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Polonia Determined to Shine . . . On and Off Field

April 04, 1993|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Luis Polonia steps out of the shower, slaps cologne on his face, and stands in front of the mirror trying to figure out his ensemble for the night.

He reaches into the top drawer and puts a gold chain around his neck. Then another. The third, the one with the diamond-laced cross, goes on last.

He looks into the mirror, realizes something still is lacking, and finds the missing piece. Ah, the diamond earring. It goes on his left ear.

Now that everything looks fine at the top, it's time to work on the arms and hands. He places a diamond-and-gold chain on his left wrist, and a New York Yankee ring on his third finger.

For the right hand, he puts on a thick gold bracelet, a watch, and a thin gold chain. He decides to leave his fingers bare.

"I used to wear everything together," Polonia said, "but I decided that doesn't look good. So I change my jewelry like I change my clothes. I spend $5,000, maybe $10,000 every year in jewelry alone."

Polonia admires himself, starts to walk out of the bedroom for the night, and stops. The pager. He grabs a small black pager and hooks it on his belt.

Wearing a $200 Italian sweater, an $80 pair of designer jeans and a $150 pair of shoes, Polonia climbs into his new glistening-red sports car, and is all set for the night.

Hello world, it's Luis Polonia.

Will you please take notice?

"My dream is to be recognized wherever I go," Polonia said. "I want to be famous. I don't want people to think I'm just another ballplayer, another .300 hitter.'

"I want people to say, 'There goes Luis Polonia, one of the best bleeping left fielders in this whole bleeping game.'

"That's what I want people to say."

Polonia actually has no idea what the fans think of him. He rips open his fan mail each day, signs the baseball cards and tosses the letters away without reading them.

Polonia, 28, has not read fan mail the last three years. Too painful, he says. Although there might be a hundred letters of adoration in one stack, it's not worth the aggravation of reading the handful that cause the anguish.

"I'm sorry I don't read the letters," he said. "I know there are a lot of nice people out there, but there's a lot of bad people too. I just can't do it."

It's the memories of the Aug. 16, 1989, night in Milwaukee, while Polonia was playing for the Yankees, that refuse to vanish. It was an innocent mistake, Polonia says, that continues to haunt him.

Polonia was arrested that night for having sex with a 15-year-old girl. She lied to him about her age, Polonia said, and he believed her.

He paid dearly. Polonia was sentenced to 60 days in jail, and fined $1,500. He recently reached an out-of-court settlement to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the girl's family.

"I learned my lesson," he said. "I got tricked and paid the price for it.

"Now, I don't care how old women say they are. If you want to be with me, you better show your I.D. If you don't have it, I'll see you later. The only ones I don't ask are the women in the bar.

"If they're in a bar, they fooled a lot more people than me."

Polonia, who is the father of five children, each by a different mother, realizes that his social life may repress his popularity. No one realizes he supports all five kids, and has three houses and an apartment to ensure that everyone has a place to stay.

"I don't want my kids in the street with nothing to eat," said Polonia, one of the nine children raised by Luciano and Luz Maria Polonia. "They have a dad that is responsible for them. All five of them have my last name. They're mine, and I tell their mothers to make sure you let them know they're mine.

"I'll do anything for my kids. I'm not just some jerk out there."

Polonia, who lives in the off-season with his family, is very much a folk hero in his hometown of Santiago City, Dominican Republic. He can't walk the streets without people rushing over to shake his hand, talking to him about baseball.

"In the Dominican," he says, "people recognize me more than the president. People know me everywhere. The whole country knows my face. It's beautiful."

Polonia has been craving this attention since he was a 12-year-old in the Dominican Republic, telling everyone he would be in the major leagues one day. He even began teaching himself English, knowing he'd need it once he was playing baseball in the United States.

"Luis always has been very confident of himself," says teammate Stan Javier, who considers Polonia one of his best friends. "He's very tough mentally. He loves someone to challenge him, because he knows he'll always win."

Now, Polonia is telling whoever will listen that he no longer wants to be recognized as one of the best leadoff hitters in the American League. He wants people to realize, for once, that he's also one of the best defensive left fielders in the game.

"Every year I buy all these magazines, look at all the TV shows, and they all say the same thing," Polonia said. "They talk about my defense, saying I'm a poor defensive outfielder.

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