Edgardo Alfonzo spent eight seasons with the New York Mets, leaving his mark on the club with his sound defensive acumen, ability to get on-base at a high clip, and penchant for coming up big in the clutch.
Alfonzo, 44, was signed by the Mets as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 1991 for $10,000. The club was fortunate to have signed the then 17-year-old Alfonzo, as he originally tried out for the Los Angeles Dodgers one year prior, with word that the organization was intent on signing him.
After a two-day workout in which Alfonzo took batting practice, fielded groundballs and ran, his right knee started to swell. Worried about potential injury issues, the regional scouting supervisor for the Dodgers, Camilo Pascual, decided not to tender a contract.
Frustration and disappointment set in for Alfonzo. He had hoped to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Edgar, who had signed with the California Angels in the mid-eighties.
His luck would change though, as the Mets liked what they saw from a young Alfonzo over a two-day workout, signing him right away.
A middle infielder by trade, Alfonzo was tasked with learning third base in winter ball. The club was hopeful that they could station Alfonzo at third, and move slugger Bobby Bonilla to the outfield. Alfonzo took over the reigns at third base full-time by 1997, after the Mets dealt Bonilla at the deadline in ’95 and Alfonzo appearing at second, short, and third his first two seasons.
Over the course of several seasons Alfonzo established himself as a potent offensive weapon at the plate, with a keen eye and ability to reach base at a high mark. In the winter of ’98, then general manager Steve Phillips approached Alfonzo and his agent about another position change. This time, Alfonzo would be moving back to second base, to make room for five-time Gold Glove winner, Robin Ventura at third (Ventura would win his sixth and final Gold Glove in ’99).
With John Olerud at first, Rey Ordóñez at short, Ventura at third, and Alfonzo at second, the Mets’ infield was heralded as possibly the best ever by Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci in the September 6th issue.
The left side of the infield took home hardware that season, with Ventura winning his sixth Gold Glove and Ordóñez winning his third straight. The four infielders combined to make just 27 errors (33 in total when including all infielders off the bench) which dethroned the Baltimore Orioles who committed 45 errors in 1964.
Offensively, the ’99 season was a breakout year for Alfonzo, as he posted career highs in games (158), hits (191), doubles (41), home runs (27), RBI (108), and runs scored (123).
Alfonzo had a proclivity for being a clutch hitter throughout his career, and rightly so. In high leverage situations Alfonzo posted a line of .318/.395/.466 with 30 home runs. With runners-in-scoring-position Alfonzo posted an OPS of .845 with 36 home runs and 564 RBI over 1,300 plus at-bats.
Alfonzo’s game plan of remaining patient and exploding on his pitch, often to the opposite field in his early years, made him one of the more dangerous hitters at the plate when runners were in scoring position.
One example of Alfonzo’s clutch hitting abilities occurred in Game 163 of the ’99 season, in which the Mets faced the Cincinnati Reds for a one-game playoff to decide the wild card. Alfonzo set the tempo early, belting a two-run home run in the first off Steve Parris to straightaway center field to give the Mets the only runs they would need that night in a 5-0 shutout victory.
In Game 1 of the ’99 NLDS, the Mets were squaring off against Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks in the desert. Once again Alfonzo gave the Mets an early lead, hitting a solo homer off the eventual N.L. Cy Young winner in the first. With the game knotted at 4-4 in the ninth, Alfonzo broke the tie with a go-ahead grand slam to give the Mets an 8-4 lead and the eventual win.
Overall in his 12-year career, Alfonzo slashed .284/.357/.425, with 1,532 hits, 282 doubles, 146 home runs, and a 28.8 bWAR. For his Mets’ career Alfonzo is 4th all-time in position player WAR (29.7), tied for 5th in batting average (.292), 5th in hits (1,136), and 5th in runs created (671).
Alfonzo is entering his second season at the helm of the Brooklyn Cyclones, continuing to help shape the organization’s young prospects and teach them the proper fundamentals. Alfonzo cites patience as his main priority as a manager, hoping to instill the proper techniques and making sure his players understand the minutia of the game.
I had the privilege of speaking to Alfonzo in mid-March, where we discussed his tryout with the Mets in the early nineties, some of his best memories with the Mets, and his coaching and managerial jobs with the Brooklyn Cyclones.
MMO: Growing up who were some of your favorite players?
Alfonzo: Besides my brother – who’s the one who inspired everything for me- Omar Vizquel was one of my role models.
MMO: Did you always play middle infield growing up in Venezuela?
Alfonzo: Yeah. I pitched and played the infield, (at) shortstop. When I was nine-years-old I was pitching and playing the infield.
MMO: In 1990 you had a tryout with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and there was an indication that they would look to sign you. However, swelling in your knee prevented them from signing you, can you talk a bit about that?
Alfonzo: There was a practice by the winter ball team called the Leones del Caracas. My brother took me down to the stadium, that way Camilo Pascual (Dodgers scout) could scout me there. I did a little bit of a tryout; I hit, took ground balls, ran a little bit, whatever they told me to do.
By the end of the workout my right knee was swelling but the doctor was saying that it wasn’t a problem, it’s more of liquid that was there. I don’t think he (Pascual) wanted to take any risks of signing me that year. That was frustrating for me; that was something that I was waiting for.
MMO: How did you come about getting the tryout for the Mets scout in 1991?
Alfonzo: A year later in November. Junior Roman, who was a Latin American scout for the Mets (was there), and my brother knows Gregorio Machado who was a scout in Venezuela for the Mets. He set up a tryout with me and I went to Valencia and Roman saw me one time and he liked the way I looked. He wanted to see me one more time, so we set another time to tryout again. He saw me twice and he signed me right away.
The last thing I expected was to sign with the Mets.
MMO: What stands out most for you from your major league debut on April 26, 1995?
Alfonzo: The weather, it was so cold! It was so cold in Colorado. I remember it snowed before the game and they had to remove the snow because it was Opening Day.
I was sitting there and I still couldn’t believe that I was in the big leagues. I saw all of these guys; (Bobby) Bonilla, (Jose) Vizcaino, and (Todd) Hundley, guys that I saw on TV playing. Now I’m seeing them in-person!
We had spring training but now it’s time to realize that I’m making my debut in the big leagues. Coors Field was packed, it was unbelievable. Dallas Green gave me the opportunity to get ready because I might hit for the pitcher. I remember I hit a fly ball to center field and then I still didn’t believe it (all) happened.
MMO: Do you remember who first coined the nickname, Fonzie for you?
Alfonzo: Hmm… I don’t remember who that was. I think my brother, they used to call him Fonzie, because they cut the name when he was with Anaheim. I remember when I started to hit the ball good in Shea Stadium they asked me about the Fonz, from Happy Days. I told them, ‘I haven’t seen it, I don’t know what you guys are talking about.’
I started paying attention to it and finally I got to see it and now when I get a base hit or hit well in Shea they showed the picture of the Fonz with a thumbs up (on the screen).
It’s pretty cool, but I think people get used to it being Fonzie because they shortened my name. Don’t go to Alfonzo, go to Fonzie. I don’t remember who the guy was that started it, I’ve got no clue.
MMO: You played middle infield throughout your time in the minor leagues with the Mets, and you played a super utility role in your first few seasons before settling in at third base starting in ’97. Were there any difficulties in transitioning back to second base once the club signed Robin Ventura to play third starting in ’99?
Alfonzo: The only chance for me to play every day was when they traded (Bobby) Bonilla to Baltimore. The only chance that I had was to play third base, and remember, I was a middle infield guy. So I went to Venezuela to try and get better at third, and I worked a little bit with Cookie Rojas. Cookie came down to work a bit on third base with me. I got used to third when I came back to the States and now we have a chance to sign Ventura.
I remember Steve Phillips talked to me and my agent to see what I would think about moving back to second base. They knew I could handle second base. I told him I had no problem doing it, so I moved back to second and like I said, I wanted to do whatever was best for the team to make it better.
MMO: The ’99 Sports Illustrated cover featuring you and the Mets infield is an issue fans will never forget. First off, do you own copies of that magazine? And second, what were your thoughts on the article and being labeled as possibly the best infield ever?
Alfonzo: I do. I have a big one in my house and it’s signed by everybody. It was pretty nice because around the big leagues the first thing that comes to my mind – I forgot who we were going to play against at Shea – we were stretching and they said, “Wow, we have to hit everything in the air, we have to hit a fly ball. We can’t have it hit to the infield with you guys playing.” That felt good.
When you see yourself and the other three guys on the cover, we did something right here, something good. A lot of work and repetitions. Communication was the main thing for us in the infield. I think the key was every time in batting practice we’d take one or two groups and we’d play a game; double play situation, fast runners, slow runners, stuff like that. That was making us better, great memories.
MMO: Among personal performances, does your six-hit game against the Houston Astros rank number one for you?
Alfonzo: I would say yes because that’s not easy to get. It’s hard to get two hits in a game, imagine six? Plus three home runs? That was a night for me. That’s something you don’t see too often.
MMO: Something I always associate with you is the high leg kick you had with your front leg in the batters box. Was that something you always did for timing?
Alfonzo: Yeah, it was just a habit that I had. Like I tell the guys these days, you have to know when to do it. To me, I had times where I got a little lost and I lose my timing, and I didn’t try to lift it too much.
I think it’s a habit and I had to create it timing wise when I came to the big leagues because you’re going to face guys throwing harder and you have to know when to do it. I think it’s a combination of habit and trying to work on your timing. You have to know when to lift and how to do it, because most of the guys these days do the leg kick and they go forward, and that’s happened to me a lot of times. I think it’s something natural that comes.
MMO: In the one-game play-in game against Cincinnati in 1999 you set the tone early, hitting a 2-run home run in the first to give the club an early 2-0 lead. What memories do you have from that game?
Alfonzo: That was great. I remember we were waiting at Shea Stadium to see where we were going to go: Arizona or Cincinnati. We had to go to Cincinnati to play an extra game there and if we win we get to go to Arizona, so, okay, let’s go.
That was great because I remember Rickey Henderson got on base. I’m just calm and getting to see the ball going (out) in the first inning, I think it was great, great lift for (Al) Leiter. He threw a tremendous game that day and that was a huge start for us in the playoffs, especially for me. I felt good after hitting the home run and I think in the sixth I got another hit and RBI, it was great.
MMO: In Game 1 of the ’99 NLDS against the Diamondbacks, you put the Mets ahead twice. First with your solo HR off Randy Johnson in the 1st, and then with your grand slam in the 9th to break the 4-4 tie. It was a 3-1 pitch, were you sitting dead-red fastball there?
Alfonzo: 3-1, if he would’ve thrown me something else he would’ve gotten me (laughs). As a hitter and the bases loaded I think the last thing he wanted to do was walk me, you know? So 3-1, normally I set my mind to be patient, don’t try to get excited. I think the click was perfect, I saw the replays and all the stuff was right on.
One thing I was worried about was I didn’t know if the ball was going to go foul, because it was so high, I crushed that one. After the ball went fair that was a great, great feeling running around the bases. When I got to the dugout I still didn’t believe that happened.
MMO: In a big spot or with the game on the line, you seemed to be a player that thrived in that environment. How were you able to settle yourself and come through like that in big moments?
Alfonzo: I think more patience. Select your pitch to hit and don’t try to do too much. I think that was my biggest thing about hitting with men in scoring position; trying to go the other way and try to be patient.
Sometimes guys today get excited when you have men in scoring position because it doesn’t matter how you bring them home, you want to drive them in. My mentality was, try to go the other way, and try to let the ball come to and explode to it. It happened pretty well for me and it was a great mindset. Be patient and then let it flow, and there were great results.
MMO: It must’ve also been nice having one of the all-time best hitting behind you in Mike Piazza?
Alfonzo: Oh yeah. Mike is a huge part of my success in New York.
MMO: Are you and Mike still close?
Alfonzo: Mike moved to Italy and bought a team there, a soccer team. We talk whenever we have the chance. Mike’s been great and made my time easier in New York. Every time we have a chance we just talk, and I missed him for a couple of days when he was here (spring training), I was in New York. I flew down and he already left.
MMO: When you look back at your Mets tenure, is there one particular moment that stands out for you overall?
Alfonzo: Well you just named it. My first at-bat, my first game at Shea Stadium, the playoff games against San Francisco and St. Louis. When we went to the World Series against the Yankees, that was something else, too. So many great memories I have.
MMO: Al Leiter told me in a previous interview that if that ’00 team took Game 1 of the Subway Series you guys would’ve been champions.
Alfonzo: That game made a huge difference for us. I think people didn’t think what kind of team that we had, but we believed that we could do it. Every time you take the first game of a Series you have a pretty good chance. And the way we played that year was tremendous.
MMO: How was the process of being hired as a coach in 2014 for the Brooklyn Cyclones?
Alfonzo: I was an ambassador with the Mets in New York, I always come to the stadium and get close to the fans, signing autographs and taking photographs. I saw a lot of Latin kids in the Mets organization and I asked my wife what did she think about me going back to the field? And she was like, “Well, I know you’ve had four years off, and I know you want to go back to something you liked.”
We decided to talk to the Met owners and explain to them what I’d like to do, to help the kids grow and try to keep out of trouble. I’m not going to do miracles but at least I can talk and hopefully whatever I say they can listen and keep it, that way it’s going to help growing up as a ballplayer and as a person.
I did that and they gave me a great opportunity and I became a special coach in the first three years. And last year I became the manager for the Brooklyn Cyclones and I really enjoy it. It reminded me of when I used to play there, so it brought great memories.
MMO: You’re entering your second season as the manager of the Cyclones, how has that experience been for you and what have you learned about the game that you might not have known before becoming a manager?
Alfonzo: It’s a lot of things but my priority was, be patient with these guys. Just have patience and think about when I used to play and how I was doing exactly the same thing. Now I’ve got to depend on all of these guys to win games or to do a great job.
To me, I think it’s more teaching and learning to teach the guy. It’s hard to see these guys play the way you played, because they’re not going to play the same way you played. But at least you have an idea of how you can help them out on the field and tell them what’s going to happen, why we did this play, little things like that.
It taught me to be patient and to go step-by-step. Why I have to play this guy today, why I have to move this guy to the right side. Little things like that I really enjoyed last year, and I learned to be patient with the guys.
MMO: Do you have any aspirations of managing in the majors in the future?
Alfonzo: I don’t know yet. That’s not something that’s crossed my mind, but I’d like to coach in the big leagues. Managing is not for me yet, I don’t have the mindset yet. I wouldn’t say it’s never going to happen, because you don’t know. But like I said, it’s not easy to jump and here I am going to manage the big leagues with no experience.
I would like to get experience and more reps in the minor leagues, and see what happens. Maybe I like it, maybe I don’t. Who knows? Time will tell.
MMO: Thanks very much for your time today, Edgardo. It was great to chat and look back on your accomplished career here in New York.
Alfonzo: I appreciate it, thank you so much.
Follow Edgardo Alfonzo on Twitter, @fonzy9