During a commercial break on my sports talk show a well-known New York sportswriter said to me, you know what’s wrong with Roberto Alomar? He has stage fright.
It was July 2002. The New York Mets were in the middle of a free-fall. Alomar was being booed relentlessly. Stage fright? I thought as I put my headphones on for the next segment. Then, I forgot about it — until now.
What the reporter was referring to — at least my sense of it — was that Alomar was suffering from the pressure of playing in New York. It’s no secret that playing professional sports in New York is a pressure cooker. For some, it’s the kiss of death. But not Roberto Alomar? At the time the man was 33 years old. He had hit over .300 nine out of the previous 10 seasons before being traded to New York. He played in the World Series for Toronto — twice. I was certain he, and the Mets, would snap out it and right the ship. I was wrong.
Over the next year Alomar’s skills diminished. With every error and every strike out the booing intensified; his body language morphed into a hunchback. Finally, the Mets traded Alomar to the White Sox for three minor league pitchers. I later came to the realization that despite all his talent, Alomar was not prepared to play in New York. The city, the media, the fans consumed him.
He was washed up.
He didn’t play hard (sound familiar?).
That’s what was said, anyway.
”I didn’t really feel comfortable with the situation,” said Alomar. ”Sometimes, teams don’t work for you. Sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself in New York, and maybe I did that. I think the New York Mets weren’t the right team for me.”
”I’ve seen a lot of players have a tough time in New York,” added then White Sox manager Jerry Manuel. ”New York is a tough place.”
Imagine that? Jerry Manuel saying New York is “tough.” How is that for irony?
Alomar, even Manuel, are history, but the New York experience has reared its ugly head again this spring – and it’s on the hunt for Ruben Tejada. One promising season (2012) followed by one dreadful season (2013) and the Mets shortstop is fighting for his baseball life in New York – at age 24.
Sandy Alderson may not want to place his young shortstop under the microscope, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening. Tejada’s every move has been scrutinized this past week. His work ethic has been questioned. His replacement — Stephen Drew, Wilmer Flores, Nick Franklin, Omar Quintanilla, Ervin Santana – have been discussed.
Wait, go back. Ervin Santana … the pitcher? Yes, the New York media will consider every angle to keep the shortstop debate on life support.
This is not an issue that will just disappear, wrote Anthony DiComo. On roughly a weekly basis, Alderson has given press conferences to reiterate his lack of interest in Drew. But as long as Drew remains available … questions will persist.
From the small sample of spring games, Tejada appears rattled. Once again, he’s struggling to make the routine play. There is pressure, naturally. Tejada is human.
Wally Backman told MLB.com:
“He’s under the gun. There’s no way he doesn’t know it. Everyone knows what’s going on, with who’s out there. He doesn’t say anything about it.”
But David Wright added a finer point:
“When you get off to a slow start, it becomes kind of a mental thing — a lack of confidence. It’s a mental challenge. That’s the difference between guys that establish themselves and have long, successful careers and those who can’t quite get it figured out. It tests you.”
Are we watching another major league baseball player’s career unravel – in slow-motion – right before our very eyes? Is it stage fright?
Tejada may not talk about it, but over the next few weeks he will answer the question on the field.