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They Are Two Who Got Away : Baseball: Former Padres Baerga, Alomar Jr. head for stardom with the Cleveland Indians.

March 16, 1992|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUCSON, Ariz. — Tom Romenesko, the former Padre farm director, talked in a hushed, somber tone. His voice barely could be heard above the vendors hawking goods in the stands.

All the while, he never took his eyes off the field where the Cleveland Indians and the San Diego Padres were playing an exhibition game recently.

"It never should have happened," Romenesko said with a grimace. "We never should have let them get away. Those were two of the greatest kids we ever had in our organization, and they had so much talent it was scary.

"You look back now, and you wonder. You wonder how things would have been different. You look now, and I'm sure these guys (the new front office) are asking themselves how we ever let those guys go.

"They've got to be crying more than anyone."

There they stood, catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., and infielder Carlos Baerga, two of the finest young players in the game today. Both in a different league. Both wearing Cleveland uniforms.

They served as a painful reminder of the trade that haunts the Padre organization.

If the Padres had not traded Baerga, no one in San Diego ever would have heard of Jim Presley, Marty Barrett or Mike Pagliarulo. Baerga, 23, whom the Padres signed out of Puerto Rico, could have been playing third base for San Diego well into the next decade.

If the Padres had not traded Alomar, they certainly would not find themselves in the predicament today with catcher Benito Santiago. They would have an All-Star catcher, and they would not agonize over how they'll trade Santiago before he leaves through free agency.

Instead, with no prospects in sight for at least two years, the Padres must get by with Craig Worthington or Tim Teufel at third and Tom Lampkin or Dann Bilardello behind the plate once Santiago leaves.

"If I were them," Baerga said, "I wouldn't be feeling too good right about now."

Alomar and Baerga, each of whom were signed at the age of 17, were traded to the Indians along with outfielder Chris James for outfielder Joe Carter Dec. 6, 1989.

"Some trades work, some don't," Padre General Manager Joe McIlvaine said. "All I can say is that when they traded Alomar, they should have signed Benny to a longterm contract.

"But you can't worry about what might have been."

"Who knows for sure what would have happened," said Romenesko, who now works for the Mets. "All I know is that Baerga and Alomar should still be in the Padre organization. I'm afraid the wrong catcher was traded, and Baerga never should have been in that trade in the first place.

"That's the sad part."

Carlos Baerga was sitting in the visiting clubhouse in Puerto Rico when Romenesko told him he'd been traded. Baerga began crying.

Baerga couldn't believe it. He had just come off a great season at triple-A Las Vegas, batting .275 with 74 runs batted in. He was tearing up the Puerto Rico winter league, in which he would earn co-MVP honors by batting .341 with four homers and 35 RBIs in 50 games.

He was only 21. And the Padres were trading him?

"You feel mad; I still am," he said. "When you sign with a team, you want to stay with that team your whole life. I was always happy there. I loved San Diego, and wanted to play there forever.

"They never gave me the chance."

Considering that the Indians might have made the trade without Baerga, the repercussions have been horrifying.

Baerga, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound switch-hitter, has been everything the Indians envisioned. He was voted the Indians' "Man of the Year," last season, batting .288 with 11 homers and 69 RBIs in his first full major league season.

He became only the fifth player in baseball history to play at least 75 games at second base and third base. He had the third-highest assist rate in the American League at third base, and the second-highest assist rate at second.

He was moved to second base for good July 23, and made an immediate impact in the Indians' infield. The Indians turned only 62 double plays in the first 90 games while Baerga started at third, but after moving to second, the Indians turned 88 double plays in 72 games.

It's hard to believe he averaged 32 errors a season in his four-year minor league career with the Padres.

"There were times when I didn't even want the ball hit to me," Baerga said. "After I'd make an error, I'd be afraid. But when I got over here, they tell me the only guys who don't make errors are the guys sitting on the bench. If you play, you're going to make errors. You just have to learn from them."

The Indians showed how they feel about Baerga last week when they signed him to a three-year, $3.9-million contract, with a one-year option in 1995 for $3.3 million.

"It was unbelievable," Baerga said. "When they told me they wanted to sign me for three years, I opened my eyes, and said, 'Wow!'

"I can get hurt, and still be set for life."

Alomar, who also was signed out of Puerto Rico, was in the organization only three years before the debate began to rage. Who would the Padres trade? Alomar or Santiago?

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