Far Yonder Power
Alonso's bat will get him noticed this June
MIAMI—He is from the same high school as Mike Lowell, has been compared to Tino Martinez and worked out for three weeks this past offseason with Alex Rodriguez.
He is Cuban native Yonder Alonso, Miami's slugging junior first baseman. Through 30 games, Alonso is hitting .362/.537/.660 with six homers and 29 RBIs, leading the Hurricanes to a 27-3 record and a No. 1 national ranking.
One of his biggest moments came recently. On Friday, he blasted a two-run, walk-off home run to beat Clemson, 6-4, in the ninth inning. The lefthanded-hitting Alonso hit the ball an estimated 450 feet, delivering it to the third floor of the parking garage that sits beyond the right-field fence.
It was the first walk-off homer of Alonso's college career. He also had a walk-off single against Wake Forest as a freshman.
"I can't feel my legs; I can't feel my head," an exuberant Alonso said after the Clemson game. "I feel on top of the world right now."
Alonso is also near the top of draft boards. In Baseball America's midseason list of the top 50 prospects—college or high school—for the 2008 draft, Alonso ranked No. 13.
An American League scout, who watched the Clemson performance, said he rates Alonso the No. 1 hitter in college this year. He also said that on the 20-80 scouting scale, Alonso is a 70 fielder.
"He doesn't run great," the scout said. "But he doesn't need to. The way he hits, he can trot."
Roots In The Game
Alonso comes from a baseball family. His father, Luis, was a catcher/first baseman for Industriales, considered the New York Yankees of Cuba.
When Luis and his wife Damaris had their first child in Havana, they "invented" the name Yonder. Years later, they learned how the English meaning of the name fit their son's far-away power.
"On the road, fans will tease me about my name," Alonso said. "They'll say, 'What were your parents thinking?' But I think it's special."
Equipped with his unique name, Alonso soon became a regular at his dad's games. The boy began playing as soon as he could walk, but since this was poverty-stricken Cuba, new equipment was scarce.
"The few baseballs Yonder got, he had to guard like gold," Luis Alonso said in Spanish. "When he tore the cover off, we just taped it up. The same with his glove. He had to sleep with that glove because he couldn't afford to lose it."
When Yonder was 7 years old, his life of struggle and simple pleasures gave way to hope and potential treasures.
On Feb. 10, 1995, Damaris' father, who had fled Cuba in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, successfully petitioned the government to let his daughter and her family—Luis, Yonder and younger sister Yainee—join him in the United States.
Alonso quickly learned English and enjoyed a brilliant prep career. After a freshman year at Archbishop Carroll, Alonso starred at Coral Gables, Lowell's alma mater. And just like Lowell, Alonso played third base at the time.
In four years of prep ball, Alonso was a three-time all-Miami Dade player and twice was named to the all-state team, hitting over .400 every season and totaling 20 homers and 116 RBIs.
When it came time for the draft, teams such as the Reds, Pirates, Twins, Mets and Diamondbacks started calling in the fourth round, offering as much as $180,000. Alonso wanted to sign, but his father disagreed.
"I didn't care about the money," Yonder said. "I just wanted to play and prove to them that I was worth that and more."
The Twins finally drafted him in the 15th round and eventually increased their offer to $300,000, including college tuition money, but the Alonsos still said no.
"After they take out taxes and the agent gets his cut," Luis Alonso said, "what are you going to do with the rest? Buy a Toyota?"
Luis Alonso figured the Miami education was worth more than the Twins' final offer. And Yonder's development makes it a lock that he will get a much larger offer this summer.
Alonso's draft value stems from his power, clutch hitting, consistency and durability—he has started every game since arriving at UM and immediately shifting to first base.
As a freshman, he led the team in homers (10) and RBIs (69). As a sophomore, he was either first or tied for first in the ACC in homers (18), RBIs (74) and walks (64). He's drawn 38 walks and struck out just 15 times so far in 2008.
Big League Aspirations
Alonso earned a comparison to former major league first baseman Tino Martinez because both hit lefthanded and throw righthanded. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Alonso's stature is similar to the long-time Mariner and Yankee. Martinez also played his college ball in Florida (Tampa).
"If I could have as good a career as Tino Martinez, I would be happy," said Alonso of the player who hit 339 homers in 16 big league seasons. "He was a great player."
An even greater player is Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who mentored Alonso this past offseason.
Rodriguez, who played his high school ball in Miami, has donated millions to the Hurricanes' baseball program and works out at UM in the offseason. Alonso heard that A-Rod's workouts begin at 5 a.m., so he showed up early and introduced himself.
"I told him what I was about and that I wanted to do whatever workout he did—and beat him if I could," Alonso said. "He thought that was pretty funny, so he let me tag along."
The grueling workouts would typically last until noon, seven days a week.
"He doesn't take any breaks," said Alonso, who remembers winning one 40-yard race against A-Rod.
The two have remained close, talking twice a week, including a call after the walk-off homer against Clemson.
Alonso is majoring in criminology and could see himself one day as crime-scene investigator, like the actors on TV's "CSI: Miami."
But his main goal now is CWS Omaha.
"If we get to the College World Series and don't win," Alonso said, "it's pointless."
Walter Villa is a freelance writer based in Miami.