In their 3� years together in Houston, Alou and Dierker have had few lengthy chats. Before games Alou sits silently by his locker, in white briefs and a black T-shirt. The shirt says WHAT'S UP on the front and SKANK HO on the back. Is that a joke or, like BEWARE OF THE VICIOUS DOG, a warning? You are told, by more than one person, that Alou is moody and stubborn and tough and, at times, an arrogant pain in the butt. You are also told that Alou is witty, open-minded and intelligent. "Guarded is a good description," says Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell. "If he doesn't know you, Mo can be very guarded."
This, too, is a result of his memories. The bad ones—the ones that, for most people, fade over time—remain vivid. Alou's career, while splendid in myriad ways, has also been filled with unforgettable disappointments: The nine trips to the disabled list with injuries that have taken away his speed and weakened his throwing arm. The dissolution, for financial reasons, of the two best teams he has played for, the 1994 Expos and the '97 Marlins. The '94 All-Star Game, in which he drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th, yet MVP honors went to the Atlanta Braves' Fred McGriff, who had tied the game in the ninth with a two-run homer. That '97 World Series MVP snub. The heartbreaking trade from the Marlins, with whom he had signed as a free agent after the '96 season, to the Astros. The slight by the Houston media following the '98 season, when Alou's numbers (.312,38 homers, 124 RBIs) were good enough to place him third, behind Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, in National League MVP voting, yet the beat reporters voted second baseman Craig Biggio (.325, 20, 88, with 50 stolen bases) team MVP.
"I think I have always been overlooked," says Alou. "Maybe I've been on teams that have had better players than I am, but I've never felt that way. I blame some of [the lack of recognition] on myself. I'm a moody person, and that turns people off. I try not to care, but I'm human, too. "
Click. One big image, made up of many small ones, leaves the deepest scar. In February 1999, just before he was to report to the Astros' spring training site in Kissimmee, Fla., Alou tore his left anterior cruciate ligament when he tripped and fell on a treadmill at a gym near his house in Santo Domingo. Despite the prognosis that he'd be out for the season, Alou worked diligently in hope of returning in time to help his team win the pennant. Then in August, at home in Houston 10 days before he was to return, Alou reinjured the knee when, while playing with Percio, the middle of his and Austria's three sons, he fell off a bicycle. A crushed Alou stayed home in Florida rather than attend the Division Series against the Braves. ( Houston was eliminated in four games.) It is not the lost season that stings Alou so much as the negative reaction to his absence from the playoffs. Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker questioned whether Alou should have been riding that bike. The Houston media ripped him. Several once-supportive teammates found Alou's absence inexcusable.
Partly as a result, last year Houston nearly traded Alou to the New York Yankees. Armed with a no-trade clause, Alou shot down the deal, which he calls "insulting." Says Bagwell, Alou's closest friend on the team: "It was all b————. I don't give a s—-if he hurt himself running out a grounder or Jetskiing barefoot. He worked hard to come back. Other guys get hurt and there's sympathy. Mo got hurt, and people questioned his desire. Nobody should question Mo. Look at his impact here."
In Bagwell's eyes, that clout goes beyond batting average and clutch hitting. Alou might not be the most affable man in the clubhouse, but his presence—"an aura of pride and respect," says Dierker—carries weight. Perhaps his contribution can best be measured in the success of second-year outfielder Lance Berkman, who attributes his stellar numbers (.332, 14 homers, 43 RBIs at week's end) to Alou's generously sharing his knowledge of pitchers' tendencies and to having Alou, who bats fifth in the lineup, hitting behind him. "Nobody would walk me to pitch to Moises," Berkman says. "If I can get ahead in the count, say 2 and 1 or 3 and 1, I'm guaranteed a fastball, because nobody wants to screw around with Moises with a man on base."
Although Hunsicker and Astros owner Drayton McLane say all the right things, the chances are slim that Alou will return to budget-conscious Houston, where the young, power-laden outfield trio of Berkman, 25, Richard Hidalgo, 25, and Daryle Ward, 25, comes cheap. Alou is in the final year of a five-year, $25 million contract, and will probably get an offer in the $10 million-plus-per-year range as a free agent. He plans to play three more seasons before retiring to his five-bedroom Santo Domingo home, near to where his latest passion beckons.
In 1996 one of Austria's uncles took him to Hipodromo V Centenario, a new racetrack in Santo Domingo. It was his first racetrack experience since boyhood. Click. "When I saw the horses, they looked so athletic and strong," he says. "I was hooked." Alou is now the owner of All-Star Stable and its 35 racehorses, with names like Baggy, Biggio 7 and The Real MVP. (Think Alou's not bitter?) "A lot of guys love to golf; a lot of guys love to fish," says Alou. "I like to go to the track. It's not the money that's exciting. It's seeing the races, watching the horses, the feeling of being in the winner's circle."
It is during the off-season that Alou is happiest. He wakes at 5 a.m. and heads to his stable. Except for Tuesdays and Thursdays (race days at Hipodromo V Centenario), Alou picks up his oldest son, nine-year-old Moises Jr., from elementary school—a father-son moment Moises Sr. never experienced as a boy. Although he and Felipe were united in Montreal for five years beginning in 1992 (Moises was a rookie and Felipe the Expos' manager), theirs was not a close relationship. Click. Felipe Alou and Maria Beltre divorced when Moises was two. Although proud to be the son of the major leaguer, Moises would only see his baseball-playing father four or five times a year.
Now, when he is home, Moises rides bikes and climbs trees with his children, and he spoils them rotten. He flies in Austria and the kids from the Dominican Republic for spring training, with annual trips to Disney World and SeaWorld. This week they are arriving in Houston and will stay until school begins in the fall. "When we had our first child, Moises didn't know how to be a dad, because his father was never around," says Austria. "Now he takes fatherhood like a full-time job. He wants the boys to feel special around him."