By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (March 26, 2018) — Peter Kerasotis’ latest book chronicles Felipe Alou’s extraordinary life.
Some people know a lot about Alou’s decades in pro baseball. But even if you do, there’s a lot of background material that Kerasotis skillfully reveals chapter after chapter that presents greater clarity and thoughtful reflections from and about the former standout ballplayer, coach and and manger. It’s a fascinating and revealing look at the life that the Dominican pioneer has lived.
As a prolific columnist and sports feature writer for Florida Today for decades, Kerasotis produced literary gems and thought-provoking commentary time after time. This gifted storyteller does it again with a convincing argument that Alou’s biography will resonate with generations of readers.”
In other words, Alou’s story needed to be told.
Kerasotis recognized that years ago.
Or as he told me: “I knew this man had a book in him. I knew there were gold nuggets there. I didn’t realize until I got into his story that it was a gold mine.”
Days before this memoir, “Alou: My Baseball Life,” hits bookstores (official release on April), Kerasotis looked back on this major chapter, this major undertaking, in his own life over the past few years, what the work entailed and how it all came together.
This wide-ranging interview explains why the 82-year-old’s story needed to be recorded for the public.
First and foremost, what message do you hope the public takes from this book?
I hope people come away with a new, or perhaps a deeper, appreciation for how Felipe Alou was the Jackie Robinson of the Dominican Republic, how he opened the door for a country that now produces more MLB players than any other country outside the U.S. He was the first to go from Dominican soil to Major League Baseball, the first Dominican to play in the World Series and the first Dominican manager.
And here’s the kicker: he didn’t want to play baseball for a career. Felipe was at the University of Santo Domingo studying to become a doctor. He was offered 200 pesos to sign, but his parents refused. The second time he was offered the 200 pesos, all he could think about was how he knew his father owed the grocer 200 pesos. As the oldest of six children who grew up in a 15×15-foot shack, he signed so his father could pay the grocery bill. His reward was to experience the kind of racism in America he knew academically, but couldn’t fathom until he experienced it – racism from both white America and black America. Coming from a white mother and a black father, he wanted to quit and return to his studies. But he felt an obligation to live up to the contract he signed for 200 pesos and a desire to make a name for himself and his country. He certainly accomplished all three of those things, because two years after signing for 200 pesos he was playing in the outfield alongside Willie Mays.
When was the first time you met Alou? Do you recall any specific details? What were your initial impressions of him at that time?
Working as a sports columnist in Brevard County, Florida, I approached Felipe before a spring training game in March 2000, when he was the manager of the Montreal Expos. I knew he had started his career about 10 miles up the road in Cocoa, Florida. So I asked him if he remembered anything about that first season in the Florida State League in 1956.
Well, he remembered everything. Details. Statistics. Names. Anecdotes. What a mind, I remembered thinking immediately. He was thoughtful, engaging, enlightening. And such a regal, distinguished man. He had a presence about him.
The next couple of years, during spring training, I knew he was an easy column. I knew I could go to him with a topic and get my notebook filled with thoughtful, insightful opinions backed with facts.
I knew this man had a book in him. I knew there were gold nuggets there. I didn’t realize until I got into his story that it was a goldmine.
And what were your impressions of him in the years before that, watching him as a sports fan?
I knew that he and his brothers, Matty and Jesús, were very good major league players. I saw all three of them play as a kid – Jesús when he used to spring train in Cocoa, Florida, which is not far from my Merritt Island hometown, and Felipe and Matty late in their careers when they played for the Yankees. I knew he had some managing chops, as witnessed by the 1994 Expos. I also knew that for a Latino to get a major league managing job he had to be significantly better than the next guy. Obviously, I also knew about his son Moisés, an intense player whom I covered when he played for the Marlins.
Did you approach Felipe about this book idea, or did he reach out to you and ask you to tell his story? Or was it more of a mutual agreement that you two made a good match to work together?
I approached him through my friend Bruce Bochy, the manager of the San Francisco Giants. Felipe agreed to do the book and then backed away. This went back and for almost five years before Bochy and Felipe’s family got him to agree to the project. I’m glad they did. Felipe’s glad too. That I live about 3 hours from Felipe helped us, although working around our schedules dragged this project out to over two years.
How appreciative are you that legendary pitcher Pedro Martinez, a Latino sports icon, wrote the foreword for this book? How helpful is this in adding additional gravitas to the project for promotional purposes?
Pedro was agreeable to do the foreword but an absolute nightmare to try to get a hold of, or to get to return a phone call – and not just my phone calls, Felipe’s too. We were not without big names to do the foreword and give the book that gravitas that you mentioned. In fact, we were about to go in a different direction and names like Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and David “Big Papi” Ortiz were discussed. Finally, I got Pedro on the phone, but only for a quick 15-minute conversation. I knew right then that he was the guy to do the foreword. Of course, it took me almost a half year after that to finally pin him down. I love his foreword and a lot of people have mentioned it favorably to me. I’m glad we were persistent in getting him to do it. As it turned out, Torre, La Russa, Buck Showalter, Reggie Jackson, Bob Costas and Tom Verducci provided endorsement blurbs for the book.
From start to finish, how long was this project in the works?
The day after I got laid off as a sports columnist (from Florida Today), on August 12, 2011, I was at a Giants-Marlins game in Miami, sitting in Bochy’s office. He was really upset that I’d been laid off. I told him it was OK, that I was ready to move in other directions. That’s when I mentioned to him that I always thought Felipe Alou would be a good book. He looked at me and said, “You know he’s here.” I didn’t know it at the time, but Felipe lives in South Florida and works as a special assistant to the general manger. All of this is in the book’s acknowledgements. Long story short, Bochy texted me 15 minutes before the game to tell me that Felipe is interested. Thus began years of back and forth with him before late in 2015 when Bochy intervened. That’s when Felipe called me and said he was going to do the book and he wouldn’t back out. We met shortly thereafter at his home and began the process. After that it took us a couple of years, working on it on and off.
Did you visit the Dominican Republic as well, seeing Alou’s childhood surroundings? If so, how did that experience enrich your reporting and the overall narrative of the project?
We talked about visiting the DR with him, but we never could coordinate it. I wished I could have. I still hope to do so.
On the surface, people know Alou as a talented player and astute manager for decades. What are a few details, a few revealing nuggets, that hammer home these facts in your writings?
This guy has a mind and a memory like few people I’ve ever run across. Steve Spurrier is the same way. Felipe was doing analytics and sabermetrics in his head long before it came to computers. One of his daughter tells me he over-thinks things, and that can be a downfall. But for a field manager in baseball, it served him well. There is a whole chapter in the book about his managing philosophy and it’s fascinating. Pedro’s foreword also touches on Felipe’s baseball acumen. I have a friend, a retired college baseball coach, who tells me he learned a lot from just Pedro’s foreword and Felipe’s chapter on his managing philosophies.
How did writing a book with longtime Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams (“Extreme Winning: 12 Keys to Unlocking the Winner Within You”) help shape the approach you took for this project? Were there many similarities in the way you did the research and how you mapped out the interviews and writing? Or was a much different methodology the way you got the job done?
I’m thankful for the experience with my friend Pat Williams, because it was a good exercise in writing in someone else’s voice. That’s not easy to do. A couple of people who’ve already read the Alou autobiography have told me, unsolicited, that they felt as if they were listening to him. That really warmed my heart. Getting into someone else’s head, and voice, is not easy to do.
Another similarity is that I had to catch two busy men with brilliant minds whenever I could, and I would maximize my time with them, probing with questions, getting anecdotes, details, etc. That’s the beauty of a project like this. You really get into a person’s head and heart and life and no question is really off limits. You get to ask about things you’d never think to ask about at a polite dinner party.
Who were a few of the key sources that filled in the blanks on the lesser-known and well-known aspects of Alou’s life?
Felipe’s the kind of guy who doesn’t like to impose on others or ask any favors. As such, he didn’t want to call guys and ask them to be interviewed. The fact that he has an incredible memory sure helped. It’s not as if I needed someone to fill in the blanks.
He did, however, sit me down with Willie Mays a couple of spring trainings ago in Scottsdale, Arizona. Willie wasn’t very helpful – chatty, but not helpful – except for one nugget. When the three Alou brothers historically played in the same outfield together, it was Willie who facilitated it. Late in the game, Jesús replaced Willie McCovey in left field, which meant Willie as the center fielder was flanked by Jesús in left and Felipe in right. Between innings Willie told me he went to Giants manager Alvin Dark and told him to take him out and put Matty in center. “It was history,” he told me. “I told him to put Matty in center field because it was history being made by three brothers.” Willie was right. Never before or since has that happened. Felipe didn’t know Willie had done that, so that was a nice nugget to add to the narrative.
Did some of the game’s biggest legends of Alou’s era – Mays, Hank Aaron and Giants stars Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey – regal you with story after story about Alou’s career? How about his managerial counterparts?
Again, I think that was a real nugget from Willie Mays. Bochy, Torre and La Russa have incredible respect and admiration for Felipe. They love the man. I never talked to Leyland. I briefly met Cepeda but not McCovey. Buck Showalter tells a great story about how Felipe would deke him when they were both Class A managers. Most of those guys spoke in generalities, not so much anecdotally.
Was there an ordinary routine to when and where you would interview Alou for the project? Did he like to be interviewed at his home, for instance? Did you meet him, say, once a week for 3 hours of interviews? Did you see him many days in a row for long interview sessions? Was a lot of the interview material new from the 2010s? Did you also supplement a lot of it with your reporter/columnist archives from past decades in and around the game? Or did you want a fresh approach — that is, mostly new material — and new interviews after Alou retired, giving the book a reflective tone with Alou looking back at his baseball life?
Once he was committed to the project, I began driving down to his house in Boynton Beach, Florida, and spending the day, sometimes more than one day. It was like my Tuesday’s With Morrie sessions. Really. Felipe’s the kind of guy you’d climb mountains to get to, just to hear him espouse wisdom.
I never used a tape recorder. We just talked and I’d write things down on a legal pad and then come home and type out my notes. My mind works better that way. During that process I’ll jot down side notes of how I want the chapter to flow. Then I’d start writing, finishing a chapter and then having him read it. At that point, in Felipe’s editing process, it usually jogged some more details out of him, which was good. He was very hands on. Every word in that book passed through his eyes multiple times. Sometimes he’d call me and say that a word in a chapter we’d finished several weeks earlier wasn’t the right word he wanted to use. He was amazing that way.
Because he has such a busy schedule, traveling for the Giants, there was never any set times. When he was in town, I’d go spend time with him.
Most of my research beyond that was Googling him and reading magazine pieces. I read about a half-dozen other books from his contemporaries and such. Felipe also did a book for a religious publisher in the mid-’60s, which I read twice, the second time with a highlighter.
I kept a lot of notes compartmentalized into chapters. There were often times, in our discussions, when he’d reach back in his memory and touch on something from a period of time we had already covered. That would have me going back into a chapter to add another anecdote, which I never minded.
It was toward the end of the project, when we’d blown past the publisher’s deadline (always arbitrary, by the way) when I’d spend two, three days with him at a time, then staying at a nearby hotel so I could furiously write that night. I also spent a week with him during spring training in 2016 and 2017, living with him in his villa. That time was invaluable, not just for the information and work, but the bond it created.
What was Alou like in interview settings for a book? Did his mood bounce around from super serious to playful to introspective? Was he humorous? Long-winded (in his answers? A natural storyteller, remembering precise details of games and life moments) in 1965, 1975, 1985…up until his final days in an MLB dugout? Did he give you an “open book” on his life without restrictions on topics, questions, follow-up questions?
He was cautious at first, and then as a bond developed he relaxed more. He has a good sense of humor, but it’s not a dominant quality of his personality. He took the project seriously. He read and reread everything we did. He’s very intelligent, very literate and has a unique way of explaining and communicating things. Almost poetic at times. As the former reliever John Wetteland says, “He speaks in parables.”
There were tangents, there always is, but not long-winded. Sometimes he’d tell me a story and then follow it up with, “But that’s not good enough for the book.” And he was right. He has an incredible memory for detail, which as a writer I loved. For the most part I had an open book. But there were stories he told me that I wanted in the book that he refused. Or, perhaps, he’d allow them in but watered down. We had some battles. But there is a lot of raw emotion and searing anecdotes in this book. All in all, he really opened up about his life.
I often tell subjects like this, for a project this extensive, to turn on all the lights, don’t let me bump into furniture or guess where the couch is. Turn on all the lights and then we can dimmer the switch back on what they’re comfortable letting the reader see. Felipe’s mind-set is that he had no problem telling stories about himself, even if it cast him in a bad light, but he was reticent to draw other people into his life story. Those stories were usually the battles. I’d like to think I won most of them.
One of the things he said when he was going back and forth about doing the book was this: “If I do it, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to do it 100 percent. But I know if I do it that way it’s going to hurt people.” I found that to be very true as we got into some of the family history and the violent history of his country under the dictator Rafael Trujillo. I have no doubt or hesitation that what Felipe told me in our sessions was total truth, honest, genuine. Sometimes he’d tell me a story and then say, “No, no, I haven’t told you the whole story. Let me tell you the rest.” And he would. I think anybody who reads this book will quickly immerse themselves into his life, and find it incredible.
Who else did you interview for the book?
I did no other interviews. It’s his autobiography, not a biography, told through his eyes and memories. I got close to his one daughter, Maria, Moisés’ oldest sister, and she filled in some family history gaps for me. For the most part, it was almost entirely Felipe – live. The only time we worked on the book over the phone was to make some corrections or massages with a section in the transcript. Light stuff over the phone. No heavy lifting.
Through your writing and reporting, I’m curious how Juan Marichal views Alou’s impact on baseball in the Dominican Republic? I suspect they share a real mutual respect as Dominican trailblazers in the sport.
I never talked to Marichal, although in my research I read his book and Cepeda’s book. I also read several other books, including Willie Mays’ and Alvin Dark’s. I feel bad for Marichal and Cepeda, because their books are badly written, and they both deserved better. There is a bond there. Marichal in his book talks about how it was Felipe’s sisters who introduced him to his wife Alma, a girl who lived next door to the Alous.
I can tell you that Marichal, Cepeda, McCovey and a whole slew of black Americans and Latin American ballplayers – as well as white ballplayers – absolutely revere Felipe. Torre calls him a mentor. So does Bochy. Pedro Martinez speaks of him like a second father. It’s something to see when you see how they interact with him. When I was talking to ESPN’s Pedro Gomez at the MLB Winter Meetings last December, he pointed to Felipe as he was walking away from us and said, “That man walks on water.” That’s the way a lot of people view him.
How close were Roberto Clemente and Alou? They shared a tight bond, didn’t they? And how impressed was Felipe with Roberto’s career and the humanitarian deeds that ultimately marked the end of his life?
They were very close friends. Kindred spirits. There is a whole chapter about his close friendship with Clemente. In it is a beautiful story about the night they met and how they talked and talked and talked for hours, well into the night. The chapter ends with Felipe hearing on the radio that Clemente had died. He didn’t believe it until he heard it again. That’s when he pulled off the road and wept. And this is not a man who cries easily.
Alou made his MLB debut in 1958, only two years after Jackie Robinson’s retirement. And so, shortly after one colossally important chapter in the game’s history ended, another began. Did he draw some inspiration from Robinson?
Yes, he did. When he was a kid he actually saw Jackie play in the Dominican. Jackie’s first year with the Dodgers, they spring trained in the Dominican to get away from the glare of racism in America, and postpone it as long as they could. That’s when Felipe saw him. Growing up, Felipe understood racism academically, but Jackie helped him to understand it in a tangible way. He recalls seeing a picture in the newspaper in the Dominican that showed Jackie sitting in the Dodgers’ dugout, all alone, with all the white players sitting separate from him. That had an impact. Keep in mind that Felipe came from interracial parents, which is not a big deal in the Dominican, but in America, when Derek Jeter came on the scene 40-plus years later, it was a big deal. So in many ways the DR is way ahead of the U.S. as far as race relations are concerned. It was the racism that almost drove Felipe back to school and his dream of becoming a doctor.
Did Alou open up about his thoughts on post-(Fidel) Castro Cuba and the nation’s future in baseball and stronger ties with MLB?
Yes. This book has a lot of political elements to it – about his country, America and Cuba. Being a Dominican citizen means he can freely travel to Cuba, but he never has. His thought process is that if Cuban people can’t freely travel to and from the island, he won’t either. It’s a very noble mind-set that he has. In this way he believes he’s honoring Cuban baseball players. He also hosted a series in the Dominican for the Cuban players after Castro came into power, defying the orders of MLB commissioner Ford Frick in doing so. He wanted to help the Cuban players, who were now exiled because of Castro. Frick fined him, but he refused to pay the fine and refused to allow the Giants pay the fine. There is a lot more in the book about that Caribbean region, things I never knew, like when President Lyndon Johnson sent upwards of 42,000 U.S. troops to occupy the Dominican Republic, fearful that the island was going to elect a communist leader. I have to laugh sometimes when people complain that Russia might have meddled in U.S. politics. Unprovoked, the U.S. occupied Felipe’s country and even occupied his parents’ home, turning it into a military base, causing his parents to flee. This is a part of U.S. history you don’t read in our history books, but it’s very much a part of Dominican history.
As you describe his life, does Alou feel honored that he was a trailblazer for the great collection of Dominican ballplayers that followed him in MLB? Is he overfilled with pride about this? Or quiet humble, only discussing it if it’s brought up in conversations with him?
He’s proud, but it’s a quiet proud. In his house you’ll find very little that hints at a long and distinguished baseball career. He was also careful to acknowledge Ozzie Virgil Sr., who is not really a full-blooded Dominican, but who was born in the Dominican Republic and mostly grew up in the Bronx, NY. So while Felipe is the first to go from Dominican soil to Major League Baseball, he wanted us to make sure to mention that Ozzie was the first Dominican-born player to make it to the major leagues. He has a strong measure of pride, but not ego, if that makes sense.
Are you able to converse at a fairly decent level in Spanish? If so, how helpful was that in gaining access to a broader range of sources on Alou?
Felipe is bilingual. I’m not. He’s also well-read and very literate. His accent can be heavy, so I didn’t like to do work over the phone. But face to face we rarely had any trouble communicating. I have, however, found myself learning more and more Spanish.
How much of an impact has Alou made as a special assistant to Giants GM Brian Sabean, especially in the success of the organization during its recent string of three World Series titles?
He is not a figurehead. Not in the least. Sabean and the brain trust rely on him heavily to evaluate their own players as well as players they might be looking at via trade or free agency. They’d be foolish not to tap into him in that way. And Brian Sabean is anything but foolish. Felipe does a lot of teaching and coaching. It’s something to see when he holds court. Players flock around him to hear what he has to say. Felipe wears a World Series ring, and believe me it’s earned.
Here’s my interview with Peter Kerasotis from November 2013 about his journalism career: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/getting-to-know-peter-kerasotis-2/
Follow him on Twitter: @PeterKerasotis