Seattle Mariners

Gifted, young Abraham Almonte uses Bible to battle bottle

T.J. Cotterill

Staff writer


Abraham Almonte hit his first major league home run Monday night at Safeco Field, a two-run shot to right field in the seventh inning against the visiting Houston Astros.

Seattle Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims said on the air that it was a story Almonte will tell his kids for years to come.

But Almonte's story is not just about playing in bright lights in front of thousands of fans or even of accomplishing a lifelong dream of reaching the major leagues.

It's more than that. It's about how Almonte, 24, overcame his addiction to alcohol, saving not only his career, but maybe his life.

About four years ago, Almonte was hovering over a toilet, tears running down his face. He was drunk and pouring a bottle of booze into the porcelain bowl.

Almonte said he craved alcohol like water after a long workout. He hated this addiction. He wanted out. He knew it was ruining his life.

"I would just be crying, thinking 'I can't be doing this, ' " Almonte said. "But the next day I would buy the same bottle and start drinking again."

Almonte came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic. The New York Yankees had signed him as a 16-year-old.

He said the drinking started shortly after his father died of a stomach aliment the next year in 2007. It helped ease the pain of the loss. It was a part of his life. He said he regularly attended clubs, drinking until 1 a.m. and then sleeping it off before practice.

In 2010, it got worse.

Almonte was originally a second baseman but was moved to center field. He tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder (right) 15 games into the season and needed surgery. The injury gave him time away from the field, more time to drink.

"I used to drink a lot, but after the surgery I would drink more, " Almonte said. "But most of the time after I got drunk, I knew I wasn't supposed to do that because it wasn't going to help me in my career. A lot of times I tried to quit, but I never did."

One night, the craving came over him again. He wanted to drink, but he knew he had to resist. That's when he said God spoke.

"He told me, 'You see your life? You don't even have time for your family. It's necessary for you to have time now for me and your family, ' " Almonte said.

"God told me, 'I'm going to tell you something.' Then he told me, 'I'm the one who hurt your shoulder. It was necessary for you to come to me. Everything that I start I finish and everything I do, I do it right and I am the perfect doctor.'

"I don't know how that happened, but I couldn't see myself clearly. After that, I started believing. I said, 'I am giving everything to you. I am doing everything for you. I'm not going to drink, I'm going to go to church, I'm going to turn my life around.' "

In less than a month, he said, he lost 30 pounds. He was feeling good and wanted to get back on the field, but his arm still hurt.

Almonte vividly remembers Jan. 9, 2011. He was sleeping in his room, he said, when at 3 a.m. he felt a hand grab his elbow, push it into his shoulder and pull.

"I didn't know what was going on, " Almonte said. "But I went and prayed and didn't say nothing to nobody. I went to church the next day and my pastor came and said to me, 'This is what God is telling me.'

"And he said the same words God told me before I started changing my life: 'I am the perfect doctor, everything I start, I finish. . . . I am the one who touched you last night in the room.'

"I just started crying and crying and crying. I had only been a Christian for like a month or two. I don't even understand what's going on."

Almonte said he went to the field three days later to throw. Yankees coach Luis Sojo, who played with the Mariners from 1994-96, remembers Almonte arguing with the trainers to allow him to throw.

"The trainers didn't want (Almonte) to throw, but he kept telling me, 'I need to throw, I need to do it, I don't have an issue, ' " Sojo said. "The trainers kept telling him 'No, no, no' but I said 'Listen, let him play if he wants to play.' "

Almonte said his first couple of throws hurt like crazy.

"Then, no pain, " he said.

Sojo said Almonte later showed how strong his arm was. A runner tried to score on him and he had to make a throw to the plate.

"He makes just an unbelievable throw, " Sojo said. "I was looking at my assistant and I was like, 'Oh, my god, I hope he's got something left to throw with after that.' But he was good, so we all realized, 'OK, he must be feeling good.' "

As Almonte's personal life improved, so did his play. Fresh off the shoulder injury, he recorded career-highs in runs, hits, extra-base hits and games played for Tampa in high Single A.

"He wasn't the biggest prospect in the organization, but he was one of my favorite players because of the way he did things, " Sojo said. "I loved everything about this kid. What happened to him was great not only for him but for his teammates, especially the Latin kids.

"He is one of the guys you pull for and you hope every day is going to be good for him."

Mariners scout Bill Masse noticed Almonte and recommended Seattle acquire him. The Mariners traded reliever Shawn Kelley for him in February, just before spring training, and Almonte was sent to Double-A Jackson at the end of spring training.

He hit .255 in 29 games with the Generals, highlighted by hitting for the cycle against Chattanooga, before being promoted to Triple-A Tacoma.

With the Rainiers, Almonte hit .515 in his first 33 at-bats, including a 6-for-6 game in Colorado Springs. He impressed coaches with his defensive play and with his arm - he threw out two runners at third base in a late-July game against Omaha.

While overshadowed by prospects Mike Zunino, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Taijuan Walker, Almonte's production earned notice. He hit .314 and led the Rainiers with a .491 slugging percentage and a .894 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and 20 stolen bases.

"I think he is going to be a major league everyday center fielder and a guy who can possibly go to multiple All-Star Games, " said Rainiers manager John Stearns. "That's how high I am on him, and I don't like to get too high on a kid. But with a guy like Almonte, the sky is the limit."

Almonte continues to focus on his faith and sobriety. He started a Bible study with other Rainiers players, reading passages daily on trips and praying with a group of teammates before each game.

The study group was mostly made up of Latin players. Franklin Gutierrez, Hector Noesi and Leury Bonilla were among the eight to 10 who usually participated, with Almonte regularly leading.

"He's got everybody working on religion, " Stearns said. "But he doesn't push it on you, he doesn't walk around like that.

"Whatever he is doing, he just needs to keep doing because he is doing everything right."

On Aug. 29, Almonte had two hits against Salt Lake and was pulled by Stearns in the seventh inning so he could let him know he was going to join the Mariners.

"He is a great lesson to minor league players, " said Mariners manager Eric Wedge. "When you are down there, people are watching. People that stick out get to the big leagues.

"He showed up every day. And when you show up every day and play like that people are going to notice that."

Almonte made his Seattle debut Aug. 30 and got his first hit, a single up the middle in the eighth inning that scored Dustin Ackley. Given his past, Almonte asked Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez if the team would make an exception to the usual celebration of a beer shower.

"They respected that I'm a Christian and I appreciated that, ' said Almonte, whose mother named him after the biblical figure.

"I like this change. I like my personality now. I feel good, " Almonte said. "But God has something bigger. He is going to keep using me up here in the big leagues. No matter where they send me - big leagues, minor leagues, home, wherever they send me - I know I'm going to do whatever God wants me to do. Baseball or no baseball, if I do it to glorify God's name, I think I'll be OK."

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TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677