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Unlucky Luis

Alicea on his snub: "It would have been great--not just for me, but for my family, just one time."
Brad Newton

Just hours after the decision was handed down, and just hours before the Rangers are to play A.L. West foil Oakland, the scene at The Ballpark is absent any obvious drama. The player who just had a dream dashed stands near second base and effortlessly gobbles grounders as he would on any other day. He moves his hands smoothly, and his footwork is fluid as he maneuvers into the correct position to absorb multiple Rawlings hit hard in his direction. The stands are mostly empty now--only a few autograph seekers and early arrivals managed to beat the I-30 traffic. Teammates hop in and out of the batter's box; ballboys and players' kids shag flies under a cloudless, expansive sky; and manager Johnny Oates regales a crew of doting reporters with typical contempt and belligerence. The Boss croons through the stadium's softly thumping speakers, belting out "Glory Days."

For some, perhaps these are. Not for him. He isn't so lucky. Never has been.

He trots off the field, headed for the clubhouse and a short rest before the game. After 10 years in the big leagues, he's still boyish in both attitude and appearance. He has an inviting smile, one that spreads over a well-tanned visage and complements deep, dark eyes and hair. His body is muscular and compact--he stands 5-foot-9, weighs 176 pounds--and veins pop from his forearms the way they do for the meatheads at your gym.

You notice all this because you're giving Luis Alicea a first look. For some reason, you've never bothered to look before. Not that you're alone. Really, it wasn't difficult--actually, it was almost habitual--to dismiss the diminutive native of Puerto Rico. Until this season, he'd been more of a lingering shadow than a shining light, a most valuable bench player, someone often damned with faint praise.

Just then, Alicea runs past you. Few notice. As on most days, he streaks down the dugout steps and up the tunnel without garnering much more than a peripheral glance. It's simply another day in craptacular Arlington for one of the town's, and the game's, more unheralded players.

Pity. Today could have been so much more. It could have been Alicea's day, one to share lovingly with his family and his team, a Rangers club that needs all the good news it can get.

Instead, word from Major League Baseball has it that American League skipper Joe Torre has selected reserves for the All-Star game in Atlanta. Torre, who manages the Yanks, chose Ray Durham from the White Sox to back up Indians starter Roberto Alomar at second base. No one else was appointed at that position. The reason Alicea didn't make it? Too much overload at other spots. Too many high-profile studs with big bankrolls and countless SportsCenter highlights to worry about including--or excluding. Besides, who cares about the overachiever, the nice guy having the exemplary year?

Sorry, um, what was your name again? And your stats? Oh, nice. Uh huh. I see. Fascinating. Yeah, well, whatever. You didn't make it.

"Last night I was really thinking about it a lot," Alicea says easily, standing around the clubhouse clad in white biking shorts, a red Rangers undershirt, and graying socks. "I thought it would have been great, to go there with the kids, to go there with the family, one time only. It would have been great--not just for me, but for my family, just one time."

The words smack you like a heavy-handed pimp slap, so you go over them again to make sure you heard correctly. Just one time. The phrase is almost too blunt, too disheartening, too surreal to come from a player. Pro athletes aren't supposed to acknowledge that, at 34, their time is almost up. Most live in denial and are blatant liars, if not by birth, by profession. Apparently, Alicea wasn't passed the cliché sheet distributed to other major leaguers. He doesn't regurgitate tired, banal quotes for the benefit of tired, banal columnists. He has no delusions about the situation. With his contract set to expire at season's end, with his skills sure to erode the way they inevitably do for athletes winding down their careers, he knows he's on a last-shot clock. This was--probably--his best chance at national recognition, his best chance to kick it with the elite at an All-Star game.

Really, that's the shame of it, that whole "time running out" thing. After nine years of basically pedestrian big-league service, this season has thus far been a party for the accommodating middle infielder--one big, 3 1/2-month accomplishment. Oh, there was the '95 season with Boston--luckily his only in Beantown, where snow, Sam Adams, and general pomposity are the only indigenous commodities--when Alicea had career highs in games played, at bats, runs, hits, and homers. But that was an anomaly of sorts. Much of his career has been defined by injuries and backup roles, indentured servitude to the bench because of a mediocre .254 lifetime average (prior to this season). Mostly, he's been a few lines in the media notes--an afterthought, a ho-hum, a what's-next?  

Consider, for a moment, a spring-training blurb that appeared in the Houston Chronicle in late February:

"Luis Alicea seems like an odd choice to be the Rangers' starting second baseman. Alicea, 34, hit .201 in 68 games last season as a backup to Mark McLemore (who is now with the Mariners). 'If there is an incumbent, it would have to be Luis,' manager Johnny Oates said."

Hope you paid attention to the "if," because no one ever paid attention to Luis Alicea, at least not as a starter, certainly not as a stud. Not even his current skipper, regardless of what Oates might have you believe. It's the cross a fringe player must bear, this curse of anonymity. Blink and you'd probably miss him.

But that couldn't be the case this season, right? Not with the affable father hitting .314--60 points above his career mark entering the season--and performing admirably from the top spot in the lineup. (He has a .394 on-base percentage, second among A.L. lead-off men.) After all, how many pros bust out career years when they're closer to retirement packages and golf clubs than skirt-chasing? Surely, you believed, no one could miss him now.

And then Torre blinked.

"I can't speak for Joe," Oates says with the customary defiance and disdain he reserves for the media. "You'll have to go speak with Joe Torre. He's the only guy in the world who can answer that question. I don't know why he only picked two."

And you don't know why Oates isn't making sense; Torre, of course, only picked one--the starters are voted in by the fans. But you already knew that, and you thought John Boy did too. So, before moving on, you assume Oates is still recovering from a ball that caromed off a net protecting the batting-practice pitcher and clunked the manager square in the noggin a few minutes earlier.

In any case, when you think about it, you realize it would be hard to fault Torre for sending Alomar and Durham, even if he did have final say on both, which he didn't. Let's face it, Alomar, good season or no, was going to be in Atlanta. That's the benefit of name recognition--often clueless fans punch a tiny paper hole next to your name, even if you are hitting an unremarkable .267, which Alomar was before the break. Meanwhile, Durham is having a solid season for the best team in baseball. By the numbers, at least, the selections are justified, although it could be argued that Alicea's stats match up quite favorably with the other two. (In addition to leading both players in average, walks, and on-base percentage, he has struck out fewer times than Durham and has a better slugging percentage than Alomar; he does trail the pair in most power categories, including runs batted in.)

Still, shouldn't it be about more than statistics? Shouldn't the All-Star game be more than a nine-inning snooze-a-rama with often disenchanted invitees? (Please see Juan Gone's refusal to attend last season's festivities.) Shouldn't it be a reprieve for all the castoffs and nobodies who've languished for years only to surprisingly demand attention? Wouldn't they enjoy the gala affair most?

Of course, all that's easier said than done. In Torre's defense, there are 10 first-timers on the A.L. roster, and there were a bunch of deserving hopefuls whom he had to snub, like Chicago's Frank Thomas. Still, watching Alicea shrug his shoulders and maturely accept his fate only accentuates your feeling of contempt for the selection process. Unfortunately, it would seem that nice guys, at least in pseudo popularity contests masquerading as talent evaluations, do finish last. Screw the logistics; if anyone should be making plans for a trip eastward, it's someone like Luis Alicea--a guy who paid his dues time and again yet still romanticizes the game. In the end, that's what burns most.

"I thought, if anyone else was going to make it, Delino [DeShields, from the Baltimore Orioles] would be the guy," Alicea says while sitting on a love seat in the center of the Texas clubhouse. "I knew it was a long shot.

"I've always thought, given the opportunity to play, that I could put up good numbers. I've always played a limited role, and I've always done well in that role. The year that I played the full year with Boston, I hit .270. That was the only year I did that. After that, it was always waiting to see who got the [starting] job. It was a little frustrating to see guys on other teams playing, getting the opportunity to play, guys who were backups who all of a sudden became everyday players. I was never given that opportunity."  

He isn't that lucky. Never has been.

"[But]," he continues, making sure you fully understand, "this season has been very gratifying given last year, when people were saying that I'm done playing, that I don't have anything left. It's been rewarding."

In a year when nearly everything has gone right as he's rocketed toward personal bests in almost every statistical category, all the while remaining approachable and amiable, you would hope Alicea might get some external pats on the back. Sadly, the inner gratification will have to suffice.

And not for the first time, you curse Joe Torre, even if his hands were somewhat tied. This, you think with a sigh, was surely no time to blink.


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