While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected]
Player: Moises Alou
Career: PIT 1990, MON '90-96, FLA '97, HOU '98-2001, CHC '02-'04, SFG '05-'06, NYM '07-'08
Accolades: All-Star 1994, '97-98, 2001, '04-05
When Alou made his lone appearance on a Hall of Fame ballot in 2013, he received just six votes, 1.1%, and promptly fell off the ballot. That’s perfectly reasonable judgment, all told, on the part of the voters. Alou falls short on most of the major Hall of Fame metrics, both in big round numbers (he never reached 350 homers) and metrics like Jay Jaffe’s JAWS score, which puts him well below the threshold for left fielders. It also makes a certain amount of sense if you watched Alou play. He was good, very good, but he never quite felt like a superstar. He was always your team’s other great player -- not the one whose face was on the commemorative cup.
But Alou’s career, which had a certain Forrest Gump quality of hopping around many major storylines, is if anything an argument for the factor of luck in determining a Hall of Fame career. Alou, from the time he first became a regular for the Expos to the end of his career with the Giants and Mets, was a remarkably consistent top-tier hitter, putting up big numbers every year.
But that was the problem: He just couldn’t stay on the field. It is so difficult to be blessed with incredible baseball talent, even if you are the son of a man who was a terrific big league player himself. But that’s not enough, either: Injuries can attack you out of nowhere, taking 20 games here, a whole season there, until your whole career feels less than what it should have been. Alou played 17 seasons in the Majors but played in 140 or more games just five times.
Alou was the No. 2 overall pick of the final year of the MLB January Draft in 1986 by the Pirates. He tore through the Minors, but -- and this will seem strange to imagine now -- the Pirates were so good and so desperate to add Major League talent while they still had Barry Bonds that they traded Alou (along with Willie Greene and Scott Ruskin) to the Expos for pitcher Zane Smith in the summer of 1990 after he played just two games for them. (He went 1-for-5 and looked weird in a Pirates uniform.)
Alou played 14 games for the Expos in 1990 but was primed to be a starter for them in '91 until he caught the first of his many bad breaks: A serious shoulder injury cost him the entire season. In '92, he got some good news: The Expos hired his father, Felipe Alou, as manager. The two were not actually that close at the time. Moises said later, “I may have spent more time with my dad in Spring Training of '92 than I did in my whole life." But their bond became tighter as the years went on.
Moises Alou established himself immediately as a player with power, speed and all-around skill, and he became a linchpin of an Expos team that clearly was going places. But because of his injury, he had reached the Majors late. He was 25 before he was ever a regular. Injuries got him again in 1993, a gruesome one at Busch Stadium, when his foot got caught in the Astroturf rounding first base and dislocated his ankle. (There are photos of this you don’t want to see.)
The injury cost Alou much of his speed and definitely cost him the ability to play center field moving forward. In 1994, he had his best season, for his best team -- he would finish third in the National League MVP Award voting for that Expos team that still breaks your heart -- but of course that season would end two months early due to the strike. More shoulder injuries limited Alou to 93 games in '95 (he would also have a personal tragedy that year), but he’d be healthy the next three seasons, one each in Montreal, Florida and Houston. He received MVP votes all three seasons (finishing third behind Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in '98), and in the middle, he’d win a World Series with the Marlins. Alou was already 32 years old and had only played more than 150 games once.
Then of course came another freak injury, one that would cost him yet another full season. Alou was running on a treadmill at home in the Dominican Republic when he slipped, fell, tore his ACL and missed the entire 1999 campaign. But that didn’t slow him down, either. He returned in 2000 and hit .355 (in only 126 games), and .331 in '01 (in 136 games). He then signed with the up-and-coming Cubs and was terrific, and finally healthy, for three seasons, famously barely missing the World Series in '03. But by then, Alou was already in his late 30s. He had two productive but injury-plagued seasons for the Giants in '05 and '06 (filling in for Barry Bonds, of all people, in '05), then finished off his career as part of the Mets' misery in '07 and '08. Alou was supposed to help choose players for the Dominican team in the '09 World Baseball Classic, but he ended up playing for the team (and his dad) himself, retiring at the tournament's end.
If Alou would have played a full season before he turned 25, if he wouldn’t have missed two full seasons with injuries, if he hadn’t been unable to play more than 150 games just three times in his whole career, it is not difficult to see him as a clear Hall of Famer. His slash line is Cooperstown worthy: .303/.369/.516 (better than Cal Ripken, or Adrián Beltré). But the world kept getting in Alou’s way, over and over. He was a superstar. But he never felt like a superstar.
He’s still a clear part of baseball history. He was a part of three immortal teams and stories in the sport: The history-deprived 1994 Expos, the '97 World Series champion Marlins and, of course, the star-crossed 2003 Cubs, where his perhaps over-the-top reaction to Steve Bartman’s (possible) interference assured that the poor fan would live on forever in infamy. He also was well-known for not using batting gloves, though he made sure his hands were still coarse and rough through an … unconventional technique.
But that he is seen as on the periphery of those big moments, rather than at the center of them, is largely because he didn’t end up having the Hall of Fame career that his talent might have argued he could have. Alou was great, but he also wasn’t always available. And we always demand our greatness to be around us as much as possible. Alou was great. But we never quite thought of him that way. Injuries robbed him of so much. It robbed us of it, too.