We may be more than halfway home, but down in Met Hell we’ve still got a little ways to go. And two more permanent residents to confront.
In the non-baseball Inferno, the Eighth Circle of Hell was Malebolge, a domain of ditches separated by great folds of earth. The inhabitants of those ditches included hypocrites, thieves, false counselors, sowers of schism and falsifiers — all apt descriptions for the man who dwells forever in the Eighth Circle of Met Hell.
When he arrived in 2002, he seemed destined for a realm both loftier and gentler: He’d just turned 34 and had a fair amount of mileage, but hardly seemed like he was about to slow down. Why, the previous year he’d hit .336, driven in 100 runs, stolen 30 bases and won a Gold Glove. He was a sure-fire Hall of Famer and a member-in-waiting of the 3,000 Hit Club. It seemed quite possible that he’d reach that lofty plateau as a Met — after all, he had 2,389 hits on his resume already, and spent his first winter in Port St. Lucie talking about a contract extension.
When things hit a bump early, our latest Met hero kept talking a good game. Officially, anyway: “I’m happy here. I want to play here and I want to stay here and hopefully things can get better. There’s things said that I haven’t said. I haven’t opened my mouth, and then other people open their mouth and say, ‘Robbie’s not happy,’ this and that. Maybe there’s another Robbie Alomar out there.”
Hmm. If there was, it would explain a lot. Because the Roberto Alomar Met fans endured for 222 dismal games in 2002 and 2003 sure didn’t seem very interested in playing baseball.
In 2002 he hit .266, drove in 53 runs and stole 16 bases. Mediocre numbers, but rarely has a player shown so little in achieving mediocrity. Shea Stadium didn’t seem to agree with him: There were mutterings (always secondhand) that he was dismayed to see previous years’ home runs turn into flyouts, that he was miffed to find Shea’s thick grass turning ground-ball hits into 5-3s and 6-3s and 3-1s. Maybe that was the explanation for his mulish insistence on dropping down bunt after bunt, regardless of whether or not the situation called for one. And then plenty of times Alomar would snatch defeat from the jaws of questionable ideas, turning potential bunt hits, however ill-conceived, into outs by trying to dive head-first into first base.
In the field, that Gold Glove turned into pyrite. Balls that he snapped up in San Diego and Toronto and Baltimore and Cleveland skittered by him, but the worst thing was watching him turn the pivot. One of the most-acrobatic second basemen in the history of the game had turned into Gregg Jefferies: He’d take throws from shortstop with his rear end heading for left-center, shot-putting a lollipop throw that would float into the first baseman’s glove or bounce into it after the batter crossed first. It happened again and again and again, as Met announcers wondered what was going on and the boos came down from the stands.
But surely a lock for Cooperstown made his teammates better with his intangibles? Ha ha ha. Alomar sulked about being moving around in the batting order and took such umbrage to needling about his rookie card from Roger Cedeno (who may not be able to play baseball but has always been hailed as a prince of a guy) that Mo Vaughn had to intervene in the dugout in front of TV, God and everyone. Then in April 2003 he was part of the double-play tandem that blamed Jae Seo — a rookie — for the well-coiffed, Bentley-driving Rey Sanchez’s failure to cover the bag against the Expos. That’s veteran leadership! (Given that Jose Reyes’ first two double-play mates and counselors were Alomar and Sanchez, it’s a testament to his character that he isn’t Maurice Clarett.)
Then, in late June 2003, a miraculous thing happened. Suddenly Alomar was hanging in there on the pivot. Suddenly plays not made for a season and a half were being made. Suddenly he looked like…well, suddenly he looked like Roberto Alomar. The source of this miracle? The Mets were openly shopping him on the trade market. (Talk about testaments to character.) When Alomar was sent to the White Sox, he departed without mentioning the mysterious Other Roberto Alomar: “I didn’t feel real comfortable with the situation. Sometimes teams don’t work for you. I think the New York Mets weren’t the right team for me.”
Of course, sometimes players don’t work for teams. Gary Cohen, witnessing the Miracle of Robbie, turned the blowtorch on, offering a furious, dead-on indictment of his halfhearted play and famously calling him a disgrace. The response from Alomar (who was honoring the White Sox by showing actual interest in the game he was paid millions to play) was to boycott the New York media. “I heard the tape,” he said of Cohen, adding that “I did the best I could. It just didn’t work out. But to say I was a disgrace or I didn’t play hard, I don’t understand that.”
Perhaps he was also baffled by the Arizona Diamondbacks’ reaction to the mystery of Roberto Alomar. Alomar went to camp with the D’Backs in 2004, where it was hoped he’d tutor young Matt Kata. Instead, Arizona officials were left puzzled by his vanished range and lack of interest in fielding uncooperative grounders. He wound up back with the White Sox briefly, signed with the Devil Rays, then retired in March 2005, explaining (without apparent irony) that “I played a lot of games and I said I would never embarrass myself on the field.”
Alomar will undoubtedly be part of the 2010 Hall of Fame class, which means I will seethe at the voting results and again at whatever self-serving nonsense emerges from his mouth upon his induction. But I take comfort in this: No examination of his career that’s more than a couple of paragraphs long will fail to note his precipitous decline, or ponder the reasons for it. And no one who ever watched him play in New York will let a discussion of him go by without noting that he was a selfish, malingering washout in baseball’s premier city.
Robbie, I know you have to wait until 2010 to get to Cooperstown. But you don’t have to wait another minute for your induction into Met Hell, where your plaque will always be displayed. If you’re passing by, here are some words on it that might jump out at you:
SOWER OF SCHISMS
And finally, this one: