olympic Center and is now raising her own children. The mother, Maria, supplied the glue.

"My wife really sacrificed for those kids," said Sandy Sr., who is now 67 and was at the news conference introducing his son and Bert Blyleven as Hall of Famers on Thursday. "When I was playing, she was with them at home and she was traveling with them. I've always said: 'My wife deserves all the credit.'"

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The family hails from Salinas, a town near Ponce by the Caribbean Sea on the southern edge of the island. Salinas is a few hours from San Juan, which is on the Atlantic Ocean to the north. I first visited them there in 1988, when both boys were highly regarded prospects in the Padres organization and I covered the team for the old San Diego Tribune.

In those days, Puerto Rican kids were free agents, and not included in the annual First-Year Player Draft. The Padres, under general manager Jack McKeon, mined the island for players such as Benito Santiago, Joey Cora and Carlos Baerga. The Alomars came to San Diego as a package deal -- the father as a big league coach and the kids as two prized Minor Leaguers.

The Alomars lived in a pleasant house on a suburban street not unlike the same type of neighborhood on the U.S. mainland. Sandy Jr. was 21 years old and in Triple-A at the time. Robbie was 19 and a Double-A kid, playing winter ball that year for his father, who was managing a team in nearby Caguas.

The day, my wife, Alicia, and I rolled down the street in our rental, the boys were out front of the house playing with electric cars like any normal teenager.

Robbie was very quiet back then, while Sandy Jr. took control, touring us all over the back roads of their end of the island. On the wall of the local ballpark was a painting of Sandy Sr. in uniform, swinging a bat. In the house was a photograph of the dad in full home Yankees uniform, circa 1974-76, flanked by the kids both decked in pinstripes.

This was a full-blown ballplaying family, no doubt about that.

"I always wanted to be just like my dad. I always wanted to be a ballplayer," Roberto said on Thursday. "Thanks to him, I am what I am today. My mom was my mentor. My dad was my advisor and friend. He continues to do that today."

Both kids were eventually traded by the Padres. McKeon shipped Sandy Jr. to Cleveland after the 1989 season in a deal that netted him Joe Carter. A year later, after McKeon was dismissed, the new GM, Joe McIlvaine, took it upon himself to send Robbie and Carter to Toronto for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. Pat Gillick, who will be inducted in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on July 24 along with Robbie and Blyleven, was the Toronto GM who made that deal, turning the Blue Jays into champions.

Everyone expected the older Alomar to be traded. After all, the Padres had Santiago behind the plate and he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1987. But Robbie? He had already been an All-Star once during his first three seasons.

"I had been relieved of my duties earlier that year, and the rumors were flying, although I never believed that that would happen," McKeon, now 80, recalled. "I was in the car when the bulletin came over the radio. I almost drove off the road."

No one ever knows what twists and turns life will take, but the Alomar kids combined to win 11 Gold Gloves, make 18 All-Star appearances and four more in the World Series, winning two of them. Robbie was the most acrobatic second baseman I've ever seen.

Visiting with the family at home that long ago, I could have never envisioned all that. Now Robbie is the first player I've covered who I knew as a Minor League teen and made it all to the way to the Hall of Fame. From Salinas to Cooperstown.

"He's a special player," his older brother said. "Always was a special player."

He'll have a statue and a Hall of Fame plaque just to prove it. So ditto that!

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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