Friday, July 26, 2013

A Career of Baseball Memories Remembered

Sadly, looking back on a career requires a career to be over.  Any career-retrospective is bittersweet; a celebration of years devoted to a field in which a person can no longer contribute in the manner in which they rose to prominence.  In the area of sport, these careers end tragically young.  Often people in their mid-30s are no longer able to perform at the required level and will quietly retire or worse, slowly decompose in the public eye.  The player can transition to other areas of the game, but can never truly get their playing career back. 

At the same time, giving words, time, space, and energy to a player's career is a true celebration.  We can look back fondly on the days when a player was an integral part of the game that they loved.  We can cheer for their accomplishments and explain away their failures.  We can highlight the glory days and sad days alike, with full knowledge of how the story ultimately ends.  With the benefit of hindsight, we don't have to dwell on the negative, but we can immortalize the positive.  It's almost as if we get to watch the movie a second time, but will full knowledge that our hero will survive the exciting turmoil that they encounter and we enjoy from the edge of our seats.    

With that, I present to you Alf's brilliant career with the Dodgers. 

Alf was hardly a top prospect.  You won't find any Team USA Alf baseball cards, like Shane Mack has.

No, Alf was just a baseball player, but nothing more.  He didn't come with fanfare and he certainly didn't arrive with promise.  He was short, and we all know what baseball does with short players.  What he lacked in height, he made up for with resilience and he used that trait repeatedly throughout his career. 

Alf's AA Manager Gary LaRocque had this to say: 

"Alf was a gamer." 

Gamer doesn't begin to describe Alf.  Alf was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers as an undrafted free agent after a surprising public tryout.  It was almost as if he had no prior baseball history.  No one could find any record of his existence, much less his baseball past.  Despite the interest his tryout generated, he was looked at as nothing more than organizational filler.  One player didn't see it that way.  Alf didn't see it that way.  He worked tirelessly at his craft.  He stayed at the fields later than anyone, and arrived before most guys were even awake.  It was almost as if he were alien.  Whatever gave him his strong work ethic, it certainly paid off as Alf quickly changed perception and became the Dodgers' shortstop of the future. 

By 1985, Alf was knocking on MLB's door.  He had shown in the Minors that he could hit, handle the toughest defensive position and win over his skeptical teammates.  However, a knee injury at mid-season delayed his call-up.  Alf's teammate Shawn Hillegas

"Yeah, that sucked when Alf got hurt."

While Alf's MLB debut was delayed, it certainly was not cancelled like some failed TV pilot.  Alf re-dedicated himself to baseball and made his MLB debut on Opening Day 1986, playing short and batting ninth.  It was the perfect spot for such a clearly short player.  It didn't take long for Alf to become an important part of the team.  Alf split his time between short and patrolling the outfield, showing off the versatility that helped him to finish second in NL Rookie of the Year voting.  In fact, he was robbed of the award by Todd Worrell

After this dynamic debut, the praise was flowing.  Alf's Manager Tommy Lasorda:

"We liked Alf."

By 1987, Alf was firmly entrenched in the Dodgers' plans.  He was a spark plug of sorts, so naturally, he moved to the leadoff spot in the order.  Alf finished that 1987 with stats that did not fit his small stature.  He hit 22 home runs, scored 91 runs and stole 27 bases.  He was a whiz in the field, and widely regarded as almost supernatural when ranging to his left.  Alf's former teammate and current Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia:

"Alf was a good player."

While team success eluded the Dodgers, organizational success was celebrated repeatedly.  Who would have ever thought that an tryout player from basically nowhere could go from rags to riches in such a spectacular way.  Alf made a successful transition to center field in a rare instance of moving down the defensive spectrum on purpose.  His range was in center almost allowed his left and right fielders to sleep during opposing at-bats. 

By 1988, the Dodgers were hungry for team success and Alf was literally the face of the franchise.  Who can argue with a face like his?

While many point to Kirk Gibson's heroics and Orel Hershiser's dominance, others might want to consider Alf's contribution during the 1988 playoff run.  Alf played all five World Series games, scored a run in each and made a remarkable and memorable catch when he scaled the wall to rob Jose Canseco of an obvious home run.  Canseco recalls that moment clearly:

"I was mad when Alf caught that ball."

Hershiser himself couldn't say enough about the Dodgers' secret weapon:

"It was great playing with Alf."

1989 would be Alf's season of greatest individual success.  He posted a .320 batting average, finishing third behind Tony Gwynn and Will Clark.  He also made his first All-Star team, voted in by his loyal fans.  The cult hero had gone mainstream and seemed poised for a long run atop the National League leaderboards.  Teammate Kirk Gibson:

"Alf could do it all."

That off-season would change Alf's career path significantly.  While vacationing in beautiful Australia, Alf entered the ocean with swimming on his mind, but left with shark bites on his leg.  It was the flukiest of flukes, but it put Alf's promising career into question.  After months of painful rehab, Alf's speed and range had diminished.  No longer able to man the outfield, the Dodgers tried to convert Alf to second base.  While he was up for the challenge, his shark bite-riddled legs simply betrayed him.  Alf only played 43 unproductive games in 1990.  Teammate Eddie Murray:

"It's hard to run with shark bites."

By 1991, Alf was 31-years-old, infested with shark bites and out of the Dodgers' organization.  Unable to really play a position, the Dodgers released him just 18 short months after his All-Star Game MVP.  He latched on with the Montreal Expos, but Canada didn't help his legs any.  He played just 31 games, mostly as a pinch hitter.  No longer able to drive power from his legs, he managed just a meager .216 batting average and was released by the Expos after the season.  Expos teammate Larry Walker:

"It sucked that Alf got bit by that shark."

Not one to give up without a fight, Alf decided to eschew legs and just use his arm to play baseball.  He didn't actually give up his legs, just fielding and batting.  Alf started throwing every day and soon found that he had a UFO slider.  The Texas Rangers gave him an invitation to Spring Training in 1993 and he found himself on the active roster as a part of September call-ups.  Alf only threw 5 innings that season and he retired immediately following.  While he had some promise as a pitcher, it was not the part of the game that he loved.  Rangers Teammate Nolan Ryan:

"Alf threw gas."

For the next few years, Alf mostly stayed out of the spotlight.  In fact, it was almost as though he wasn't even on planet Earth.  Suddenly, he reappeared.  The nostalgia of his emergence lead to his reentry into the Dodgers' organization, first as a scout, then as their new manager.  Alf held down the manager position from 2004 to 2007, leading the 2004 Dodgers to the playoffs.  Former Dodger Jeff Kent:

"Alf was a good manager."

Alf left the Dodger organization after being replaced by Joe Torre following the 2007 season.  He was AWOL for a couple years, but has been consulting with the Dodgers for the past few seasons.  As a mentor to many young players, Alf is able to impart wisdom, but come and go as he pleases.  In fact, he often disappears for weeks at a time, with no trace.  Current Dodger Matt Kemp:

"Having Alf around is... great.  It's great."

The excitement regarding Alf-mania will never completely die down.  Recently, baseball card giant Topps released their Archives set, which puts fan favorites and legends together with current players.  Topps thought highly enough about Alf to issue a card with his likeness.

In hindsight, the Alf experience was a whirlwind.  At times, no one thought it would end.  Alf would reach the highest mountains of the baseball world, but also feel the wrath of actual shark bites.  For the player who never should have amounted to anything, Alf's career is certainly a spectacle worthy of remembering fondly.  He'll never be enshrined in Cooperstown, but he'll be enshrined in the hearts of Dodger fans worldwide.  Former Dodger Fernando Valenzuela:

"The Alf phenomenon was the biggest thing I've been a part of in baseball."

Editor's note:  Thank you to all of the current and former players for providing insightful quotes.  Alf repeatedly refused my requests for an interview.  His career said it all.

If you enjoyed this post, the least you could do is follow me on Twitter:  @bridman77.  I'll tweet a lot one night, then disappear for weeks.  It's a hoot.  If I get to 1000 Twitter followers, I'll live-tweet Timecop, just like the pros.  If you're really bold, I have a Facebook group too.  There are ten members.  Yep.  If it gets to 50, I'll give away my only 1991 Score Gary Wayne card.  I'm being honest.  

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