Following his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, former Blue Jays star Roberto Alomar returned to his native Puerto Rico, and Blue Jays manager of social marketing Rob Jack was there to document his homecoming.
The wheels of our jet touched down at the San Juan Isla Grande Airport at approximately 12:30 p.m. local time. For Roberto Alomar, this was a triumphant homecoming like no other, and he had allowed bluejays.com unprecedented access to document his return home to Puerto Rico following his election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
After coming so close a year ago, Roberto was the first non-first ballot Baseball Writers' Association of America electee to receive at least 90 percent of the vote. Traveling with us was Sandy Alomar Sr., his father, and Jossie Alvarodo, a close friend of the Alomar family.
From the moment he walked off the plane, we knew this day was Roberto Alomar's day. The flight crew and airport staff were eager to greet this local boy who rose to great heights. Everyone wanted a glimpse of their country's hero. After we moved through airport security, there was a flurry of media waiting for him.
"This is a big deal for the Puerto Rican people," said Roberto. "They have been waiting for this moment for a long time. I am glad I could bring them home this gift."
"Let's go this way," said Sandy Sr., "There is too much media the other way."
Sandy Sr. directed us toward a back door where a convoy of four cars waited. Family is so important to Roberto, and he credits his father for pointing him in the right direction both in life and in baseball. It was Sandy Sr. who told Roberto what a great opportunity lay ahead after learning he was traded to Toronto in December 1990.
Photos taken and autographs signed, we left the airport. Roberto jumped into his car and was accompanied by friends and family to the La Fortaleza -- the Governor's house -- in old San Juan. La Fortaleza is the oldest executive mansion in the New World, and it is here that Roberto is to be honoured with a flag presentation by Puerto Rico's governor, Luis G. Fortuno, and First Lady Luce Vela.
"It is an honour for us to welcome Roberto to the island and to La Fortaleza," said Gov. Fortuno. "The achievement he has accomplished, just like the one by his predecessors Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda, honours the name of Puerto Rico in Major League Baseball."
"This is an honour for not only me, but also for the Puerto Rican people," said Roberto.
At this point, I turn to Jossie and note the remarkable turnout for Roberto.
"Wait until we get to Salinas, you haven't seen anything yet," said Jossie.
After a quick pit stop at Roberto's San Juan apartment, we are enroute to Salinas to visit his mother, Maria. Salinas is a small town on the southern coast of the island, and the Alomar's have called Salinas their home for as long as they can remember.
As we enter Salinas around 4:30 p.m., I note to myself, Jossie was right. The entire town turned out to greet him. Traffic came to a complete standstill, yet nobody seemed to mind. Music played and people cheered. Roberto got out of the car to shake hands and take pictures. People made banners, carried signs, chanted his name, but mostly they just wanted to touch him and hug him. The moment was overwhelming and very surreal, and for us all watching this unfold, it spoke of the passion the locals have for baseball. It also spoke to the source of pride that Salinas has for the Alomar family.
Once our cars could start moving again, we approached the street Roberto grew up on. Neighbours and friends were waiting for him to pull up to the house.
And then there was the emotional embrace when Roberto saw his mother. With tears in her eyes, she embraced her youngest child in front of their house.
"My mother is the rock of our family," said Roberto. "I cannot describe how important she is to me. She is so special to me."
Maria Alomar gave us a tour of the family house -- a modest home, in a modest community, but to the Alomar family, it is the only place they would live. The trophy case in the living room is a shrine to both Sandy Jr. and Roberto's accomplishments on the baseball field. Maria points out the trophy that Sandy Jr. won for being named the American League Rookie of the Year in 1990. But she is proudest of a family picture taken in Shea Stadium in 1974 that includes the entire Alomar family. Her eyes light up as she tells us stories about Roberto as a child.
As we head outside, Alomar speaks of playing baseball in the streets of Salinas when he was a little boy. He describes Salinas as a proud neighbourhood, which he has maintained as his foundation.
"These are good people and we take care of each other in Salinas. It's a very humble town and that's what I love about it," said Roberto.
He explains how he wishes the people of Toronto (which he considers his second home) could see this reception, and understand how important baseball is to Puerto Rico. To people in Puerto Rico, baseball is life.
"This is a great day for Salinas!" said Jossie, who has known Roberto since he was a child. "I remember when Robbie played baseball in these very streets. He would dive for balls on the pavement and I would always see him with scratches all over his body, but he would never complain. He always played the game hard, that was just Robbie."
"You want to go see where I used to play?" Alomar asks. "Come on let's go, it's not far from here."
Roberto and Sandy grew up playing baseball at Manuel Gonzalez Stadium, which is about a five-minute walk from the family house. When you approach the stadium, you see a large picture of Sandy Sr. hanging on the wall. Sandy Sr. is well respected by the citizens of Salinas for his knowledge of the game, and for not losing sight of his roots. As we enter the stadium from the first-base dugout, it appears the entire town had decided to join us. Roberto seemed relaxed with the amount of people surrounding him.
"The people of Salina have always treated us very well here. They are very respectful, it's like one big family," said Roberto.
His first manager in Little League, Julio Romero, was there to embrace him. Many of the town's elders told us story after story about how serious Roberto was about baseball at an early age. They also spoke about how proud they were of his baseball accomplishments, but more importantly how proud they were of the type of person he grew up to be.
"You see that building over there?" Roberto asked us. "I once hit a ball off that building and when I heard something smash, I ran home as fast as I could."
As the day began to come to an end, people started to congregate at the Museum del Plaza Mercado de Salinas, a community centre for the town. There is music, food, entertainment and many stories of baseball. The walls are a shrine to the Alomar family and their accomplishments on the field. Roberto gives us a tour pointing to pictures of himself as a child.
It was a long and exciting day, one that will always be remembered by the people of Salinas.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.