By Bob Elliott
Sandy Alomar won’t forget the first time he met Ross Atkins.
The Cleveland Indians catcher was on a rehab assignment with the double-A Akron Aeros in 1999 and the new Blue Jays general manager was 60 feet, six inches away.
There was only one problem.
“Ross had a great curve ball, but he kept spiking it at about 45 feet,” said Alomar, an Indians coach, from Dallas on Thursday. “He was beating me up with balls in the dirt.”
Alomar, who had a bad knee and was rehabbing at Akron for 10 games.
“I only caught him once,” Alomar said. “And I won’t forget it. We talk about it all the time, Ross will say ‘Remember when I beat you up?’ He said he felt so bad bouncing all those pitches in the dirt. Man he crushed me.”
The Blue Jays have moved from one bilingual general manager to another.
Alex Anthopoulos, who brought the Jays to their first post-season appearance since 1993, spoke English and French.
Atkins, the franchise’s sixth GM, speaks English and Spanish.
The hire was not a surprise as his name emerged in late October as the choice of new Jays president Mark Shapiro, late of Cleveland, to replace Anthopoulos. Atkins arrives in time for this weekend’s start of the annual winter meetings as the Jays prepare for their 40th season trying to improve on falling two wins shy of the World Series.
“He speaks decent Spanish,” Alomar said, “and he really cares about the Latino players. He makes sure players get everything they need, that are not any problems.”
From 2004-2006, Atkins was the Indians director of Latin American operations.
“Ramon Pena and he would go deep into the Caribbean checking on our academy, looking for players,” Alomar said. “Ross knows how to interact in Spanish.”
And with Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Marco Estrada and Roberto Osuna back there are players to converse with.
Are the Jays the team to beat in the American League East?
“No one can tell the future,” Alomar said. “David Price was a huge loss, but they can still pound people. They still have Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Devon Travis, Bautista and Encarnacion.
“Ross is prepared. Shaprio and he have a good relationship.”
Alomar said Atkins would ask questions as minor league director after the former all-star catcher returned from one of his many major-league managing job interviews.
“He wanted to know questions a future manager can expect so he could prepare his minor league staff in case they had an opportunity, so they knew what to look for,” Alomar said. “Everyone under the umbrella of the Cleveland Indians is being prepared to be GM some day.”
Indian employees have moved to GM jobs: Neal Huntington with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Josh Byrnes, San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks, Paul Depodesta, Los Angeles Dodgers, Dan O’Dowd Colorado Rockies, Shapiro and Atkins.
And zero World Series.
“Ross is very open minded, always smiling, open to suggestions and he let’s you have your say,” said Alomar.
So, why when Chris Antonetti was promoted to president replacing Shapiro, was Mike Chernoff and not Atkins named new Indians GM?
Alomar said it was a good question, but Chernoff was bumped up a notch from assistant GM, while Atkins was vice president, player personnel.
A class-A South Atlantic League manager in 1996 often went against the Columbus Red Stixx and their leading winner Atkins (11-10, 3.93 in 28 starts). Now a scout the ex-manager has bumped into Atkins often watching the Indians farm clubs.
“Ross is quiet it’s not like when scouts like Billy Scherrer, Charlie Kerfeld or the late Jim Fregosi who would walk in and their personality would fill a room,” said the scout. “Ross is a former player so he’s gets it. He had some success in the minors, he’s well educated -- going to Wake Forest -- he worked his way up and has done the grunt work.
The scout saw Atkins as a “very smart, knowledgeable, baseball man,” and liked some of ideas Cleveland did in the minors.
“They would feed their players at the clubhouse rather than having them eat two or three meals at McDonald’s,” said the scout. “The Indians were at the forefront of nutrition in the minors.”
A 38th rounder, Atkins rode the buses all the way to double-A, worked in player development department including Latin America for 15 seasons for the Indians and was interviewed for the Los Angeles Angels GM job.
And now he takes over the defending AL East champs.