It could just be that Alomar's most startling number is 24, the preposterously callow age at which he has been performing these prodigies. "He seems like he's about 30," says Oakland A's third baseman Carney Lansford. "He looks so experienced up there, you never expect him to take a bad swing." When Alomar felt he had swung at some bad pitches in a recent game against the A's, he went to the batting cage after everyone else had gone home and hit for 20 minutes. Alomar was still home before any of his teammates, of course, because he never left. They should hang one of those signs over his locker that says IF YOU LIVED HIRE, YOU'D BE HOME BY NOW. The extra batting practice paid off the next night, when he went 3 for 4.
"For him to have accomplished what he has at this age is really mind-boggling," says Larry Hisle, the Blue Jays' hitting coach. "You have to remember that most players that age are just making it to the big leagues. Robbie has already been an All-Star twice." Dave Winfield, Toronto's 40-year-old designated hitter, believes Alomar is already the game's best second baseman and may soon be the game's best player. "He's very precocious for 24," Winfield says. "You can count on him because he wants to be out there. Some guys don't really enjoy it. They're good at it, but they don't need it. He does." Jay manager Cito Gaston thinks Alomar may already have begun to approach the limits of his ability. "Let's face it, you can only get so good," Gaston says. "How much better would you want him to be?"
Oddly, it was Alomar's mother who had the most trouble answering that question when he was growing up in Salinas, Puerto Rico. Maria Alomar was left to raise Robbie. Sandy Jr. and their sister, Sandia, for eight months of every year while her husband, Sandy, who played in the major leagues for 15 seasons, was away. "My mom always gave us confidence to do what we wanted to do," Robbie says, "but she never wanted me to be a baseball player." Maria insisted her children attend Catholic school, and the only thing she demanded of Robbie was that he study hard. "I love baseball, but I know how hard it is to be good," Maria says, "so I wanted him to prepare for another life." Sandy Jr., who is two years older than Robbie, seemed to prefer driving dune buggies or just about anything else to baseball. "Sandy didn't like baseball that much, and I always did," Robbie says. "He always wanted to be a pilot or something." When Sandy's talent became so unmistakable that he had to play, what he turned out to be, instead, was the American League's Rookie of the Year in 1990 as a catcher for the Cleveland Indians.
The Alomar boys spent their summers shadowing their famous father around the ballparks where he worked. Robbie remembers meeting Nolan Ryan when his father was a teammate of Ryan's on the California Angels. Fifteen years later, when the San Diego Padres called Robbie up from the minors, he got his first big league hit against Ryan, who was then pitching for the Houston Astros. And when Ryan, now a Texas Ranger, threw the seventh no-hitter of his career last season, against the Blue Jays, it was Alomar who made the final out of the game.
The Padres signed all three Alomars, and in Robbie's first professional season, Sandy Sr. coached both his boys in Charleston, S.C., in the Class A South Atlantic League. When Sandy Jr. got stuck behind the Padres" All-Star catcher, Benito Santiago, he was traded to Cleveland in 1989. In '88, at the age of 20, Robbie thought he had made the big leagues after an impressive spring training, so he was stunned when the Padres sent him to Triple A. "I remember when he was sent down he was crying," says Santiago. "He was crying because he was mad, not because he was sad." It was as close as Robbie's career has ever come to a setback. "He said to himself, O.K., they sent me down when I can play in the big leagues," Santiago says, "so I'm going to go down and bust my butt, and when I come back, they'll never send me down again." Nine games later he returned to the big leagues, as if he had called up room service and ordered himself another chance.
He made it work this time, though it wasn't always easy. He was the youngest player in the National League on Opening Day of 1989 and suffered through a calamitous April, committing 11 of the 28 errors that would lead all second basemen in the league that season. "I was too aggressive then because I wanted to make every play," he says. "I anticipate the play more now. People say to me, "Roberto, you make tough plays look so easy," but that is the only way I can do it."
He started doing it with Toronto in 1991 after he was traded to the Blue Jays with Carter for shortstop Tony Fernandez and first baseman Fred McGriff. But he has learned from his mistakes and through Sunday had made only two errors this year. He will probably still make more errors than other second basemen because he is able to get his glove on so many balls. "He'll go out in rightflield and throw you out at first," Carter says. Nobody has better range." And there are few players with Alomar's capacity to completely disrupt an opposing team's defense, as he demonstrated last season with 53 stolen bases—second best in the league—including 21 swipes of third base in 22 attempts. "He puts pressure on teams in so many ways," Hisle says.
After games, a kitchen service elevator—often loaded with garbage—brings Alomar home, where the red message light on the telephone in his room is always flashing. The hotel switchboard intercepts all his calls and diverts most of them to the formidable Betty John, whose official title with the hotel is director of communications. Alomar calls her Mom. "I protect him body and soul," John says. "Lots of fans call for him, so I screen his calls and decide which ones should go through. If he's resting, I don't let any calls through. I also make sure his clothes are properly done, that he's eating properly and that he gets his rest."
Alomar gets his rest by endlessly watching his hotel room television, which functions as a movie sixplex, featuring a carefully balanced selection of film titles like Father of the Bride and Naughty Nymphos. Although 70 of SkyDome's guest rooms exist in a kind of virtual reality, with windows that overlook the outfield of the ballpark, Alomar told friends he selected a room that overlooks a railyard instead because—and we are quoting here—"I want to get away from baseball when I'm home."
He says he is on a first-name basis with many of the maids who clean his room. "I talk to them," he insists. But one housekeeper, shielding her name tag with a feather duster, was asked if Alomar ever speaks to her. "Never," she replied. "No, never, ever." Then, backing away rapidly, she volunteered. "He's very neat. Very neat, yes." And she was gone.