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Almon is now a joy

Bill Almon's sweet season for Chicago is making his former teams look like nuts

Merry Christmas, said the Mets last December, we're releasing you. So Bill Almon, home for the holidays in Warwick, R.I., had a decision to make. He could go into his family's medical-supply business, make use of his B.A. from Brown by opening a sociology store, or give baseball one more try. In matters such as these, the whole Almon clan has its say, and on the Sunday after Christmas, Ted and Gloria, their sons Ted, Bob, Bill and John, their daughters Mary and Anne-Marie and all of the children's spouses gathered in mom's and pop's living room and talked things over. They sent Bill back to baseball with their blessings. "It's terrible to grow old saying, 'What if?' " says the elder Ted in explaining the decision.

Now there are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Almon, who plays for the Chicago White Sox, is the best shortstop in the American League this year. As of last Sunday he was the leader at his position in batting average (.309) and stolen bases (14) and was second to Milwaukee's Robin Yount in RBIs (39). And as if the White Sox don't quite believe it, he was still hitting ninth in the order. The long and lanky—6'3", 190 pounds—Almon also has fielded with the aggressive grace and consistency of a Marty Marionette. Eat your hearts out, Mets, Expos and Padres.

"There's no doubt we're more competitive this year," says Chicago Manager Tony LaRussa, "and there's no doubt that Bill's a major reason for that." Almon's teammates concur in that assessment. Last Friday night they were marking their ballots in a poll to name the season's outstanding players in the American League. The rules said they couldn't vote for fellow White Sox, and it killed them not to put Almon down twice—for shortstop and Comeback Player of the Year.

Such nice things used to be predicted for Almon. Back in 1971 he was approached by many big league teams interested in drafting him out of high school, but the family voted 7-1, with brother Ted the only dissenter, that Bill should go to college. Although San Diego picked him in the 10th round, he went to Brown, which had a baseball tradition that included only one major-leaguer of note, Irving (Bump) Hadley, who pitched for six different teams between 1926 and 1941.

After Almon set many school records and became an All-America his junior year, the Padres made him the No. 1 choice in the 1974 draft. The Almon family members also decided at the time that they wouldn't use an agent to negotiate the contract, as sort of a gesture against greed.

Almon was San Diego's shortstop of the future for three years. The future got a jolt in April of '76 when Almon was hit by a double-play throw from his first baseman on the Padres' Hawaii farm team, Joe Pepitone, as a runner was going into second. The ball deflected off the runner's shoulder and struck Almon in the face, knocking him unconscious. He went into convulsions and "swallowed" his tongue, and only the quick action of the opponent's trainer and two of his teammates saved his life. But Almon finished the season batting .291, and to this day he has never backed off as the middleman in a double play.

In 1977 Almon and Mike Champion were proclaimed San Diego's shortstop and second baseman for the next 10 years. To celebrate the occasion, the first thing the Padres did was change Almon's old upright batting style to a crouch. "They thought that because I was a shortstop, I should hit like a shortstop," says Almon. "Choke up, slap at the ball. I didn't argue. These were professionals and I was just out of college." Almon had a good year, batting .261, stealing 20 bases and leading the league in putouts and sacrifice hits.

The Padres, however, had another shortstop coming up—the brilliant Ozzie Smith. So the next spring Manager Alvin Dark made Almon a second baseman. He stayed there until Dark lost his job just before the season began and new manager Roger Craig moved Almon to third. However, Craig complained that Almon didn't hit like a third baseman—another example of baseball stupidity—and the next spring returned him to second as a reserve. Thereafter Almon was labeled a utility infielder and the label stuck. Champion, meanwhile, had disappeared from the majors.

In 1980 Almon was traded to the Expos along with Dan Briggs for Dave Cash. "The first day, Dick Williams called me into his office and told me the Expos had been trying to get me for two years," says Almon. "The next time he talked to me was July 1 when he said he wanted to send me down to Triple-A."

As a three-year man, Almon had the option of accepting the demotion or becoming a free agent, so he chose to shop his services around. He even hired an agent on a temporary basis. Cincinnati, Oakland, Seattle and San Francisco expressed interest, but Almon picked the lowly Mets because he thought he would have a better opportunity of playing for them. But his bad luck continued. He strained some tendons in his throwing hand and sprained his back. Nonetheless the Mets asked him to play hurt because their second baseman, Doug Flynn, had a broken wrist. "I agreed, even though I knew I was only 70%," Almon says. "At least I could give them 100% of my 70%, and I thought they understood." He batted only .170 for the Mets in 48 games.

After last season Frank Cashen, the Mets' general manager, told Almon to wait until after the winter meetings before finalizing a contract. Cashen even called Almon during the meetings to ask him about the personal life of former San Diego teammate Randy Jones, whom the Mets were considering in a trade. A week later, on Dec. 19, Cashen called again—to tell Almon he had been released.

"It wasn't a wet blanket, exactly, on our reunion," says Almon's father, "but it did have a dampening effect." Says Bill, "When the family got together, all my possibilities were discussed. We never put it to a vote, but the consensus was that I should try one more year."

After Christmas, Almon, a lifelong Red Sox fan, placed several calls to Haywood Sullivan, Boston's general manager. The Red Sox had just traded Burleson, and Almon was a semi-local kid after all. When Sullivan got back to him, it was to say thanks but no thanks.

Then Almon's luck took a turn for the better. Rhode Island is a small state (no kidding), and Roland Hemond, the White Sox general manager, was in his hometown of Central Falls, R.I., visiting his family, and the whole state started bugging him. So in late January, Hemond approached Almon. "Roland was perfectly honest with me, which was a change," says Almon. "He offered me a Triple-A contract and a chance to make the club in spring training."

In the meantime Almon was working out in a batting cage in Brown's venerable Marvel Gym with his father and brother John, a former minor-leaguer. "Dad and I sort of decided together that I should go back to my old batting stance, standing up and holding the bat down at the end," says Bill. "After all, that's what got me to the majors in the first place."

Armed with his old stance, Almon reported early to the Sox training camp to work on his hitting and fielding. "I was straightforward with him," says Chicago Coach Bobby Winkles. "I told him, 'Your hands aren't very good, but I think I can help you. You're catching the ball off your right foot, and, consequently, the ball keeps popping out. Relax and take it in the middle of your body.' He was what I call a robot player, very stiff. But he listened, and not every 28-year-old player takes kindly to coaching."

Almon was also helped immeasurably by the misfortunes that befell the White Sox' other shortstops in spring training. Todd Cruz hurt his back and Greg Pryor hurt his ribs, and Almon got a lot of playing time during exhibition games. Still, he wasn't sure whether he would go north to Chicago or Edmonton until Winkles called to give him the good news at 5:30 p.m. on the eve of Opening Day.

Since then, he has become something of a favorite at Comiskey Park, where fans regularly hang ah ALMON JOY banner. He has made a fair number of errors in the field—17—but as LaRussa says, "Every one of them was because he overplayed, tried too hard. In fact, I haven't seen him underplay, in the field, at bat or on the bases, all year."

It's no small irony that the White Sox double-play combination of Almon and Tony Bernazard, who was acquired at the winter meetings, sat on the bench in Montreal last year. Not only have they performed well together, but their combined batting average of .289 at the end of last week was 74 points higher than that of Expos Shortstop Chris Speier and Second Baseman Rodney Scott. Met Shortstop Frank Taveras was hitting .227. How nice of the Mets and Expos to send the White Sox Christmas gifts.