Luis Polonia. "La Hormiga Atomica". "The Atomic Ant". In the early 90's, he was my Chone Figgins of the day. He began his American career with the Oakland Athletics in 1984 and ended in 2000 with the New York Yankees. In between, he won three World Series titles and played shoulder to shoulder with a constellation of baseball stars. In 1990 he came to the Halos from the Yankees in exchange for Rich Monteleone and Claudell Washington. He remained here until granted his release in 1993.
Polonia still ranks among the Halos Heaven Top 100, having dropped a little bit to #65. Not bad for only 3 seasons. There are good reasons: blazing speed and daring baserunning. Sure, he got caught stealing a lot, but I would like to believe that falls somewhat on the shoulders of the managers of his day, who were not as sophisticated as today's crew in creating and controlling good situations for speed burner skills. In a way, it was always like he was encouraged to get on base, but nobody knew what to do with him once he got there. So they just turned him loose. Pretty fun stuff to watch when the team itself is close to garbage.
Well, thanks to his agent Christie Gibson (from www.luispoloniapba.com), this week Halos Heaven got a chance for a private, one-on-one interview with Luis. It turns out that he is pretty active and pretty prolific. Believe it or not, he still plays professionally to this day. In fact, in 2006 he subbed in the WBC for Vladdie and outhit all other Dominicans. In 2007 he was THE major factor in the Dominican Republic national team securing the Caribbean Series title.
I can promise that in this interview there are a couple of newsworthy scoops. I encourage you all to read on.
**UPDATE**: In response to this interview, Luis Polonia has reached out to us here at HH and offered up his Facebook page and twitter account. Those can be found at http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1103199717&ref=ts and http://twitter.com/polonia22 respectively!
HH: So let’s start briefly with your career. You were drafted in 1984 by the Oakland A’s when you were about 20 years old. Can you compare your development as a young boy leading up to your signing, to the training that you provide in your Academy today?
LP: When I signed, I didn’t have anybody to show me the way to play, and to teach me how I can prepare to become a professional baseball player. Because, you know, everything we did we learned it because of our ability to play baseball not because somebody came here and told me "you have to grab a bat like this…you have to throw like this…you have to catch like this…", you know it wasn’t anything like that. We would just play the game…by ourselves, you know, and that was a different situation. You know, now we get at the Baseball Academy we get the kids at a young age and we teach them the fundamentals of the game. We teach them how to hit correctly. We show them the way how they can be better defensively, and how they can play the game. And it’s really a whole different story now.
I mean, now they come up prepared. They make more money. They sign for millions of dollars now. Before we used to sign for $2,000, $3,000 $10,000 the top guy. The game has changed a lot. The kids now have a better chance to make it. They prepare, and they prepare in a lot better way than we did before.
HH: Back in your day when you were a youngster did you know of any other players, any other kids, that you competed against and that you thought should have had a shot at a big league career, but they did not make it and they would have benefitted by the Academy system you have now?
LP: I can say, not that they’d make it, but I can say that a lot of my friends that used to play together when I was a kid that they didn’t have a chance. Maybe I had a better opportunity because my father was out working with me, my father was moving me places, and they didn’t have that chance. Now the Academies do for them. So I will say that we have, what the young kids have right now, this opportunity to go to an Academy and to go these nice fields, every major league team has an Academy here and they go there and they go practice on those nice fields and, you know, if we had that before more of my young friends would have made it. Because I wasn’t the only player that was good at that time. Some of my friends that we played together at that time had the same talent that I had but they didn’t have the chances that I had and that’s why they didn’t become a baseball player.
So now the parents, they want the kids to be baseball players. Before, there wasn’t that much of that. My friends played with me, but their parents really didn’t care. My father did. So that has changed, you know, when you know everybody wants you to be that. Every parent in the Dominican wants their kid to be a baseball player. Before it was not like that. In this Academy and everywhere there are people working with young talent in every corner of the country. So now you find those guys who will help you, that will move you places, that will show you to the scouts so you can become a baseball player. Before we did not have that.
HH: Let’s talk a couple of quick minutes on your career. So you make it through the hurdles, you get yourself signed by Oakland, you’re here in America and you’re playing Major League Baseball. And your fellow rookie is Mark McGwire. He’ll become Rookie Of The Year. Jose Canseco was Rookie Of The Year just the year before and he is going to become the League Most Valuable Player the next season. Your third year you claim your first World Series title. Those must have been pretty exciting times to be among players of that caliber right out of the gate. Describe your early years. How did you make those adjustments?
LP: It wasn’t that hard for me because I had that as a dream and now I am living the opportunity to become what I wanted to be: a professional – or major league - baseball player. And I got the opportunity to play with all these guys and my talent was just there with them. I signed with the A’s, and I only spent 3 years in the minor leagues. I went Class A, Double A, Triple A, pulling numbers, and seeing all these other guys that I knew that I knew were going to be a star. Like you say I was played with Canseco my second year, McGwire came up and in my third year, there I am in Triple A and I have McGwire, Walt Weiss, those guys playing AA that year. Then all of a sudden they all come up. Canseco becomes the Rookie Of The Year. Then the year after comes McGwire, then Walt Weiss comes, and then - unbelievable! – knowing that I played with all those guys in the Minor Leagues and now we are all new and now we are all in the Major Leagues and see how they are all getting there and becoming stars and see also how quick I made it to the Major Leagues and how I stayed there. They gave me no chance to send me down no more, and I just played. I got an opportunity to play for my 14 years in the major leagues and so there I am in the World Series. I’m like ‘Hey! This is happening too fast!’ I paid a cab and go on up and then that was it. I got the chance to do all right.
HH: Yeah, you spent time in Oakland, then you had a brief jump to the Yankees, and then you come here to Anaheim with the Angels. Now the Angels teams back then, they weren’t very good but I can tell you, we fans, we sure remember your style of play. You were very aggressive on the base paths, very fast runner, stole a lot of bases, took a lot of chances, not always worked out but that style of play, um, that’s really the style of play that Mike Scioscia of the Angels encourages with his teams today, A lot of fundamentals. You were playing a style of baseball, very exciting and very daring. That must have been kind of unusual in your time, huh?
LP: Yeah, it didn’t happen that much like that but that was my game. I was sure that I knew what I needed to do to stay in the Major Leagues. I knew that I had to be on base, I had to run the bases, I had to score some runs, and I kept myself up on my game. And the good thing about myself was that I knew the things that I had to do to stay there and I did it. I did it.
And now, you see some teams that have that same…like the Angels, yeah, they uh… Aybar, Figgins, they play the game which was the one I used to play and that’s what makes the team so successful. Because a lot of teams they are just concerned about all the power hitters. How about the guys who are going to be on base when those guys hit the homers? And this is why the Angels are so successful. Because Scioscia knows…that he needs to have the little names on the bases for the big names to drive them home. And you can see the Yankees. The Yankees think all you need are people who can hit the ball out of the ballpark. Oh hey, how about the 1-2 guys? The 8 and 9? You know, the ones who set the table for the big guys? They don’t have it. They don’t have it and that’s why they have been struggling for so many years.
HH: The game that you played, the game that you brought to your career, is a very potent game…and it’s made the Angels really successful this decade. Have you followed the Angels very much?
LP: Of course! I mean, you know, the Angels, believe me, everybody can ask me, ‘Which is the team that you feel for the best?’ I go, you know what? The Angels. You know why? The Angels kept me from being a DH. The Angels gave me the consideration to become a baseball player, gave me a chance to go out there and play my game. I was with the Yankees, I was with Oakland, and I was like a DH most of the time. I mean, they didn’t see fit to throw me into the outfield because I wasn’t a good outfielder. But I go to the Angels and, all of a sudden, the first thing that Doug Rader told me was ‘You know what? You are not a DH. You are a leadoff man and you are my Left Fielder, and you will be out there the whole year. Go out there, and screw up, and then work with the things that you screwed up and try to make it better next time, and that’s what you are going to need to do.’
THAT’S what you need to hear from him [the manager]. And all of a sudden I became one of the most perfect Left Fielders in the League [editor’s note: uh…not exactly. But the love is there, so let’s just go with it!]. Because they gave me the opportunity to screw up, go and work, and come back and do better. And I enjoyed my time with the Angels and I was so sad when the time came that I had to go. I was feeling like home. That WAS my home. That was when I really learned how to play the game. [editor’s note: The Halos granted Polonia his free agency after the 1993 season.]
HH: I remember seeing you play. I loved the way you challenged the catcher, the pitcher on the base paths. I loved the way you challenged the fielders to try and force them to make the good throws and keep the pressure on the defense at all times. That was a lesson I was learning while I was watching you play.
LP: Now, they believe now, that you need to hit the ball out of the ballpark to score runs. And when I played I believed that with a fly ball, I could make a run score. I could get on base, I steal second, I steal third, go ahead and hit me a fly ball to Center Field, Left Field, Right Field, and then, one run. I didn’t need to wait! I could have gone. I could have done it myself. I made sure my legs would get me there and I would be on third base for you to hit the fly ball, and we would have a run. We would have a run scored right there.
HH: I hope that these are some of the fundamentals that you are teaching your players as they come through your Academy.
LP: Exactly! I mean, it’s my game. I have the little guy, I have the big guy. I need to teach the big guy, I know what I need to teach the little guy.
HH: I don’t read Spanish so well anymore but I do believe that on your website you do promote one of your players as running the base paths really well. So I can see that you are putting things out there.
LP: Exactly. That’s my game. That’s my game.
HH: So you finish up with the Angels. You get another World Series title with Atlanta – hey, you hit a home run off of Orel Hershiser, too, right?
HH: And then you finish your career up here in America with one last title with the Yankees in 2000.
LP: That was big. And we home city champions. [editor’s note: the 2000 World Series was a subway series with the Yankees defeating the Mets in 5 games.]
HH: So give us, like, three great moments outside of those World Series titles that you think back on in your time here in America and with your career and make you smile.
LP: Besides the World Series, right?
HH: Besides the Word Series, yes.
LP: Ok, Well there was one when I broke the no-hitter against Bartolo Colon in 2000 with the Yanks.
LP: That was probably the one that I remember the most. Um, there’s another one that really was the most exciting play I ever had in my career. It was when I hit a Grand Slam, inside the park, with the Angels against the Yankees in 1990. And the third one was when I got a hit against Nolan Ryan the first time I faced him.
HH: Ha ha! Good for you!
LP: Yeah, that was one because for me, that man was a god. And to have the opportunity to go out there and face the guy that I used to watch when I was a kid, that I thought was an untouchable guy, and then I would go and get a hit off of him, that was one of my highlights.
HH: Oh man, and I would be right there with you. I have been in batting cages where you can dial it up to 90 and I can still make contact with the ball, but I cannot believe you can even see a ball coming at 100.
LP: Yeah, I can hit one now and I am 45.
HH: God bless you, man. Ok, so you are playing in the Dominican Leagues now and you are representing the DR in international competition, You play for Aguilas, you have yourself more championships and you also played in the World Baseball Cup, how much longer do you see yourself playing?
LP: Well…the only thing I can tell you is that I go year by year. I know I am healthy. I am already side playing in a AA team in the Dominican to get ready for the winter ball that is coming, and I am almost on the record books as the [top] guy for hits doubles, triples, runs scored. I mean, 25 years in the league and playing in all the finals I have every single record too, career series I have all the records, I mean, like, it’s unbelievable.
HH: I know! I was shocked. I know you have a lot of records. I know you have a lot of championships, I was really, really shocked that out of all the great Dominican players who have played baseball professionally and to look back and see who owns all the records for all those great Dominican players…IT’S YOU!
LP: Yes, I have been a champion 25 times in my career. I am 25 out of 25 in my career: Mexico, Caribbean Series, Dominican League, Big League, finally I have won 25 times.
HH: So I would assume this gives you a lot of credibility with your Academy, that players and their parents would say ’Ok, I am going to go listen to this guy’.
LP: Yeah. Oh yeah. There is no doubt about it. I mean, if you put all the Academies here, and my name is there, believe me they are going to say I am going to go to Luis Polonia.
HH: And has that helped you also make sure that you get good coaches and other pros to come to your Academy to help teach your kids?
LP: Exactly. All my coaches are professional. We all play professionally and we all know what we are doing.
PART 2: The Angels and their Latin scouting efforts (or, more accurately, their lack thereof...) and an update on players in the Polonia Academy for this International Signing Season.