After last season Frank Cashen, the Mets' general manager, told Almon to wait until after the winter meetings before finalizing a contract. Cashen even called Almon during the meetings to ask him about the personal life of former San Diego teammate Randy Jones, whom the Mets were considering in a trade. A week later, on Dec. 19, Cashen called again—to tell Almon he had been released.
"It wasn't a wet blanket, exactly, on our reunion," says Almon's father, "but it did have a dampening effect." Says Bill, "When the family got together, all my possibilities were discussed. We never put it to a vote, but the consensus was that I should try one more year."
After Christmas, Almon, a lifelong Red Sox fan, placed several calls to Haywood Sullivan, Boston's general manager. The Red Sox had just traded Burleson, and Almon was a semi-local kid after all. When Sullivan got back to him, it was to say thanks but no thanks.
Then Almon's luck took a turn for the better. Rhode Island is a small state (no kidding), and Roland Hemond, the White Sox general manager, was in his hometown of Central Falls, R.I., visiting his family, and the whole state started bugging him. So in late January, Hemond approached Almon. "Roland was perfectly honest with me, which was a change," says Almon. "He offered me a Triple-A contract and a chance to make the club in spring training."
In the meantime Almon was working out in a batting cage in Brown's venerable Marvel Gym with his father and brother John, a former minor-leaguer. "Dad and I sort of decided together that I should go back to my old batting stance, standing up and holding the bat down at the end," says Bill. "After all, that's what got me to the majors in the first place."
Armed with his old stance, Almon reported early to the Sox training camp to work on his hitting and fielding. "I was straightforward with him," says Chicago Coach Bobby Winkles. "I told him, 'Your hands aren't very good, but I think I can help you. You're catching the ball off your right foot, and, consequently, the ball keeps popping out. Relax and take it in the middle of your body.' He was what I call a robot player, very stiff. But he listened, and not every 28-year-old player takes kindly to coaching."
Almon was also helped immeasurably by the misfortunes that befell the White Sox' other shortstops in spring training. Todd Cruz hurt his back and Greg Pryor hurt his ribs, and Almon got a lot of playing time during exhibition games. Still, he wasn't sure whether he would go north to Chicago or Edmonton until Winkles called to give him the good news at 5:30 p.m. on the eve of Opening Day.
Since then, he has become something of a favorite at Comiskey Park, where fans regularly hang ah ALMON JOY banner. He has made a fair number of errors in the field—17—but as LaRussa says, "Every one of them was because he overplayed, tried too hard. In fact, I haven't seen him underplay, in the field, at bat or on the bases, all year."
It's no small irony that the White Sox double-play combination of Almon and Tony Bernazard, who was acquired at the winter meetings, sat on the bench in Montreal last year. Not only have they performed well together, but their combined batting average of .289 at the end of last week was 74 points higher than that of Expos Shortstop Chris Speier and Second Baseman Rodney Scott. Met Shortstop Frank Taveras was hitting .227. How nice of the Mets and Expos to send the White Sox Christmas gifts.