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Carlos Alfonso wears bifocals. That would not be a particularly unusual accouterment except that Alfonso wears his split cheaters beneath a catcher's mask. For the Giants. In the majors.
At the age of 46, Alfonso is clearly not who you'd expect to see hunkered down in the Candlestick bullpen. Most men of his years couldn't even crouch in a pair of shinguards, let alone pop up again. Plus, Alfonso has had surgery on both knees. But he is also in serious shape. Unlike more than a few Giants, not so much as the tread of a spare tire can be found beneath his double-knit jersey. And so, there he is, receiving 90 mph heat from the likes of Rod Beck, the scowling closer with the walrus mustache and the wild, white-man 'fro.
"I do pretty good for somebody my age," Alfonso says, puffing out his chest just a little and hitching his thumbs inside the black leather belt of his uniform. "I get a little sore the first few days of spring training, but after that I'm fine."
As the Giants' bullpen coach, Alfonso is about as close as you can get to being a big-league player without getting penciled into the lineup. When Manager Dusty Baker calls the bullpen, it is Alfonso who picks up the phone and signals the dugout once his relievers are ready to go.
Alfonso is more than just a traffic cop, however. He's often behind the bullpen plate warming up the pitchers himself, or he can be found at the fireman's elbow, reciting the book on likely hitters: This guy tries to pull the ball; this guy likes to go after the first pitch; this guy's a sucker for a breaking ball out of the strike zone. Alfonso also gets plenty of time behind the plate before games when he warms up the start-ing pitcher. For variety, he throws batting practice on the road.
It's easy to see why Alfonso's job is considered the most physically demanding coaching gig in the majors.
"I don't know if I could do what Carlos does every day," says Giants reliever Mark Dewey. "He has to catch some pretty nasty pitches out there from some pitchers who have really good stuff. It's not easy."
The loose fraternity of bullpen coaches around the league shares Alfonso's devotion to a role that lets them continue to participate in the game they love. Mark Cresse has been doing it for the Dodgers for the past 20 years. But at 55, the Baltimore Orioles' Elrod "Ellie" Hendricks is the dean of bullpen coaches, who are usually the lowest paid -- and most abused -- members of a team's staff.
"Oh yeah, my legs get sore, my arm gets sore, my back gets sore, but I've been a catcher all my life, and I still enjoy it," Hendricks says from his Kansas City hotel before a road game against the Royals. "The pitchers could help us out by having great control, but that's usually not the case. When a ball gets by, you have to put up with the fans yelling, 'Catch the ball, old man.' I just turn a deaf ear to it because I know nobody in the stands could do what I do. Just look at the way the fans flub up foul balls they try to catch."
"I've loved baseball as far back as I can remember," Alfonso says as he sits in front of his locker wearing only a pair of white compression shorts and a cup. (He has arrived at 9 a.m. for the Giants' 12:35 game with the Pirates.) "My first toys were bats and balls."
When Alfonso won an academic scholarship to study in the United States in 1961, he arrived in Miami and never went back to Cuba. His father, a New York Giants fan who hated the Yankees as much as his son loved them, had defected a few weeks earlier.
The Houston Astros made Alfonso their 10th pick in the 1968 June draft. Although signed as an infielder and a catcher, Alfonso soon found himself on the mound when the Astros' single A team in Williamsport, Pa., suffered a string of injuries in 1969. In Alfonso's first appearance, he hurled a two-hit shutout.
Alfonso picked up more than a new position in the minors. Doug Rader, the Astros' no-nonsense third baseman, decided one spring training that Alfonso would be known as "Fonz." "When Rader spoke, you listened," Alfonso remembers. "If he gave you a nickname, it stuck whether you liked it or not."
Wiry, intense, and meticulous, Alfonso did pretty well for himself in the minors, racking up 13 wins for Cocoa Beach in 1971 and making the American Association All-Star team in 1973, the same year he was named pitcher of the year in Venezuela for his winter ball performance.
But like Burt Lancaster's character, Doc Graham, in Field of Dreams -- who never got a chance to hit in the big leagues -- Alfonso's major-league experience was all too brief. He was called up to the Astros in 1974 after having knocked around the minors for nearly a decade. He lasted just two days, and he never threw a pitch. Alfonso was sent back down to the Denver Bears, the long bus rides, and the cheap hotel rooms.