"Ruben was thought of in the way people talk about [ Montreal Expos rightfielder] Vladimir Guerrero now," says Melvin. "He had a great arm, he could run, he could hit for power, and he could hit for average. He was a better overall player than Juan Gonzalez."
Then, in the winter of 1991-92, not satisfied with having driven in 531 runs in five full seasons, the 6'1" Sierra bulked up from 215 pounds to 235. He did so, he says, by lifting weights, downing protein drinks and supplements, ignoring stretching exercises and not doing his running. "I'd had good numbers," he says, "and I thought if I got bigger and stronger, I could double them."
Instead the paso fino lost its smooth stride. Sierra's numbers fell. In August 1992 Texas traded him and two other players to the Oakland A's for Jose Canseco, another bulked-up slugger in a parallel decline. In July '95, with Sierra batting .265, the A's traded him to the New York Yankees for yet another exaggerated muscleman gone bad, Danny Tartabull. The underperforming Sierra had been in disfavor with Oakland manager Tony La Russa, who called him "a village idiot" after Sierra claimed that A's general manager Sandy Alderson didn't understand baseball because he hadn't played it professionally.
Word spread around baseball that Siera's ego had grown with his muscles. He wore outlandish jewelry and had cut a CD whose cover photo showed him bare-chested and cooling himself off with a garden hose. In New York, Sierra moaned about his playing time. Joe Torre, who became the club's manager at the start of the '96 season, once called Sierra the only Yankee he had managed who didn't understand the team concept. Sierra says that the Yankees misunderstood him and that he was under stress because he was going through a divorce. At the 1996 trading deadline, three months before New York would win the World Series, it dealt Sierra to the Detroit Tigers for first baseman-designated hitter Cecil Fielder, prompting Sierra's infamous complaint about the Yankees: "All they care about over there is winning."
"I faced him when he was in New York," says lefthander Jamie Moyer, now a teammate of Sierra's in Seattle, "and he was stiffer as a hitter. You could tie him up with pitches easier than when he was in Texas."
Sierra admits, "I lost my flexibility because I got too big. It was a mistake. I couldn't pull the inside pitches like I used to. But in those days I didn't have anybody to supervise me like players have today. Now I make sure I talk to the young players: 'You want to get big so when you look in the mirror, you look good? That will hurt you on the field.' "
After the trade to Detroit his struggles worsened. Sierra began to lose bulk, but his bat speed did not return. The Tigers traded him to the Cincinnati Reds two days after Fielder and the Yankees won the 1996 World Series. The Reds released him six weeks into the '97 season. The Toronto Blue Jays picked him up. After assigning him to Triple A Syracuse, the Blue Jays brought Sierra up for 14 games, then released him. Before the '98 season the Chicago White Sox signed him, but they released him after 27 games.
"One of the toughest times for me was with the White Sox," says Sierra, who batted only .216 with Chicago. "I really felt like I was going to have a good year, but 1 didn't play at all." One day while Sierra was with the White Sox, his son Ruben Jr., then seven, asked him on the phone, "Dad, why don't I see you on television anymore? Why don't you play like you used to?"
Tears came to the father's eyes. Then he told the boy, "I'm not the manager. I have to wait for my chance to play."
The New York Mets picked up Sierra after Chicago dropped him but kept him buried for the rest of 1998 at Triple A Norfolk, where he hit .259 in 28 games. In 1999, the only job he found, for a salary of $3,000 a month, was with the Surf, a team in the independent Atlantic League, for which he hit 28 homers and drove in 82 runs in 112 games. The next spring the Cleveland Indians invited Sierra to their camp. They cut him on March 20. He became the designated hitter and rightfielder for Cancun in the Mexican League. "Baseball is in my heart," Sierra says. "That is why I kept playing."