Albert Almora Places Focus On The Future
Albert Almora was 3 years old when he saw a baseball park and told his father he wanted to play the sport. When Albert Sr. started hitting him ground balls, however, Almora had a different idea.
"Papi, no grounders," Almora said. "Hit flies."
And thus an outfielder was born.
Fourteen years later, Almora is a senior center fielder for Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., and could be on the cusp of a million-dollar payday as a potential first-round draft pick in June.
Mater, which has been open for grades 6-12 since only 2003, has had big-time baseball players on its campus before. The Lions had Orioles 2010 first-round pick Manny Machado—Almora's close friend—until ninth grade, when he transferred to Miami's Brito Private School. Mater also had Peter O'Brien, who left during his junior year and later blossomed as a catcher at Bethune-Cookman. He was a 2011 third-round draft pick who declined to sign and has now transferred to Miami.
"It may have been the greatest little JV team around," Mater coach Eddie Gorriz said.
Gorriz's 2012 varsity team is not too bad, either. Mater has two Miami recruits: outfielders Almora and junior Willie Abreu. The left side of the infield has a pair of Florida International recruits: junior third baseman J.C. Escarra and senior shortstop Rey Ordonez, son of the former major leaguer of the same name.
The pitching is less proven. Almora, who has been clocked at 93 mph off the mound, would be an enticing option, but Gorriz said he won't threaten Almora's potential pro career just to win a high school game.
"I don't want his legacy to be high school baseball," he said. "I want him and all my players to go on to bigger and better things."
That seems certain to happen for Almora, who led Team USA's 18-and-under squad to a gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Championships in Cartagena, Colombia, last November. Almora earned MVP honors, leading the team with a .421 average, six extra-base hits and 11 RBIs.
But he returned home to heartbreak when he found out that both his grandparents—who lived with him, his mother and father—had died. Tomasa Sosa, 88, died one day after he left. His grandfather, Juan Sosa, 94, died one day before he returned.
"It was real tough," said Almora, 17. "My parents didn't want to worry me while I was in Colombia. But once I got back and didn't see them in their room . . . It went from being happy about a great tournament to my parents telling me the news."
Focusing On The Field
Almora broke down in tears, and when he went to the viewing for his grandparents he took his gold medal and placed it in his grandfather's casket. It was buried with him.
"They were the best human beings ever," Almora said. "Every night after dinner, my grandfather would make my favorite dessert—guava with cream cheese. I wouldn't even have to ask. He would bring it to me."
Almora said he hasn't had the treat since he got back home. He's still grieving, though he has also kept himself busy with baseball, where he is a young star.
Of the top high school seniors in the nation, Almora is ranked seventh by Baseball America, 14th among all draft prospects. In June, he could face a tough decision between pro ball and the Hurricanes.
"I don't have control over the draft, but I look at it as a win-win situation," Almora said. "Playing for UM has always been a dream. But I'm going to be playing baseball either way."
Almora, a 6-foot-2, 175-pounder, has been starting at Mater since the eighth grade. He was 5-foot-6 and 110 pounds at the time, but Gorriz realized his talent right away.
"You see him play center field, and your jaw drops," Gorriz said. "I was going to start him his seventh-grade year, but he was so thin. I thought that if he got hit by a ball, it might break him."
When Almora was young, his father built a backyard batting cage and an obstacle course that featured cones and 45 feet of rope climbing.
"My dad doesn't like bench pressing and lifting heavy weights," said Almora, who trained seven days a week from age 4-15 before finally earning Sundays off. "He believes in lifting my body weight: pull-ups, push-ups and rope climbing."
The methods have worked so far, as evidenced by the pop in Almora's bat. But it's his defense that really earns raves. Gorriz said Almora loves to play shallow to take away bloop singles, while still being able to race back to run down deep flies. In fact, the coach swears Almora once caught a 400-foot blast—on a dead run—with his bare hand.
Almora confirms what would seem to be a tall tale. "I can easily play a nine-inning game without a glove," Almora said, sounding more confident than arrogant. "I found the perfect technique."
Almora said he started practicing barehand grabs at age 11, when he was bored with merely using his glove to snag fly balls. His father, a native of Havana, Cuba, threw Almora's glove to the side and hit him a bucket of balls sans mitt.
Two years later, Almora was playing for Team USA. He has won five gold medals, including a 16-and-under win over Cuba in the Junior Olympics final in Taiwan.
"It's always tough when you go to a third-world country and face that kind of adversity," Almora said. "The fans were yelling at us, calling us 'gringos' and telling us to go back to our country. It was great to endure that and still come out victorious. It was an honor."
An honor he will forever dedicate to his grandparents.
Walter Villa is a freelance writer based in Miami. Contributing: Alexis Brudnicki.