Unlucky Luis

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?

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez