Alex Diaz hears the kids hollering his name as he trots toward center field at the Kingdome. He knows what they want him to be. He also knows what he is.
“It makes me feel good that they know me,” he said, “but I want them to know I am a normal ballplayer. I am not the next Ken Griffey Jr. I’m just someone who comes to the ballpark and gives it the best he can.”
Playing center field regularly for the Seattle Mariners was not what Diaz or club officials had in mind when they picked him off waivers last fall from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Now he finds himself in both the enviable and vulnerable position of being a stand-in for a player in the fast lane to the Hall of Fame.
A chance or a curse? Hero or answer to a trivia question?
Monday night, in an 8-7 victory over the New York Yankees in 12 innings, Diaz was symbolic of a different kind of Mariner team - punch instead of power. He got three hits in six chances and scored Seattle’s first and last runs in regular-inning play after he had led off with singles, stealing third base in the eighth, and nearly helping the team set a record for stolen bases in a game in the 10th when he had second but slid by the base.
“In this game, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time,” said Lou Piniella, Mariner manager. “And this is the right place and time for Alex Diaz.”
Griffey and Diaz each started his professional baseball career in 1987. In the time that has passed, Griffey has 3,000 major-league at-bats; Diaz has 300.
Diaz rubbed a swollen knee before Monday’s game. A slice above his eye had been repaired with tape after his collision Sunday with teammate Joey Cora. Diaz hadn’t talked about the knee. He wanted to play.
In fact, he couldn’t believe he would be injured the same weekend Griffey was. In 1993, he was called on to replace an injured Robin Yount in center field for the Brewers and suffered a broken ankle when he crashed into the outfield fence.
“My career (in the minors) has been a long one,” he said. “And luck has not been with me.”
Sitting nearby was Edgar Martinez. He understood perfectly what luck has to do with it.
Martinez, 32, and Diaz, 26, were born in New York City in the 1960s, their families subsequently deciding it was better to return to their native Puerto Rico. Both players signed as free agents, and both became strong minor-league players waiting for a chance they thought might never come.
Martinez batted higher than .300 three years in a row in Class AAA ball, but still only got his chance in Seattle because Jim Presley fizzled, was traded, and his replacement, Darnell Coles, was injured.
“They put Coles back in the lineup after his injury,” said Martinez, “but he struggled, and finally I got a real chance.”
Until now, Diaz hasn’t gotten a real chance.
“The Milwaukee Brewers talked about me being their center fielder of the future,” he said, “but it never really happened.”
Diaz was signed originally by the New York Mets, was traded to the Montreal Expos in April 1991 and to the Brewers in October 1991. In 1992, at Denver, he was named the “most exciting player in the American Association,” stealing 42 bases and batting .268.
He made the Brewers’ 1993 Opening Day roster, but had his year ruined by the broken ankle. In 1994, he was Milwaukee’s starting center fielder, hitting .251 in 187 at-bats, but never played with the team again after being placed on the disabled list Aug. 2 because of a strained elbow.
“I was playing well, we were winning, but the strike came and I never know what happened,” he said. “Everything was a surprise to me.”
The Mariners did a good job scouting and claiming players this off-season: Diaz, Cora, infielder Doug Strange and catcher Chad Kreuter. A year ago they picked up relief pitcher Bill Risley.
Diaz wasn’t surprised the Mariners claimed him; he was surprised the Brewers let him go.
“I can steal you some bags, move the runners along and play good defense,” he said. “That’s my game.”
On Monday night, they applauded it.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.