Baseball was a family affair in 1988. In Baltimore, Cal Ripken Sr. was a coach for his two sons, Billy and Cal Jr., while in San Diego, Sandy Alomar coached his two sons, the eldest, Sandy Jr., and the younger Roberto. It was the younger Alomar who would shine first. The switch-hitting Roberto became the Padres’ regular second baseman in 1988, and immediately established himself on both offense and defense. He collected his first hit off Nolan Ryan, hit .266 with 24 stolen bases, and was involved in 88 double plays, tied for second amongst NL second baseman.
On Opening Day of his first full season in 1989, he was the youngest player on any National League roster. As the season wore on, his inexperience started to show. That year, he led NL second baseman with 28 errors. But he solved most of his defensive problems in his third season and after making his first All-Star team in July 1990, Roberto committed just six errors in the second half.
But after the 1990 season, he was traded with Joe Carter to the Toronto Blue Jays for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez, giving the Blue Jays the core of its championship teams. On May 10 in 1991, he became one of only 55 players to hit home runs from opposite sides of the plate in the same game, and later tied a Blue Jay record when he swiped four bases in a game against Baltimore. He ended the season second in the league with 53 steals, became only the second Blue Jay to be voted to the All-Star team, and won his first Gold Glove. Then, in the post-season, he batted an ALCS-leading .474.
Alomar solidified his superstar credentials in his next two seasons, leading the Blue Jays to back-to-back World Series victories. In 1992, he again finished high among the league leaders in both offensive and defensive categories. He then shone in the ALCS, when he won the MVP award while batting .423, and carried an 11-game hitting streak into the World Series. Alomar had his best season to that point in 1993, hitting career highs in BA (.326), runs (109), and RBI (93). He also was the model of consistency with three 11-game hitting streaks, stole 18 consecutive bases without being caught, and reached base safely in 30 straight games. And as usual, he had a brilliant postseason, batting .292 and swiping four bases in the ALCS, then stole four bases and batted .480 in the World Series victory over the Phillies.
He was hobbled in the spring after he broke his leg while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. He recovered by the end of spring training, but drove in a career-low 38 runs in the strike-shortened 1994 season. In 1995, Alomar’s defense took center stage. On June 17, he broke Jerry Adair’s AL record for consecutive errorless games by a second baseman with his 90th error-free game (the streak reached 104 before it was snapped). Then on June 27, he set another AL record for errorless chances with 460, eventually running that record to 482. For the season, he led the majors’ second basemen with a career-high .994 fielding average — just four errors in 643 total chances — and led AL second basemen in putouts (272).
Much to the anger of his loyal fans in Toronto, Alomar then signed a lucrative free agent deal with Baltimore for the 1996 season, creating an All-Star double play combo with Cal Ripken Jr. In his first season with the Orioles, Alomar set career highs in batting average (.328), hits (193), runs (132), and RBI (94). But then came his altercation with umpire John Hirschbeck. On September 27, after being called out on strikes and then arguing his subsequent ejection, Alomar turned and hit Hirschbeck in the face with a gob of spit. Alomar later claimed that Hirschbeck said some nasty things about Alomar’s family, adding that the umpire had become “real bitter” since his son died of a rare brain disease in 1993.
The spitting clip was played in slow motion on the news for several nights, and when Baltimore faced Cleveland in the Division Series, Alomar was booed incessantly by fans at Jacobs Field. He responded by tying Game Four in the top of the ninth with a two-out single off Indians closer Jose Mesa. An hour later, Alomar knocked Cleveland out of the playoffs with a game-winning homer in the 12th.
The uproar resulted in a five-game suspension to open the 1997 season, but worse was the blow to Alomar’s heretofore sterling reputation. Although he and Hirschbeck had publicly made up, Alomar was still frequently booed during the 1997 season. But he didn’t let the boos bother him. He hit three homers in a game on April 26, all from the left side. And despite the seeming fan anger, he was again voted in as the league’s starting All-Star second baseman, his eighth appearance in the mid-summer classic.
Alomar hurt his left shoulder while batting on May 31 against the Indians, and for the rest of the season was only able to bat left-handed. Though he did hit .333, he appeared in just 112 games and required surgery to repair the labrum cartilage of the shoulder socket during the offseason.
Alomar never again felt at home in Baltimore. Owner Peter Angelos publicly opined that Alomar’s play had suffered in the wake of the Hirschbeck controversy and by the time the Orioles’ miserable 1998 season came to an end Baltimore fans were convinced that Alomar was not giving his all. Alomar, who blamed his troubles on nagging injuries, vented his frustration in a heated closed-doors argument with manager Ray Miller in late August.
As a free agent after the season, Alomar signed with the Cleveland Indians, where he was reunited with his brother Sandy and manager Mike Hargrove, who had played with Alomar’s father in Texas. Despite Cleveland’s earlier animosity towards Alomar, the Indians needed a second baseman — they had used eighteen in the previous two seasons. Inspired by the change in his surroundings, he won over Indians fans with an MVP-caliber season, hitting .323 with 24 home runs and 120 RBIs and leading the league in runs scored with 138. He also provided sparkling defense that earned him his eighth Gold Glove. Alomar’s fielding continued to shine in 2000 when he had a league-best 437 assists.