CLEVELAND (AP) — Sandy Alomar Jr. smiles and slowly shakes his head while listening to the rundown of names on the American League’s 1997 All-Star roster.
A roll call of baseball royalty.
There’s Cal Ripken and Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Mariano Rivera, Mark McGwire, and his brother, Robbie Alomar. Throw in some of the big boys from the NL like Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, Mike Piazza, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, and the galaxy of star power on the field in Cleveland 22 years ago is overwhelming.
In all, 19 current Hall of Famers, and others who will one day be immortalized in Cooperstown.
“That’s why I was on the bench,” he said.
Once he got off it, the Indians’ former catcher — and present first-base coach — became the game’s brightest star, a hometown MVP hero.
With the game tied 1-1 in the seventh inning, Alomar, who had overcome serious knee issues that had threatened to derail his career, connected for a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers off San Francisco’s Shawn Estes that sent the crowd of 44,916 inside Jacobs (now Progressive) Field into delirium and pushed the AL to a 3-1 win on a night when pitching dominated.
As he circled the bases, Alomar’s mind raced.
He thought about his 96-year-old grandmother, Tonee Valazquez, who had passed away four days earlier in Puerto Rico. The Alomar brothers had small black ribbons pinned to their jerseys in her honor, and Sandy dedicated his performance to her.
And while the home run was special, Alomar’s most vivid memory of that July night came after the game.
Moments after being handed the shiny silver MVP trophy by Commissioner Bud Selig, Alomar was joined by his 7-year-old son, Marcus, who ran onto the field to be with his big league dad. Surrounded by cameras and with fans chanting his name, Alomar posed for photos clutching the unexpected award and his beaming boy.
“You can’t prepare for that because you don’t know you’re going to be an MVP,” Alomar recalled last week. “I didn’t know if I was going to play for heaven’s sake. But it just happened in the moment, and he happened to be there and he just jumped in. It was a fantastic moment — the chance to have your son on the field pictured with the trophy in your home ballpark.”
Cleveland is hosting the All-Stars for the sixth time, and while Monday’s Home Run Derby and Tuesday’s game will allow fans to see some of the game’s blossoming young talent, Alomar said the ’97 event was unique.
The Indians were in the midst of a glorious run.
They had ended a 41-year World Series drought in 1995, only to lose to Atlanta. But with a powerful lineup featuring Thome, Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel and Matt Williams, they returned to the Series two years later — Alomar hit a tying homer off Rivera in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the division series to help eliminate the New York Yankees — before Cleveland fell to Florida in seven games.
In those days, Cleveland was also on the upswing, and the Indians had become local sports darlings after owner Art Modell’s decision to move the beloved Browns to Baltimore a year earlier.
Alomar, who was in the midst of a 30-game hitting streak in 1997, appeared in his sixth and final All-Star Game in 1998.
The other five were great experiences. Nothing, though, compared to Cleveland.
“I’m just happy that I had a chance to be there, especially in my hometown ballpark with a community that was ready to thrive,” he said. “This Indians did a great job organizing, so did Major League Baseball. I’ve been around many other All-Star Games, and I’m not knocking anybody down, but it was special.
“This is such a real, tight community. Everyone got on board. It was clean, in and out. All the activities were organized. Now, there’s a lot more stuff.”
Alomar has been in high demand the past few weeks, with media requests for him to reflect on ’97 sometimes interfering with other duties. But just as he was as a player, Alomar has accommodated everyone.
Ever an All-Star.
“I hope that during this event, he gets recognized for not just for hitting the homer, but for being the player he was,” said Indians manager Terry Francona. “I’ve known Sandy since we played winter ball in Ponce (Puerto Rico) for his dad. So to know him from then, then to watch his career and then to be able to have him on your staff. He’s actually a better person than he was a player. And he was a really good player.
“He was as modest as they come,” Francona said. “I love that.”
Alomar misses playing, and is struck by how the game has changed since retiring in 2007.
“So much analytics,” he said.
But he wouldn’t change a thing about his two decades with the Indians.
“I had such a blessed career,” said Alomar, a Cleveland coach since 2010. “I could have been done in 1994 after having knee micro-fracture surgery. That could have been my last year. The fact that I came back and played all those years with that injury, I’m grateful for all of that. To be able to stay and compete at that level with that injury. I’m so happy for that.”