When Yonder Alonso returned home to Miami last month with the Oakland A’s, he had just climbed into the lead in fan voting to be the American League’s starting first basemen in the All-Star Game at Marlins Park.
“It’s nice that fans are obviously doing all they can,” Alonso said. “I think individually it’s pretty cool. But [the final selection is] so far away it’s not in my head. I’m not really thinking about it. I’m worried about tonight. My concern is playing the game of baseball and playing it today, getting a ‘W.’”
Alonso, 30, ended up finishing fourth in the fan vote, with Toronto’s Justin Smoak (.302, 22 HR, 52 RBI) selected to start.
But Alonso’s dream of making his first All-Star team and playing the game in his hometown still became a reality on Sunday when he was selected as an All-Star reserve by the players. When A’s manager Bob Melvin broke the news to him a half-hour before the game, the former University of Miami and Coral Gables High standout broke out into tears.
For Alonso, the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, the emotions came from two real and raw places.
One, from the tough, injury-riddled eight-year career he’s overcome. And two, the fact he will get to share his All-Star experience with his father, Luis, who sacrificed his own baseball career in Cuba to help the family escape the island when Yonder was only eight years old.
“I told my Dad I’m gonna try to make him be a player as much as I am, and enjoy the festivities as much as I am,” Alonso said in Oakland on Sunday. “He’ll definitely get to enjoy the moment.”
In a touching first-person letter to his younger self for The Players Tribune back in April, Alonso detailed how his father woke him, his mother, and younger sister Yainee (now married to Orioles third baseman Manny Machago) up in the middle of the night and rushed them into a small propellor plane to escape communist Cuba with only the clothes on their backs and Yonder’s tiny stickball bat.
Then, after arriving in Miami with very little money and depending on Luis’ friend to help them out, his parents worked multiple jobs to support him and his sister as they shared a tiny one-bedroom home. On many nights while his parents were busy cleaning toilets, warehouses and office buildings, Alonso would be the one in charge of cooking dinner for himself and his sister, who would end up sleeping on a rickety sofa bed.
The family’s dinner menu often included microwaved hot dogs, popcorn or eggs. Some weeks, when his father would stock up on 39-cent cheeseburgers from McDonald's, Alonso said he and his sister would eat cold cheeseburgers the rest of the week for lunch at school.
Later on, when he got older, Alonso would come back from college baseball road trips while playing for UM and spend all night helping his father clean warehouses and office buildings.
When Alonso played in Miami last month, he talked a lot about how a trip to Cuba this past December brought back a lot of his childhood memories and inspired him to share his story on the Players Tribune. In a way, he said, he feels like he’s carrying a torch for Cubans who have to scrap and fight for everything they get.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” A’s reliever Sean Doolittle told reporters Sunday in Oakland.
“He came into spring training after working really hard this offseason to make some adjustments to add that power stroke to his game. It’s awesome to see a guy like that, who's been in the league for a little while, to go play in his first All-Star Game. And to have it be at home where he’s from, you can’t write it any better than that.”
Prior to this season, Alonso had never hit more than nine homers in a single season. He entered Tuesday batting .280 with 17 homers and 38 RBI.
Most credit Alonso’s drastically improved power numbers to mechanical adjustments with his swing, which have produced a more dramatic launch angle. Alonso said last month he’s not trying to hit more home runs. He said he’s just trying to hit the ball hard and drive it more.
Although Alonso, his wife Amber and 18-month-old son Troy live in Miami in the offseason, he said he would love to one day play in his hometown so his parents could come see him play on a regular basis. Most of the time, they only see him when the A’s play on the East Coast in places like Tampa and New York.
That’s why next week’s All-Star festivities will mean so much to him. Not only is he playing at the top of his game, but he’s also doing it right where he wants to be — at home with his father and his family close by.
“For me, I always knew the player I was and am and I’m getting better at it,” said Alonso, who will enter free agency this winter having already played for the Reds, Padres and A’s and having earned a little less than $13 million in his career.
“Injuries were obviously a key to slowing me down. I had big-time injuries with my wrist and then a couple things with my back and then my shoulder blade, which I broke when I was hit by a pitch. I’ve had a lot of ups and a lot of downs. But I think for me what’s never changed is my mentality and the player that I think I can be.”