There were a thousand reasons Yonder Alonso chose to become a better ballplayer, not the least of them being that he believed it possible. That it was there for him. That he owed it to himself, to the rest of his career, whatever it held, and to the rest of his life, to work for it. He hadn’t become a ballplayer to be any old ballplayer. Time and not a small amount of failure – not even failure, exactly, but dissatisfaction with the results – had convinced him of that.
His young son, Troy, was part of his decision to start over. As was his wife. His dad, of whom Yonder said, “When I go oh-for-four, he goes oh-for-four. When I go four-for-four, he goes 10-for-10,” was part of it, too.
So it wasn’t just the batting average, the baseballs that died short of the track, the gnawing displeasure at another handful of hittable pitches he’d missed. It wasn’t just the quiet drives home from the ballpark, when he’d wondered if this could possibly be it, if this was the ballplayer he’d be. Not that any of that was insignificant, either.
See, a ballplayer gets one shot at a short period in his life when his body and mind are accommodating, and maybe you were a great college player once, and maybe you were the seventh overall pick in a draft once, and maybe you’ve made a few dollars and had some fun, but what’s that all mean when you’re coming up on 30 years old and the drives home from the ballpark aren’t getting any more comforting?
Wasn’t there supposed to be more? Isn’t there still time for that?
“There was a lot of catching up to do,” Alonso said.
There are survivors. There’s nothing wrong with being a survivor. Baseball’s a decent living and it’s better than a real job, and if you can ride a reputation for a while, ride some name recognition, maybe fill a team’s need adequately if not much better than that, then there’s some satisfaction there. It’s called being “a guy.”
Don’t have anybody at first base? Don’t have a backup catcher? Need a fifth starter?
Go get yourself “a guy.” He’ll hold down the job. He’ll stand over there, give a team a little something once in a while, be a good man in a clubhouse, have a day only he sees coming. Yeah, he’s a guy.
Yonder Alonso was becoming a guy. Maybe already was a guy.
He hated it.
“I wanted to be a lion,” he said.
He was driving to work this week, inching along in Oakland traffic, explaining how a 30-year-old guy in a half-a-season hits 17 home runs, bats .300 and, assuming voters are paying attention, plays to the verge of his first All-Star Game. Over parts of seven seasons, he’d hit for average occasionally. He’d hit doubles in the 30s twice. But never 10 home runs. He was a .269 hitter who didn’t strike out a lot, didn’t walk a lot, and didn’t make a lot of noise in the batter’s box. Other players hit home runs. He spent a little too much time, in his opinion, grounding into the shift and hoisting medium-deep fly balls. He was OK. You know, fine. By survivor standards. He also feared the game was about done with him.
“I watch a lot of the best players in the game,” he said. “How much they play like they’re savages. Like modern-day gladiators. Their attitude. Their confidence. Their body energy. The way they talk without talking. Like lions, man.”
He considered the player he was, standing 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, plenty strong, plenty dedicated, plenty skilled. He considered the results.
“When the games came round, I was hitting like I’m 160 pounds,” he said. “I’d think, ‘What is happening?’ It was weird.
“Here I was, a guy who’d been through it all, and I was thinking, ‘Hey, if you don’t make a change your days are numbered.’ I know the game is hard. It’s very humbling. But there’s no trying. If you don’t get it done, you don’t get it done. I had to get better.”
A friend and teammate, Danny Valencia, was in his ear. It was time to change. Another, friend and brother-in-law Manny Machado, urged the same. They believed he could be better, too.
Early last September, Yonder Alonso called Mike Tosar.
“Hey, man, I need to start working again,” he told him.
“I’m ready,” Tosar said.
“What should I be doing?”
“You gotta survive right now, till the end. Then we’ll get after it.”
“I want to start doing something different. I’m playing with a little leg kick.”
“OK. Keep doing that. See you next month.”
Tosar, an international scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, played at Miami, as Alonso had, only long before Alonso, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He’d worked for a handful of big-league teams, for some as a scout and others as a coach. Machado swore by Tosar, as do plenty of Miami-area players, and Alonso had several years ago spent a couple offseasons working with Tosar. This time, however, he would not be maintaining or honing or staying sharp. This time he’d be overhauling, starting at the soles of his feet, starting in the shadows of his mind. Somewhere in between, a new swing would come.
They met in mid-October, mere days after Alonso finished his least satisfying season. They stood in what amounted to a warehouse in Miami. It held a single batting cage, a rectangle draped in netting. Some four months later, Alonso walked out, blinked his eyes, and felt different.
With Tosar’s help, a day at a time, a swing at a time, he’d added the leg kick. He’d learned to free up and use his lower body. He’d committed to attacking the baseball, the first law of the hitting jungle. He’d committed to hitting the baseball in the air, with backspin, and so with carry.
“He was underachieving,” Tosar said. “And he has to overachieve. I mean, he’s got all the ingredients. A first rounder. Hittability. Raw power. Skills. Baseball IQ. He just had to find himself offensively. A long time ago, it caught up to him. The league adjusted. He never made the adjustment to the league. And now he wondered if he was at the end of the rope, so there was urgency.”
Alonso retrained his body. Those were the mechanics of the new swing, of generating the new power. There was more.
“If you don’t change your mindset,” Tosar told Alonso, “nothing’s going to change. You gotta have some bad intentions.”
Alonso fairly raced to spring training, so eager he was to be that new ballplayer. By the end of May, he had 14 home runs, more than he’d ever hit in a season. Nearing the end of June, he was a better hitter in every significant offensive category.
“The game is so mental,” Alonso said. “The minute you feel like you’re the worst player in the game, you will be the worst player in the game. The war is over. The fight is over.
“That’s not going to be me.”
He is, turns out, a survivor after all.
Also, he said, laughing, “A lion.”