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Bullpen Coach Carlos Alfonso could be the hardest-working, and least prominent, San Francisco Giant

Wednesday, Jun 19 1996
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Carlos Alfonso wears bifocals. That would not be a particularly unusual accouterment except that Alfonso wears his split cheaters beneath a catcher's mask. For the Giants. In the majors.

At the age of 46, Alfonso is clearly not who you'd expect to see hunkered down in the Candlestick bullpen. Most men of his years couldn't even crouch in a pair of shinguards, let alone pop up again. Plus, Alfonso has had surgery on both knees. But he is also in serious shape. Unlike more than a few Giants, not so much as the tread of a spare tire can be found beneath his double-knit jersey. And so, there he is, receiving 90 mph heat from the likes of Rod Beck, the scowling closer with the walrus mustache and the wild, white-man 'fro.

"I do pretty good for somebody my age," Alfonso says, puffing out his chest just a little and hitching his thumbs inside the black leather belt of his uniform. "I get a little sore the first few days of spring training, but after that I'm fine."

As the Giants' bullpen coach, Alfonso is about as close as you can get to being a big-league player without getting penciled into the lineup. When Manager Dusty Baker calls the bullpen, it is Alfonso who picks up the phone and signals the dugout once his relievers are ready to go.

Alfonso is more than just a traffic cop, however. He's often behind the bullpen plate warming up the pitchers himself, or he can be found at the fireman's elbow, reciting the book on likely hitters: This guy tries to pull the ball; this guy likes to go after the first pitch; this guy's a sucker for a breaking ball out of the strike zone. Alfonso also gets plenty of time behind the plate before games when he warms up the start-ing pitcher. For variety, he throws batting practice on the road.

It's easy to see why Alfonso's job is considered the most physically demanding coaching gig in the majors.

"I don't know if I could do what Carlos does every day," says Giants reliever Mark Dewey. "He has to catch some pretty nasty pitches out there from some pitchers who have really good stuff. It's not easy."

The loose fraternity of bullpen coaches around the league shares Alfonso's devotion to a role that lets them continue to participate in the game they love. Mark Cresse has been doing it for the Dodgers for the past 20 years. But at 55, the Baltimore Orioles' Elrod "Ellie" Hendricks is the dean of bullpen coaches, who are usually the lowest paid -- and most abused -- members of a team's staff.

"Oh yeah, my legs get sore, my arm gets sore, my back gets sore, but I've been a catcher all my life, and I still enjoy it," Hendricks says from his Kansas City hotel before a road game against the Royals. "The pitchers could help us out by having great control, but that's usually not the case. When a ball gets by, you have to put up with the fans yelling, 'Catch the ball, old man.' I just turn a deaf ear to it because I know nobody in the stands could do what I do. Just look at the way the fans flub up foul balls they try to catch."

Suiting up is second nature for Alfonso. When he was growing up in Havana, he lived baseball and followed the New York Yankees religiously.

"I've loved baseball as far back as I can remember," Alfonso says as he sits in front of his locker wearing only a pair of white compression shorts and a cup. (He has arrived at 9 a.m. for the Giants' 12:35 game with the Pirates.) "My first toys were bats and balls."

When Alfonso won an academic scholarship to study in the United States in 1961, he arrived in Miami and never went back to Cuba. His father, a New York Giants fan who hated the Yankees as much as his son loved them, had defected a few weeks earlier.

The Houston Astros made Alfonso their 10th pick in the 1968 June draft. Although signed as an infielder and a catcher, Alfonso soon found himself on the mound when the Astros' single A team in Williamsport, Pa., suffered a string of injuries in 1969. In Alfonso's first appearance, he hurled a two-hit shutout.

Alfonso picked up more than a new position in the minors. Doug Rader, the Astros' no-nonsense third baseman, decided one spring training that Alfonso would be known as "Fonz." "When Rader spoke, you listened," Alfonso remembers. "If he gave you a nickname, it stuck whether you liked it or not."

Wiry, intense, and meticulous, Alfonso did pretty well for himself in the minors, racking up 13 wins for Cocoa Beach in 1971 and making the American Association All-Star team in 1973, the same year he was named pitcher of the year in Venezuela for his winter ball performance.

But like Burt Lancaster's character, Doc Graham, in Field of Dreams -- who never got a chance to hit in the big leagues -- Alfonso's major-league experience was all too brief. He was called up to the Astros in 1974 after having knocked around the minors for nearly a decade. He lasted just two days, and he never threw a pitch. Alfonso was sent back down to the Denver Bears, the long bus rides, and the cheap hotel rooms.

In 1976, he developed shoulder problems and opted for a job as bullpen coach with the Astros rather than giving the majors one last shot. "If I hadn't gotten hurt, I think I could have played in the majors," he says without betraying any regret. It just wouldn't be Alfonso's style, of course, to dwell on what might have been. "I didn't have great stuff. I couldn't have been a starter or a closer, but I could have been the ninth or 10th guy on somebody's pitching staff."

But having gotten so close without ever throwing a big-league pitch must surely gnaw at a perfectionist who has devoted his life to baseball. Doesn't it?

"Nope," Alfonso says as he gets up and heads for the field. "Some guys don't even get as close as I did. I made it farther than most."

After passing the word that the pitching staff should start stretching at 10 a.m., Alfonso's first task of the day is to warm up William VanLandingham, the tall right-hander who needs to get in a few throws between starts. The pops of VanLandingham's pitches hitting Alfonso's glove echo throughout the nearly deserted ballpark. Pitching Coach Dick Pole stands nearby, offering instructions. The 25-year-old is pitching well, but Alfonso's glove is stiff thanks to new webbing. One pitch skips by on the outside, just grazing Alfonso's right shinguard. The next bounces out of his glove, and the next -- a change-up -- dips and runs right underneath him.

"It's that glove, huh Carlos?" Pole barks, smirking at Alfonso. "That must be what it is."

"It was a hell of a pitch," Alfonso yells back. "That's what it was."
Alfonso's used to handling pitchers near the top of their craft. At Houston, he caught for J.R. "King" Richards, Joe Niekro, and the legendary Nolan Ryan. The hardest to handle? Alfonso doesn't hesitate when he names Niekro, whose unpredictable pitches could flutter and float like a drunk butterfly.

"With Nolan, you just had to really concentrate because he threw so hard," Alfonso says as he rests on a bullpen bench. Alfonso's thick, dark hair is tousled now, and his crow's-feet look deeper as he squints into the sun. "But you didn't know what Niekro's pitches were going to do. Sometimes he'd throw a fastball when he was supposed to throw a knuckle ball, and you'd catch it in your chest instead of your glove. Joe thought that was pretty funny, but I sure didn't at the time."

There are, of course, worse places to get hit with a baseball than the chest.

"I don't know how you can say this nicely, but I got hit in the nuts once warming up a pitcher in Houston," Alfonso explains without smiling. "At that point I didn't care where the hell the ball went. I couldn't get up to save my life. They had to call the trainer out and everything."

Alfonso heads to the hitting cage to see if anyone wants batting practice. There are no takers, so Alfonso has a few minutes to relax in the walkway leading to the field. Pirates manager Jim Leland is wielding a five iron nearby, working on his golf swing before the game.

"You can feel isolated out in the bullpen because you're so far from the action," Alfonso says. "A lot of times the guys will get to talking about anything except baseball, and I have to subtly bring the conversation back to baseball. I'm not an asshole about it; I'm not a yeller. I used to be more of a hard-ass, but I've mellowed out over the years."

The years have held a variety of jobs for Alfonso. This is his first stint as the Giants' bullpen coach. After holding the same post with the Astros, he served the Giants as a pitching coach, the director of minor league development, and coordinator of Latin American instruction, a post he still holds. He's also managed three Giants minor league teams.

"You have to have a good head for baseball to do everything Carlos has done," Dusty Baker says. "And, obviously, you have to be able to play baseball to be a bullpen coach. I don't worry about Carlos being behind the plate. He can handle it."

As game time approaches, Alfonso warms up starting pitcher Osvaldo Fernandez, a fellow Cuban with sad eyes who joined the Giants this year. The stands are filling up, and fans huddle along the right field line hoping for autographs. Two kids even hit up Alfonso. Alfonso gives Fernandez some encouragement in Spanish before heading for the bullpen bench -- a bunkerlike enclosure with a Plexiglas window behind the outfield wall.

Alfonso doesn't end up sitting for long. Fernandez has a rocky sixth inning, and the bullpen is up and down for the rest of the game. In the eighth, the Giants are down 5-2, and Alfonso is crouched behind the plate catching hissing fastballs from reliever Mark Dewey while the crowd of 11,530 grumbles. Although Dewey never sees any action, three other relievers do. The Giants lose 7-2.

Alfonso's duties aren't over when the game ends. A dozen sportswriters surround Fernandez's locker. Alfonso translates for the pitcher, whose English is about as bad as the luck he's been having lately. At one point, his voice rising, Fernandez rattles off four sentences that bring a smile to Alfonso's face and require some tactful censorship. "Well, I better not translate that one too much," Alfonso says with a laugh. "Let's just say Osvaldo thinks he pitched well except for one bad inning."

One inning of major league pitching -- good or bad -- was something Alfonso never got to experience. And even though he'd never admit it, you can't help thinking Fonz would give almost anything to trade places with Fernandez for just one game.

About The Author

Gordon Young

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