Albert Almora said he thinks he last saw a movie on some distant Cougars off day. He can’t recall the venue, date or title, and his hesitance is rare.
Baseball people so often speak about the Cubs’ prized outfield prospect in certainties. He hits, runs, defends and throws so artfully now, to fathom what he’ll do in the majors merely becomes a matter of closing one’s eyes and waiting.
Unless you’re Almora, of course.
The 19-year-old ostensibly began preparing for stardom in his Huggies, cultivating a singular mindset that quickly formed a work ethic and identity he’s not about to abandon – entertainment industry be darned.
“The closest people in my life are just because of baseball, you know,” Almora said. “I try to have a small circle of people you can trust, and most of it is because of baseball. I have some lifetime friends, but most of them are from baseball.”
Should “Because Of Baseball: The Albert Almora Story” ever go into production, the formative scenes profiling the Cubs’ sixth overall draft pick in 2012 wouldn’t require much of a budget to shoot:
EXT. BACKYARD, DAYTIME
ALBERT ALMORA surveys the backyard of his family’s suburban Miami home, having exited the house after finishing his homework.
A slow pan of the area shows a batting cage, agility course, pull-up bar and cardio machine. Then appears the most daunting obstacle of all, a climbing rope dangling 50 feet from the top of a tree. Almora completes each exercise over and over.
Almora’s parents, Albert Sr. and Ana, both Cuban defectors, started with a more humble set-up. Albert Sr., a catcher and outfielder who played for an adult team before he refused to continue his conscripted military service, does not speak English, but that mattered little when they drove around south Florida with their 31/2-year-old son.
Almora routinely spotted older children playing at nearby diamonds. That, along with his father’s influence, was enough to lure him to baseball. His dad started with grounders at a nearby park, but Almora soon demanded fly balls.
The Almoras visited their son earlier this season, and Albert Sr. found no fault with the facilities at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark. He isn’t completely phasing himself out, however. The family already installed the batting cage at Almora’s new home, located on a 5.25-acre property in West Kendall, Fla. His parents and Ana’s son from a previous marriage also live there, taking care of upkeep by day and listening to Internet broadcasts of Cougars games by night.
“My husband gets giggly and he gets teary-eyed because, believe me, we worked very hard to help Albert get to where he’s at. Very hard,” Ana Almora said. “We stopped living our lives to help him. We had no vacations. No nothing. Everything was baseball.”
• • •
EXT. DUGOUT, DAYTIME
ALBERT ALMORA, age 14, keeps a sullen, determined glance as he grabs a bat and helmet and heads for the on-deck circle. His teammates – all older and some in experimental facial hair stages – shake their heads and grin.
Luis Lumpuy batted .475 with 10 home runs and 38 RBIs in 2008, his senior season at Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, Fla. Mater’s cleanup batter hit one spot behind Almora, then an eighth-grader at the charter middle school.
How’s that for lineup protection?
Almora joined the varsity full-time in seventh grade after splitting games between middle school and high school the year before. Then-Lions coach Eddie Gooriz, now a Mater administrator, first encountered Almora before he played a game.
Peeved that the JV coach already was trying to lure his sparkling sixth-grader, Mater’s middle school coach reportedly told Almora he risked being kicked out of school if he accepted the promotion. The situation eventually was rectified – the middle school coach’s blanket denial notwithstanding – but not before a savvy Almora initially told Gooriz he could not yet play for the high school program.
“Just the way he shook my hand, it was like talking to a little man,” Gooriz said. “He looked me right in the face. ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘No, sir.’ What you’d think would scare any other kid, here’s a young man who’s thanking me without me even knowing what was going on.”
To be sure, Almora knows nothing if not courtesy. After a recent game, Cougars manager Mark Johnson told him he already had made enough public appearances when other teammates were slow to volunteer.
Almora softly responded that he had a car and no other mid-morning agenda before coming to the ballpark. He treats other optional duties – including translating for Spanish-speaking teammates, a hobby he picked up while playing with the Team USA age group program – with a similar shrug.
“That’s just the way I am, the way I am as a person,” Almora said. “Anything I can do to help, especially guys that don’t know the language or anything, that’s what I’m here for, you know.”
• • •
INT. DEN, DAYTIME
ALBERT ALMORA, now 19, plops down in a leather recliner and prepares for a video game session with Cougars teammates at the home of his host family. It’s time to unwind after a weekday matinee game.
Warren Drewes and his wife, Sam, live on Route 31 along the Fox River. Somehow, motorists seem to look away from the waterfront when they pass the couple’s St. Charles home at certain times of day.
“I don’t have a Mercedes myself, and so I’m only hoping that people think it’s my car,” Warren Drewes said.
It’s not. The vehicle belongs to Almora, who received a $3.9 million signing bonus after agreeing to terms with the Cubs in July 2012.
Such lavish accoutrements soured the Drewses on housing a first-round pick when they first became a Cougars host family in 1992. Concerned over potential “ego issues” and living comfort – in those days, the Drewes’ pair of now-grown daughters also lived there – the family welcomed the players the club assigned, most of whom were lesser-known.
Until Almora, arguably the biggest name was former Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster, then a Florida Marlins farmhand who Texas drafted in the third round in 1995.
Out of town when Almora joined the Cougars on May 22, Drewes, a retired banker, returned home to a gaudier driveway but few other bells or whistles. When Almora’s parents visited Geneva shortly thereafter, Drewes found himself talking to them more about their son’s penchant for fishing and wonderful interactions with Drewes’ grandchildren than anything else.
“They don’t need me to tell them that their son is a good ballplayer. They know that and hear that all the time,” Drewes said. “What I wanted to tell them, and I hope stays with them, is their son is a quality individual. One that every parent would hope that their child might be.”
His housemates – fellow Floridians Rock Shoulders and Dan Vogelbach, and reliever Nathan Dorris – are far less reserved, but all describe a loyal, attentive Almora around the Drewes residence.
In his so-called second home, the Cougars’ clubhouse, Almora is no less revered, although not sacred. Before a recent game, teammates ribbed Almora about an early July bout with hemorrhoids that forced him to leave a game against Quad Cities.
Almora’s response: a smile.
“I think he’s way beyond his years in baseball and in the mind,” reliever Stephen Perakslis said.
• • •
EXT. PARKING LOT, NIGHT
ALBERT ALMORA, showered and dressed after starting in center field for the Cougars, emerges from the home clubhouse at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark to greet his parents, who are in town from Florida.
Almora began reaping the rewards of a focused childhood early.
“We always treated him like a person, you know. Like a grown person,” Ana Almora said. “Even though he had everything he ever wanted, he didn’t know he was getting everything he ever wanted. We taught him in life, he has to work for everything he wants.”
Almora graduated Mater with a 4.3 grade-point average after a senior season in which he batted .603 with six home runs and 34 RBIs in 25 games.
For the latter part of his academic career, his mother, a former beauty salon owner, worked in the school registrar’s office, wanting to be close to her son.
The University of Miami offered Almora a scholarship when he was 15, and the family’s emphasis on academics never waned. As part of Almora’s contract, his mother said, the Cubs will pay for Almora’s college education if he enrolled within two years of the end of his career.
Gooriz and Mater administator Jose “Tiger” Nunez – a former longtime athletic director and family friend who called Almora’s work ethic “beyond comprehension” – often reiterated his mother’s pro-education message.
“They knew how big baseball was in my life, but the first thing they told me was, ‘Listen, if you’re not good in school, the chances of you playing ball or the chances of you even being able to go to school [in college] are going to be slim’ ” Almora said. “So I took it to heart. And I’ve always been a good student, so it was easy for me to stay in school and be good at it.”
• • •
INT. HALLWAY, DAYTIME
ALBERT ALMORA pauses and exhales while sitting on a trunk outside the Cougars’ clubhouse. He’s just been asked to name his favorite movie.
He sighs, not because there are too many titles to choose from, but because he really can’t say. He calls himself “more of an actor guy,” and mentions Mark Wahlberg, Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey.
The Cougars distributed Albert Almora travel mugs to the first 1,500 fans at Thursday’s game. The promotion’s muse might need one soon.
Almora arrives at the park each day uncertain about when he’ll make the next move up the Cubs’ organizational ladder. Advanced-A Daytona (Fla.) sure would be closer to home. Through Wednesday, he was batting a team-best .324 in 58 games despite hitting just .274 since the All-Star break.
“I can’t control it,” Almora said. “I can just control what I can do, you know. Keep playing hard and leave it up to them.”
“Them” refers to Cubs executives, people Gooriz dreamed of knowing even before they met with Almora and his parents on the heels of the 2012 draft. Handicapping the fan bases of the teams who held picks before the Cubs – Houston, Minnesota, Seattle, Baltimore and Kansas City – Gooriz figured the north side of Chicago would be the ultimate destination for the south Floridian.
“This kid playing in a stadium that appreciates baseball, and when they see what he can do on that field? They’re going to love him,” Gooriz said. “That kind of became my drive, was telling him you don’t want to go to Minnesota, you don’t want to go to Baltimore, you want to go to Chicago, man. He’s a gamer, and people would just love him.”
Almora doesn’t doubt the entourage that will follow if his development goes according to plan. He and a collection of other highly touted minor league talent, including Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, realize they slowly but surely are being branded as the future of the Cubs.
Still, Almora won’t stop until that’s a certainty, until he shows up at Wrigley Field to wear a uniform, not to take batting practice or visit with players, as he has since he was drafted.
By many counts, at least two offseasons remain before Cubs fans can reasonably imagine Almora in that movie.
“I know when he gets back to Miami, his dad will be sitting with a tee, a bucket, a bat and a sandwich,” Gooriz said.
Because of baseball, that sounds about right.