Persistence and knowing when you have a good story are two of the keys to success as a journalist. When sportswriter Peter Kerasotis first interviewed Felipe Alou in 2000, he realized Alou was a great interview.
The Dominican, then the Montreal Expos manager, impressed Kerasotis with his baseball knowledge, accessibility, and honesty. As the veteran sportswriter for Florida Today got to know Alou better over the years, he realized that there was an amazing story about Alou’s life journey to be told.
The two agreed to collaborate on writing Alou’s autobiography. Although it took longer than he expected to complete, Kerasotis’ persistence resulted in the 2018 publication of “Alou: My Baseball Journey.” The book is an amazing portrayal of Alou’s incredible journey from the Dominican Republic to the major leagues as part of the pioneering generation of Afro-Latino players and his becoming the first Dominican manager in the majors.
Kerasotis chatted with La Vida Baseball about the roots of the transplanted New Yorker’s baseball fandom, what drew him to Alou and working with the Dominican legend on “Alou.”.
Adrian Burgos Jr: What sparked your love of baseball? Who were your favorite baseball players (or team) growing up? What was your favorite moment as a fan?
Peter Kerasotis: I fell in love with the game, and it is still my favorite sport. I loved playing it, following it, and still have the entire 1968 Topps baseball card set that I collected when I was 10 years old.
My father grew up in Brooklyn, and as such was a Dodgers fan. The Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1958, the year I was born in Brooklyn. So when I was old enough, my father took my older brother and me to Yankees games and then also to Mets games. The first time I went to a Major League Baseball game was in 1962 at Yankee Stadium. My favorite team has always been the Yankees, and I’m unapologetic about that, since all during my formative years they were awful.
As a fan, I have a lot of favorite moments – Chris Chambliss hitting that walk-off home run in Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS; the three home runs Reggie Jackson hit in the deciding sixth game of the 1977 World Series; Derek Jeter’s Mr. November home run in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series, which fate should have allowed the Yankees to win, given what happened on 9/11; Charlie Hayes catching the third out in the deciding Game 6 of the 1996 World Series, ending the long championship drought.
I also have nice memories of watching them as a kid playing in Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium when Yankee Stadium was being remodeled and at old County Stadium in Milwaukee; my uncle had a restaurant in Madison, and I would visit and sometimes work for him in the summers and catch some Brewers games.
AB: You’ve witnessed lots of baseball as a fan and as a journalist. Which Latino players were among the first that caught your attention?
PK: I guess I was too naïve growing up to think in terms of which players were Latino, black, white, whatever. Ballplayers were ballplayers. It’s kind of neat to think now that the Alou brothers caught my attention early on because the three of them were such great hitters. When I was 8 years old, we moved to Florida, and the Houston Astros spring trained in Cocoa, Fla., the next town over from where I grew up. I must have gotten Jesús Alou’s autograph a gazillion times. I always wished some of the Alou brothers would play for the Yankees – and later Felipe and Matty both did. I actually saw them play games for the Yankees in New York. I was always aware, of course, of great players like Tony Oliva, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda. If I ever opened a pack of baseball cards and scored one of those guys it was a big thrill.
AB: What drew you to Felipe Alou as a biographical subject?
PK: I first met Felipe Alou in the spring of 2000. He was the Montreal Expos manager and I was a sports columnist for FLORIDA TODAY newspaper. The Expos were playing a spring training game in Viera, Fla., not far from Cocoa, Fla., which is where Felipe essentially started his pro career in the Florida State League back in 1956. Before the game, I asked him what he remembered when he first came to Florida 44 years earlier as a minor league player in what was then the New York Giants organization. Felipe did what sports columnists love – he filled up my notebook. And not just with pabulum jock-talk. Felipe was thoughtful, insightful, memorable. For a couple years after that I made it a point to connect with Felipe during spring training, tapping into him on the baseball topic of the day, always knowing he’d have an astute and perceptive opinion.
Fast forward 11 years from that March afternoon in 2000 to Aug. 12, 2011. I’d been laid off the day before and was sitting in the visiting manager’s office at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, talking to my friend Bruce Bochy, the San Francisco Giants manager. Bruce was upset for me and for what our hometown paper had done. I told him it was OK, that I was going to be OK.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I have ideas,” I said. “You know, I’ve always had it in my mind that I’d like to write Felipe Alou’s autobiography. He has all the ingredients a writer looks for in a great book.”
Bruce stared at me for a few seconds.
“You know he’s here,” he said.
“Yeah, he’s here. Felipe works for the Giants and he lives in South Florida. He’s here at the game. You want me to talk to him?”
As I was sitting in the stands, about 15 minutes before the game was to start, I got a ping notifying me of a text message. It was Bruce.
I talked to Felipe. He’s interested.
I’d like to say the book officially began then, but it didn’t. Felipe and I discussed the book over the next four years. He’d say he would do it, and then he’d back away. He was nervous, but I could never put my finger on why. The only clue I had was a comment he once made. “If I do this book I’m going to do it the right way,” he told me. “And if I do that, it’s going to hurt some people.” From a writer’s perspective, that kind of comment is more than intriguing. What did he mean? It took me years to find out. Meanwhile, I’d jot down notes from every correspondence we had. I read a book Felipe did early in his baseball career. I scoured the internet for feature stories and other articles. The clock continued to tick, tick, tick … and years passed. During that time, I wrote two other books.
After the 2015 baseball season ended, I was chatting on the phone with Bochy, and he casually asked me how things were going with Felipe and the book.
“I’ve given up on that.” I said.
“What?” he exclaimed, surprised.
“Bruce, he tells me he’ll do it and then he changes his mind. I’ve given up.”
“Let me talk to him,” he said. “Don’t give up just yet.”
A few days later, my phone rang. It was Felipe.
“I’m going to do the book,” he said. “I know I’ve told you that many times before, but I promise you this time I won’t change my mind.”
AB: How did you develop a relationship with Felipe where he was willing to share the intimate stories about grief, pain, and the joy of baseball and family?
PK: I drove to Felipe’s home in Boynton Beach, Fla., and we spent the afternoon just talking … and talking and talking and talking. I knew I was going to have to develop a relationship with him, earning his trust. So I didn’t pull out a recorder or write any notes that day. We just talked, forging a relationship that eventually became a friendship. I knew Felipe was going to need to trust me, and that wasn’t going to happen overnight. Pulling out a recorder or a notebook during that first sit-down didn’t seem prudent. While we talked that afternoon, a thought popped into my head. Like any baseball fan, I was aware of the three brothers – Felipe, Matty and Jesús – and how they had historically manned all three outfield positions at the same time for the San Francisco Giants; and also how all three had outstanding playing careers.
“Felipe,” I asked, “were there any other brothers besides you three?”
He stared at me for several seconds, quiet. Finally, he spoke.
“This is one of the reasons why I was hesitant to do a book,” he said.
He told me the story of the fourth Alou brother – the youngest – and how his promising baseball career was waylaid. It was then that I finally understood what Felipe meant about stories he didn’t want to tell because of the pain it could cause other people. That story, the story of his youngest brother Juan, made the book, as did many others. Put them all together and it made this more than a baseball book. It’s a book that captures a personal journey, yes, but it’s also a family, cultural and historical book. It is the book he wanted – not just a regurgitation of box scores.
I learned early on about Felipe that he is an extremely honorable man – truthful, honest, and loyal to his word. He is also a deep thinker, and he thinks about other people – their thoughts, concerns, and emotions. He is compassionate in that way. He is also a man’s man, with a self-made man’s pride. And then there is his memory. I have only met two people who can go back decades and recall details with stunning accuracy – the football coach Steve Spurrier and Felipe Alou. He also read and reread every word in this book, and he was meticulous as to which words were used and how things were presented. He is very detail-oriented. Nothing escapes him. I can appreciate why he is so revered as a baseball manager, but much more so as a man.
AB: How did your appreciation for what Felipe Alou means to Dominicans and Latinos evolve over the course of this book project? How did others in baseball show their admiration for who Felipe is and what he accomplished in baseball?
PK: I thought I had some gold nuggets going into this project. I didn’t realize I had struck a gold mine.
It didn’t fully dawn on me until we got into the project that Felipe was the first born-and-raised Dominican to leave that island and become a major league player and manager, and also to play in the World Series. When Pedro Martínez told me that in grammar school in the DR the Alou brothers, and particularly Felipe Alou, are in their history books, it was a wow moment. I wasn’t aware of the details of Rafael Trujillo’s brutal regime and how that shaped Felipe, his life, his family, and what happened to his younger brother Juan.
Being with Felipe, I have seen how the Latino players flock to him. He is a Yoda figure to them. Pedro Martínez refers to him as a second father. There is so much love I have seen for him from not only Latino players but also Latino media like ESPN’s Pedro Gomez.
And then there is the love and admiration I have witnessed from Felipe’s peers. Tony La Russa has been a huge advocate for this book and for Felipe. When the book comes out in paperback, Tony is going to provide a fresh afterword. Joe Torre provided a book blurb where he says that Felipe “is one of the best and most caring teammates I ever had. I learned from him what leadership is all about and what it means to be a man. I admired him greatly, first as a fan, then as a teammate, and now, most importantly, as a friend.” That’s pretty powerful.
The list goes on and on.
AB: If you had the opportunity, who is another Latino figure in baseball that you would like to collaborate on telling the story of their baseball journey and life? Why?
PK: Alex Rodriguez. And why? Purely for financial reasons. I did not make any money on the Felipe Alou project. The major publishing houses rejected the book, so we went with a smaller publisher. At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to make any money, but I did the book anyway – out of a labor of love and to show the major publishing houses that I can deliver the goods, so to speak. If A-Rod really opened up (which I doubt) and really laid his life all out there (I’m not holding my breath) that would be a book I would want to write – and I guarantee it would be a best-seller.
AB: Thanks, Peter, for sharing those stories about working with Felipe Alou, and your own baseball fandom. To keep up with Peter, be sure to follow him on Twitter at @PeterKerasotis.
Featured Image: Peter Kerasotis Twitter