Altobelli deserving of statue in his honor
Long-time baseball man led Orioles to 1983 World Series title
Players who hit .210 in parts of three Major League seasons usually aren't honored with a life-size statue at a ballpark.
Joe Altobelli is an exception, and the honor he received earlier this month from the Rochester Red Wings baseball team couldn't have been more deserved.
Altobelli, 78, is "Mr. Baseball" in Rochester, N.Y., a city he has called home for 40-plus years, and where he has gained admiration as a player, manager, front office executive and announcer.
The Red Wings honored Altobelli prior to their Sept. 5 game when they unveiled a statue of the man called "Alto" in his 1971 Red Wings uniform near the entrance of Frontier Field.
"It's hard to imagine any one person having as much of an impact on so many aspects of an organization as Joe has had on the Rochester Red Wings," said Naomi Silver, the president of Rochester Community Baseball, Inc.
Most of Altobelli's playing career was at the Minor League, level but his dedication to the sport he loves should serve as an inspiration to those who seek a life-long involvement with the game.
Altobelli played 18 seasons in the Minor Leagues, from 1951-70, and despite putting up some significant power numbers at the Triple-A level (where he played nearly 1,500 games) he appeared in only 166 Major League games with Cleveland in '55 and '57, and Minnesota in '61.
Wanting to stay in the game after his playing career, Altobelli took on the manager's role in 1966 at the Rookie level and served 11 years in the Baltimore farm system, with his greatest success coming with the Rochester team from '71-76.
"I don't think I was really a good manager until about my fifth year," Altobelli said in a telephone conversation as he reflected on his career. "The first couple of years I was thinking more as a player. It takes time to learn what the real role of a manager is all about."
Altobelli finally got his chance to manage at the Major League level in 1977, but not with the Orioles, where Earl Weaver was firmly planted and in charge.
Altobelli's opportunity came with the San Francisco Giants, and despite a solid season with an 89-73 record in '78, he was let go after the following season.
"I joined the Yankees' organization at that point and wasn't sure I would get another opportunity to mange in the big leagues," recalled Altobelli. "I had a chance to be the Yankees' third-base coach and my only goal was to be the best third-base coach I could be."
When Weaver stepped down as the Baltimore manager after the 1982 season to finish a legendary 14-plus-year run as the Orioles' skipper, Altobelli became a somewhat surprise selection to manage the team.
"There were reports that John McNamara was going to get the job, but my name was mentioned by several people in the Orioles' front office and I got the chance to interview with general manager Hank Peters," recalled Altobelli. "We met at the airport in Pittsburgh and things went well and I got the opportunity to manage the Orioles."
In 1983, the soft-spoken and reserved Altobelli replaced the loud and fiery Weaver, and the result was a World Series victory for the Orioles.
"I think Earl quit a year too soon," Altobelli joked recently.
The contrast in managerial styles between Weaver and Altobelli serves as an interesting study today, particularly when as many as 10 Major League teams may be looking at new skippers for the 2011 season.
"In the years under Weaver, he would yell and scream and beat the fundamentals into you on a daily basis," recalled Rick Dempsey, the catcher on the Orioles in 1983 who became the MVP of the World Series.
"Joe came into manage and he was a [total] difference," said Dempsey. "Joe was soft-spoken and a contrast to Earl from that standpoint, but he had the respect of the players because he had managed many of them in the Orioles' system.
"It just shows that different approaches can produce championship teams."
"I think the big thing in managing is that you need to be yourself," said Altobelli. "As long as you remain consistent and you are honest with the players, you can enjoy success."
Altobelli said he looks back on his career and considers himself to be very fortunate.
Life-long baseball friends Don Zimmer and Jim Frey were in attendance when the bronzed statue of Altobelli was dedicated, and the veteran baseball man was surrounded by his six children and 20 grandchildren.
"You never think about having a statue in your honor when you start down a path in baseball," said Altobelli. "I only thought about doing the best job I could do in a game I love. That's all I ever wanted to do, just to do my best."
Giving the best of what you have to give and doing so with honesty is a lesson for everyone in the game.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice-President and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.