Alou Continues Moving Through Circle of Life
Felipe Alou dialed his daughter to wish her a happy 16th birthday when the call became a counseling session: Valerie was crying hysterically over having to reschedule her driver’s test.
Hours from an important game with San Francisco’s NL West rival Los Angeles, Alou calmly assured her that having to wait longer before getting her license wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen in her life. Yet he also understood that it was the toughest moment yet for his daughter.
The oldest manager in baseball -- he turns 68 on May 12 -- can offer plenty of perspective. He had great successes and failures as a player, lost a teenage son in an accident, saw three marriages end in divorce, and waited years for his first managing job only to have his best chance at winning destroyed by a labor dispute.
Now Alou is in charge of the same team on which he began his career, replacing the popular Dusty Baker as Giant manager.
Alou became the oldest manager to take over a club since the New York Mets lured Casey Stengel out of retirement at 71 in 1962.
Stengel lost 120 games with that expansion team. Alou has led the Giants to the best record in the NL after one month.
Though Alou admits to occasionally being a little tired, he has insisted since the day he took the job that he has the stamina for an entire season -- and, he hopes, deep into the playoffs.
“I’m here now, but the circle will never end,” Alou said. “It only ends when we die. Unless you retire. I will never retire. Never. If I live to be 150 years old I will never retire. I know I might not get a job but I would not say ‘I’m going to sit down in a rocking chair and I’m not going to fish anymore, not know what’s going on in the world.’ That will never happen.
“The day they put me in the box, then the circle’s closed. I’ve known people that retired full of youth and energy and said ‘OK, now I don’t want to share anything with anybody, collect my paycheck and enjoy life for the next 35-40 years.’ No, no, no. I enjoy life being active. Share it with people.”
Alou is trying to lead San Francisco to the World Series title he believes he cost the Giants more than four decades ago. The franchise hasn’t won it all since leaving New York after the 1957 season.
Alou failed to get down a bunt in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1962 Series that would have moved his brother Matty from first to second. The Giants lost the game, 1-0, and the Series to the New York Yankees. It ended when Willie McCovey lined out to second baseman Bobby Richardson with runners on second and third.
Alou, a three-time All-Star as a player, stresses the importance of fundamentals to this day. He had rarely been called upon to bunt before that.
“It hurts today, it still does,” he said. “To me, that’s the lowest point of my baseball career as a player or manager. It’s a very small thing, but it didn’t happen. That’s why I like for players to understand how important it is to just lay down a harmless looking innocent bunt and get a guy over.”
Alou calls himself “a soldier of this game,” though soldier of life is more fitting. He smiles, and wrinkles show along his cheekbones and chin. He threw the javelin in the 1955 Pan American Games for the Dominican national team and would have competed in the 1956 Olympics had the Giants not signed him to a minor-league contract.
Those who know Alou admire his sincerity, and his lifelong commitment and humanistic approach to baseball. He was already taking care of future major leaguers as a boy -- looking after younger brothers Jesus and Matty. He nurtured many of today’s superstars during his time in Montreal.
“He’s a class act, what can you say?” said Yankee Manager Joe Torre, a teammate of Alou’s in Atlanta. “The Xs and O’s are all our own opinion. Felipe comes from the school that it’s all about people. We tend to forget with how much money players get that they’re human beings.”
Alou was fired in Montreal during the 2001 season. His players found out through the Internet, before Alou was formally told.
But he has endured many more difficult chapters in life than losing a job.
He lost his first-born son, Felipe, in a swimming pool accident in 1976. The 15-year-old boy, the first of Alou’s 11 children, dove into the shallow end and broke his neck. It took years for him to accept it.
“My kid, that was very tough, a tremendous blow,” he said. “It took me 15 years until I could talk about him. At the beginning I didn’t want anybody to remind me of my kid. I realized it was not a natural death, it was an accident. It’s not like somebody killed him. It was not an airplane destroying a tower or a bomb falling on an innocent home. It was an accident.”
In 1994, Alou lost his father, nine days before the end of his most successful season as a manager. Players went on strike that August, with Montreal leading the NL East by six games over Atlanta. Alou then returned to his native Dominican Republic to deal with family matters.
The next year, the winning lineup Alou helped build was broken up. Alou and the Expos kept developing more players, and losing them, until finally the team couldn’t compete.
In San Francisco, Alou once again has a team capable of winning it all.
But waiting is nothing new for a man who managed more than a decade in the minors before getting his shot in the big leagues.
“To me, patience and faith and hope -- they are relatives,” he said. “They are all in the same family. I trust God.”
As a black Dominican, Alou dealt with racism in the South in his first professional season of 1956. He refused to listen when a bus driver taking him from Lake Charles, La., to Cocoa, Fla., repeatedly told the minor leaguer to move to the back.
The Alou brothers were among the first Dominicans to reach the big leagues, and encountered racism there as well. During a losing streak with the Giants in the early 1960s, Manager Alvin Dark blamed their losses on the dark-skinned players. “We have trouble because we have too many Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team,” Dark said. “They’re just not able to perform up to the white players when it comes to mental alertness.”
Alou kept his anger inside.
“I think I did well because I have always been somebody who even in the Deep South with all of those differences and problems and races, I always kept up my dignity in spite of anybody and in front of anybody,” he said. “I kept my belief that I was a human being as good as anybody. A lot of times I used my Dominican nationality as a way of defending myself. I was not in submission to anybody.
“I know some of the black kids that were my teammates, they were scared, they were afraid every time there was some possibility of confrontation. I could see them backing off and backing away, but I wasn’t like that. I believe that is one of the reasons I am still here.”
His brothers are still in baseball -- Matty scouts for the Giants and Jesus handles Dominican operations for the Boston Red Sox.
“Everything is a surprise to me in the game of baseball,” Jesus Alou said. “Felipe went through a lot of trouble not just for Matty and me but a lot of Dominicans as a black Latin player. He went through a lot to clear the path for others.”
He helped mentor some of today’s managers, including the Dodgers’ Jim Tracy, who treasures his time working under Alou in Montreal.
“He’s like a father to me and he’s been like that for quite a while,” Tracy said. “The most notable thing to me is there’s a lot that goes on in the game of baseball 60 feet, 6 inches away, between the pitcher, the catcher and the hitter.
“And the way the industry talks about him, it has not given him his just due as to what an understanding he has as far as that aspect of the game.”
San Diego Manager Bruce Bochy grew up admiring Alou and respects his “wise-man charisma.”
Wise, yes. But Alou remains eager to see what else the world has coming.
“I could be 99 years old and I will still believe in the future,” he said. “I really do. I say that you only need to live one more day and you see wonders. One more day.
“Some of the things we’ve seen in the last couple of years I’m glad I was still here to see. If anybody told me 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 15 years ago or 10 years ago that the world would be in such a state, it would have been tough for me to believe it.
“I’m prepared to see more, too, stuff I never dreamed of seeing. So, live one more day and you might be shocked at what you see. That’s why I have to believe in the future.”