CHICAGO — You know how it ends — with a baseball resting in Albert Almora’s glove, a pitcher tipping his cap, a stunned batter dropping his head and fans tuning in to SportsCenter to check out the center fielder’s latest top 10-worthy catch.
But how does he do it? And how does he remain healthy as he keeps doing it? We went to the source, along with a teammate and even his own mother to get the story as Almora takes us inside one running, jumping, hitting-the-ground-hard catch.
This particular highlight came in the first inning of an April 22 game in Colorado, taking extra bases away from Nolan Arenado on a hard-hit ball to left-center … and was just one of at least five times the center fielder took hits away from Rockies hitters over the course of two recent series.
“When the ball is in the air, everything slows down,” Almora said. “As I’m running toward it, a lot of thoughts are running through my head. First off, am I going to get to it? Am I going to make a sliding catch or diving headfirst slide? As I got closer to that one, I thought I had a chance so I went for it.”
Known for his acrobatic ability in the outfield dating back to his days at Mater Academy just outside Miami, Almora was then new Cubs president Theo Epstein’s first pick (and the sixth overall selection) in the 2012 draft.
“I had to jump up just because of the angle the ball was going,” Almora continued. “Once I knew I caught the ball, in my head, I have to get up and throw it because there was a man on second. Catch the ball, make the somersault, then make the throw. Then worry about myself.”
“Worrying about himself” is what five-time Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward has stressed to the 24-year-old as he watches from across the outfield. Banging into walls and hitting the ground hard aren’t exactly the best strategies for a long career.
“He’s not afraid of anything,” Heyward said. “That’s one thing he has to figure out — how to minimize the head bangs and all that stuff. If anything, that’s what will change. He’ll be more aware and more attentive.”
Almora smiles when he hears Heyward’s words of wisdom. And he takes it in, but it may be a while before he changes his style.
“Once you hit the ground, you know it hurts a little bit. But once you finish and get rid of the ball, then you worry,” Almora said, referencing his Colorado catch. “Next day, I felt banged up but I just turned 24. My body can handle these things right now.”
Almora needed a moment after his somersault at Coors Field. Manager Joe Maddon later joked that he didn’t want to have to make another long run out to check on his outfielder, though he ended up doing so near the end of that game. Almora banged into the wall in the ninth inning that day, making another great catch.
“That last one in Colorado, in the ninth inning, I didn’t have a bad break, but I wasn’t aware of how close I was to the wall,” Almora said. “So that’s a negative in my opinion. That’s why I was kind of upset. I usually take a peek, and I didn’t do it. I got confident thinking it was a bigger park. That’s when I hit the wall.”
Almora admits that many great catches start with a poor jump, but others only happen because of a great one that makes an impossible play become a possibility.
“I’ve always been a big believer that when you do see a ridiculous catch, most of the time it’s after a bad break, but I can honestly say I haven’t had one this year,” he said.
And that’s one reason he keeps making them. The other is a fearless attitude. It’s what Heyward recognized in him early on, though Almora got away from his aggressive style after first being called up from the minors.
“It’s natural for young players,” Epstein said. “Sometimes you can be afraid to make a mistake, and you may not play for a few days … You can tell he’s really being himself when he’s being aggressive on defense. His first couple years he was a good defender but he didn’t play with quite the same conviction and aggressiveness as he did in the minor leagues.”
“I’m in heaven every time I see him perform. (But) I’m terrified. I always pray to God to keep him safe back there.” Albert Almora’s mother, Ana, on watching her son play center field.
After choosing to skip college to sign with the Cubs, he became known for his defense while robbing hitters at every level of the minor leagues. But the highlight-reel plays didn’t follow him to the majors — until now.
“[Epstein] made a great point,” Almora said. “We talked about it in the spring. They challenged me to be myself. I said, ‘OK, that’s easy.’ Sometimes you’ll see me diving for balls and come up short. That’s just me. They’ve given me that freedom.”
But Almora can express that freedom and continue to help his pitchers only if he can stay on the field.
“He jumps like he’s jumping into the pool,” Heyward said with a smile. “When he lands, there is not going to be water. That’s what I told him in Colorado the first time he dove. I was like, ‘Man, this isn’t water out here. This is the ground. Just remember that when you dive.'”
Almora says he actually does have a diving strategy to stay safe — or at least safer.
“If you notice my knee buckles and I kind of land knee first. I’m kind of bracing. I had one incident in Double-A where I flew full extension and I landed tummy first. I got whiplash and a concussion, so maybe that’s in the back of my mind to brace the impact.”
As you would imagine, family members also brace for impact when Almora goes flying through the air — though they do love watching the highlights after the fact.
“I’m in heaven every time I see him perform,” his mother, Ana, said. “[But] I’m terrified. I always pray to God to keep him safe back there.”
Almora added: “She always asks, ‘How do you feel?’ But she’s been seeing me do this and crazier things as a kid.”
One thing that has changed since Almora’s childhood is that the moments are replayed on highlight shows and social media. Does he watch?
“I see myself because it goes through my feed but I’m not sitting there looking for them,” Almora said nonchalantly.
Meanwhile, fans should get used to Almora moments popping up in their own social-media feeds, even if it means having his mother worry and the Cubs training staff run out to check on him from time to time. This is who he is.
“I’m going to do me,” Almora said. “If I hit a wall, I hit a wall. If I make a great play, hey, that’s what I’m supposed to do.”