Peter Abraham’s story on the connection between Cody Ransom and Erick Almonte reminded me that I once did an Almonte feature as well…
Back in 2006, through a connection at The Daily News, I had the chance to submit a feature to them about Almonte back when he was playing for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. This is the first cut of it, which still has the statistical placeholder for the editor and so on. It’s not one of my favorite pieces, but I loved the lead (I actually used it again in a Jack Cust story for my paper since this actually never ran in the NYDN) and thought it was decent.
Probably worth noting that 2006 was my first year as a feature writer, by the way…so I definitely did some stuff then I wouldn’t do now.
Almonte’s Last Chance in Long Island
by Mike Ashmore
If you wanted to know the whereabouts of Erick Almonte on April 2nd, 2003, there was only one place you needed to look.
On top of the world.
One day earlier, he had received the call up to become the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees. With Derek Jeter having held the position for years, you wouldn’t blame him for thinking this was someone’s sick idea of an April Fool’s Day joke.
But Jeter was nowhere to be found, having separated his shoulder on Opening Day against the Blue Jays, and Almonte got the call.
Hitting ninth in manager Joe Torre’s batting order, the then-25-year-old turned SkyDome into the house that Almonte built, if only for a day, going 2-for-5 with a single and a two-run home run off of Toronto relief pitcher Pete Walker.
“It was a relief,” said Almonte of his initial performance as Jeter’s replacement. “I knew all the people in New York wanted to see the new kid coming up.”
Rounding the bases during what turned out to be the only home run he’s hit in the big leagues, Derek Jeter couldn’t be further from his mind.
“I was thinking about my family in the Dominican,” Almonte recalled. “I knew they were watching the game.”
But just three years after that storybook arrival, Erick Almonte now plays for the Long Island Ducks, a minor league team in the unaffiliated Atlantic League that often serves as the final chapter in what can hardly be described as a storybook ending. In their seventh year of existence, Long Island has seen players such as Bill Pulsipher, John Rocker and Carlos Baerga wear their colors.
Citibank Park, the 6,000 seat stadium Almonte now calls home, is roughly 50 miles from Yankee Stadium, but light years away for a once-promising infielder struggling in what may be his last chance to get back to the bigs.
Almonte, who says a lot of those Ducks fans remember him from his time with the Yankees, also said that the level of play in his current surroundings isn’t much different from what he experienced in the house that Ruth built.
“It’s pretty good baseball,” Almonte said, “it’s between Double-A and Triple-A.”
But even a Triple-A level of baseball is far away from what he experienced when Jeter’s injury opened the door for his extended stay in the show.
Just as quickly as that door opened for Almonte, however, it closed when the all-star’s shoulder healed and he was shipped back to Triple-A Columbus. Almonte was, if nothing else, steady during his stay in the Bronx, hitting .272 with that lone home run and 11 RBI as Jeter’s replacement.
Just four days into his stay in Columbus, Almonte injured his knee, taking him out of the lineup for nearly two months. He was called up for one day in July, and then for the month of September, but that was the last playing time Almonte would see in a Yankees uniform.
Left off the roster for the ALDS against Minnesota, he took the spot of pitcher Chris Hammond for the ALCS against Boston.
But Torre didn’t play Almonte in the series, and his spot on the World Series roster was taken back by Hammond.
On the playoff roster the previous fall, the organization suddenly had no room for the man they trusted to replace their golden boy and released him on March 25th, 2004, unable to find room for him in their minor league system. Almonte said he was never given a reason for his release, although you might look to the Yankees taking on the final seven years of Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million contract one month earlier in a trade with Texas as a deciding factor.
“I never asked and they never told me,” said Almonte of his release. “I was with the Yankees for eight or nine years, when I found out it was pretty hard. I had to just put it behind me and continue to play.”
Almonte, signed out of the Dominican Republic eleven days after his eighteenth birthday, made his debut in Yankee pinstripes in 2001 as a September call-up. He appeared in eight games – none of them starts – and got just four at-bats. In the four games where he played in the field, he replaced Jeter only once, playing the final inning of a September 29th contest against the Orioles.
After spending all of 2002 in the minor leagues, Almonte had to readjust to the New York media and fans keeping an eye on his every move. Those eight games from two seasons ago simply couldn’t prepare him for the challenges of being the everyday Yankee shortstop, but some of the veterans on the team tried to make his stay an easy one.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Almonte said, “but being with guys like Mariano (Rivera), Bernie Williams, even Jeter…they’d pull me aside in the clubhouse and tell me just to go out there and have fun.”
If the Yankee faithful had a qualm with Almonte, it was the alarming rate he was making errors in the big leagues, a sign that the pressure might be getting to him. He made 10 errors during the 28 games in which he replaced Jeter, while his predecessor committed only 14 in 90 more games.
As for Jeter, he’d been “in his way” for years, the one man he knew he’d have to somehow get past to be a regular player for the 26-time World Champions. But even with Jeter serving as his roadblock, he also served as his mentor.
“Everybody wants to be like him,” he said, “he never has a problem with anybody off the field. He’s a good guy.”
Almonte received his own chance to be like Derek unexpectedly, receiving a phone call just hours after a flight to Columbus was set to start another rigorous year in the minor leagues.
“Turn on the TV and watch the game,” said the voice on the other end, a Yankees scout.
With the Yankees on their way to an 8-4 Opening Day win in Toronto, Almonte turned on his television to see Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter down on the ground, surrounded by medical personnel and his teammates.
In the same way that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure; in baseball, one man’s injury is always another man’s opportunity. With the inevitable and seemingly endless replays being shown while the Yankees captain lay on the infield dirt, Almonte took a moment to collect himself and piece together what he’d just seen.
With notorious pull hitter Jason Giambi at the plate and Jeter on first, Giambi weakly grounded out to Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay. With the infield shifted to the right for Giambi, third base was left unmanned and Jeter tried to take advantage by hustling from second to third on the play.
Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby, with a hunch that Jeter might go for the extra base, sprinted up the third base line in a desperate attempt to prevent him from doing so. Jeter slid headfirst into third, with Huckaby’s shin guards not far behind him. The irresistible force met the immovable object, and Jeter was not only out at third, but out of commission for six weeks with a separated shoulder that had him writhing in pain for nearly ten minutes in the SkyDome infield.
One minute, Almonte was unpacking his clothes, putting them in the closet of his apartment. The next, he was on the next flight to Toronto, on his way to replace one of the most beloved players in the history of the New York Yankees.
But with that opportunity behind him, Almonte was offered another one by the Colorado Rockies organization, signing a deal to be their everyday shortstop…in Triple-A.
With the Colorado Springs Sky Sox of the Pacific Coast League, his 2004 season was his best as a professional, establishing career highs in hits, doubles, home runs and batting average. But it was also there where he stayed for an entire season, unable to earn the courtesy of a September call-up that the Yankees had afforded him twice.
“When you’re in the minor leagues,” Almonte said, “that’s what you’re playing for. That was my best season, and they didn’t even tell me why I wasn’t getting called up.”
After what amounted to a wasted season, Almonte signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians with the promise of a Spring Training invite. What Almonte didn’t know when he signed that contract was that his Spring Training would be taking place overseas.
Several months before pitchers and catchers were to report to camp, the Indians sold Almonte’s contract to the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League. Almonte struggled, hitting just .193 with three home runs and eight RBI in only 34 games in Japan’s equivalent of the big leagues before being released by the team.
“I didn’t get to play that much,” Almonte said, “but it was a good experience.”
Essentially discarded by Major League Baseball and now shunned overseas, Almonte was one of the biggest names to sign with the Atlantic League this off-season, a league which serves as the last option for many players in the same predicament as the former Yankee.
The eight team league has quickly become the best independent league in the country, having attracted big name players like Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson and Jose Lima throughout its nine year history.
Bud Harrelson, the only New York Met to be in uniform for both of their World Series victories (1969 as a player and 1986 as the third base coach) co-owns the Ducks and also served as their manager during the first few years of the team’s existence.
A two-time All-Star shortstop for the Mets and 1971 Gold Glove winner, Harrelson, now the team’s first-base coach during home games, knows a good middle infielder when he sees one, and he jumped at the chance to have Almonte on his team.
“I was looking for middle infielders,” Harrelson said, ” and when his name popped up, I remembered him from when he came up when Derek got hurt a few years back.”
In an interesting twist of fate, the shortstop position had already been filled after a work visa issue delayed arrival in Long Island, and he’d have to try his hand at third base in order to be a regular in the lineup.
Anyone want to ask A-Rod if that sounds familiar?
“I signed as a third baseman,” Almonte said, “but in my second year, they moved me to short. But it’s really the same, I’m just trying to play good defense and give the pitchers confidence in me.”
As for Harrelson, he also has confidence that Almonte can pick up his play, with the now third baseman hitting
“He didn’t go to spring training,” Harrelson said, “but I think he’s doing a marvelous job. I really like his attitude, he’s wonderful in the clubhouse. He’s a real pro, I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
And as for his older brother Hector, he too finds himself in the Atlantic League, albeit on a different team. Playing for the Somerset Patriots, the former Boston Red Sox pitcher looks forward to the day when he can face his little brother again.
“I’ve faced him before in Triple-A,” said the elder Almonte, “when I played for Nashville and he was with Colorado Springs. If it happens again, I’ll try to do my best, and he’ll try to do his best for his team.”
So how did the student do against the teacher?
“Not good,” Erick said through a smile, looking forward to the chance to face his brother again in June.
The two have never been teammates professionally, with the 30-year-old pitcher being unaware of the possibility to play with Erick, three years his junior.
“I talked to him when he signed with Long Island,” the pitcher said, “but I never knew about Long Island and any opportunity to play there.”
Having followed in the footsteps of his big brother everywhere he’s went – from being the last one born to the last one to get to the big leagues, Erick looks to finally do something before his brother – get picked up by a Major League organization out of the Atlantic League.
“Hopefully somebody’s watching,” he said. “If not, I’ll try to put up good numbers and get ready for next year.”
With most fans viewing his time with the Yankees as just a cup of coffee, Major League Baseball is one drink that Erick Almonte would like the chance to savor one more time.