Toronto Blue Jays fans have always had a special connection with Roberto Alomar and that bond was never more apparent than Sunday afternoon.
As the former second baseman addressed the crowd after his retired No. 12 was unfurled on a blue banner high above the field at Rogers Centre, a fan yelled out: “I love you Robbie!”
Without missing a beat, the recent Hall of Fame inductee shot back: “I love you too! I love all you guys!”
Alomar may have only spent five seasons in Toronto, but they represent the team’s glory years. The dazzling infielder helped the Blue Jays win back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993 and made countless memorable plays that brought fans to their feet.
There was an excitement before the game against the Texas Rangers that harkened back to that time as people outside the stadium lined up thousands deep to get inside and be a part of history.
Alomar didn’t disappoint, making his way to the field through the crowd flanked by two red-clad Mounties, shaking hands as fans snapped pictures and gave him a raucous standing ovation.
He was joined on stage in shallow centre field, just in front of a giant No. 12 that fittingly covered second base, by former manager Cito Gaston, team president and CEO Paul Beeston, his parents and former teammates.
Wearing a dark blue suit and a red tie, Alomar reflected on the moment and the two titles he won in Toronto.
“When I was a little boy I never expected to have my number retired,” he told the crowd of 45,629. “I just played the game I love.
“My mom and dad taught me it doesn’t matter how much money you earn, what you achieve or how much of a celebrity you are — always be humble, and that’s who I am.”
A 12-time all-star and 10-time Gold Glove winner, Alomar is the first Blue Jay to have his number retired by the club in its 35-year history. The Blue Jays pulled out all the stops Sunday, with Alomar’s No. 12 adorning the bag at second base and the turf behind home plate. The first 20,000 people through the turnstiles also received a commemorative bobblehead doll.
It has been a whirlwind week for Alomar, who along with former Jays general manager Pat Gillick was inducted to the Hall of Fame last weekend. He’s the first player to be enshrined wearing a Blue Jays hat.
“This is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life,” Alomar told reporters after the ceremony. “To share this moment with the fans and my family is emotional.”
Beeston put the honour in perspective.
“I predict it will be many years before another number is even considered (for retirement),” he told the crowd.
Added current Toronto infielder John McDonald, who as on stage with Alomar: “Every Blue Jay who is privileged enough to wear this uniform has your standard to live up to.”
The Blue Jays fed off the energy of the crowd, jumping out to an early lead as part of a 7-3 win.
“I think (the ceremony) took everybody back to a time when things were really rolling here,” Jays manager John Farrell said afterwards. “It was a great environment today.”
Alomar, who joined the Blue Jays along with outfielder Joe Carter in a December 1990 trade with San Diego for infielders Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez, might be best remembered for his ninth-inning home run in Game 4 of the 1992 American League Championship Series off Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley.
That hit helped put Toronto into its first World Series.
“When I was traded to Toronto I was blessed to come and play for a great city, a great organization, and to me, the greatest manager,” Alomar told the fans, referring to Gaston.
Although Alomar is the first Blue Jay to have his jersey retired, his No. 12 joins another at Rogers Centre. Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 in 1997.
Alomar’s .307 average remains the highest in Blue Jays history (minimum 200 plate appearances). He also ranks second all-time in steals. Alomar signed with the Baltimore Orioles after the 1995 season and went on to play with the Cleveland Indians, New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks.
In 17 seasons in the majors, Alomar batted .300 with 2,724 hits, 210 home runs, 474 steals and 1,134 RBIs. He was inducted into the Blue Jays Level of Excellence in 2008.
Despite all of his immaculate skills in the field and at the plate, Alomar was also involved in one of baseball’s ugly moments. As a member of the Orioles in 1996, he was suspended after spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck during a dispute in Toronto. The two later made up but it is an incident some fans refuse to forget.
But that misstep was all but forgotten Sunday, as Gaston put into words what many in the crowd were probably thinking.
“Robbie’s the greatest second baseman to ever play this game,” Gaston said on stage. “We’d like to thank you Robbie, for all that you’ve done for us.”