Luis Polonia had a nomadic career, playing for six teams in his 12 major-league seasons. He was a .293 career hitter, and played for four World Series teams, including the champion 1995 Atlanta Braves and 2000 New York Yankees.1 He made a name for himself in Latin America, eventually being elected to the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame. His career was not without controversy both on and off the field. A visceral man, he could be happy one moment and testy or bitter the next. One thing he did not lack, however, was confidence.
Polonia was born on December 10, 1963, in Santiago, Dominican Republic. His father, Luciano, was a physician. Before Luciano went into medicine, he played “alongside Juan Marichal, Julian Javier and the Alou brothers. But Luciano Polonia is 5’4”, and never got a chance to leave the Dominican Republic.”2 Luis had at least three siblings — Umberto, Francisco, and Jose.3 In January 1984 Luis was signed as an amateur free agent by Juan Marichal, who was then scouting for the Oakland Athletics. He was discovered playing in the Dominican League, where he had distinguished himself at an early age.
Polonia began his professional career in 1984, playing with the Madison Muskies of the Class-A Midwest League. He batted .307, stole 55 bases, set the team mark with 10 triples, and scored 103 runs in 135 games played. He was a fan favorite in Madison, and was named the team’s most valuable player by both the club and the fans.4
Polonia moved up to Huntsville, the A’s Double-A affiliate, in 1985, and in 1986 played for Tacoma, their Triple-A team. He hit .289 for Huntsville and .301 for Tacoma. Beginning the 1987 season in Tacoma, Polonia was batting .321 after 14 games, with 18 runs scored, when he had sufficiently impressed the A’s to be called up to Oakland after an on-field collision between Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy sidelined Murphy.
Shortly after his call-up, Polonia hit his first major-league home run and first triple in a game against the Boston Red Sox on April 28. He was very excited about his first major-league home run. As for the triple, he said, “I was going for the triple, I hate doubles.”5
Polonia continued to impress his teammates and manager Tony LaRussa into early June. Mike Davis said, “Some kind of way we have to keep Luis in this lineup. To me he’s the igniter of our ball club right now.”6
In August Polonia ended a prolonged slump with a double, triple, sacrifice fly, and three RBIs against the Seattle Mariners. Perhaps what ignited his turnaround was that before the game he got into a scuffle with teammate Jose Canseco. What began as a shouting match soon turned to a shoving match. Reggie Jackson and hitting coach Bob Watson stepped in between the two before the fight escalated. Polonia said, “Sometimes when you joke around with somebody, you take the joke. But if you don’t feel good, you don’t take it. … I’m not afraid of nobody. I’m not going to hurt Jose, but I could find a lot of ways to do it. I’m not afraid.”7 Polonia ultimately acquitted himself well in his rookie campaign. He hit a solid .287, stole 27 bases, and scored 78 runs in 125 games played. The A’s finished the season at .500 but had a nucleus of young players and veteran leadership that promised good things to come.
The 1988 campaign began with Polonia anticipating a full season with the A’s. They had other plans and he was assigned to Tacoma. For a 24-year-old, with one partial year of big-league experience under his belt, he made waves by asking for a trade. “Right now, that’s my wish. I’m tired of coming down to the minors every year and waiting for someone to get hurt,” he said. “What should I expect? They signed three guys. Who got the worst part? Luis Polonia. I always get the worst part.”8
He did eventually get a call-up and spent the second half of the season with the A’s. What was apparent throughout the season was that Polonia did not fit into the A’s plans as more than a fourth outfielder. And he was an outfielder with a liability: a poor fielder. In fact, after he cost the A’s a game in the World Series with two misplays, the Los Angeles Times wrote of him: “The misadventures of Oakland’s Luis Polonia in the outfield Tuesday night recalled this line from the Times staffer Mike Penner: ‘He was best described last season by a teammate who provided a scouting report in the form of a Jeopardy question. A. Catch-22. Q. What do you get when you hit 100 fly balls to Luis Polonia?”’9 Despite that sentiment, in 84 games and 288 at-bats, Polonia hit .292 scored 51 runs, and stole 24 bases. But between his complaining about going down to the minors and poor fielding, his stay with the A’s was on shaky ground.
Polonia began the 1989 season with Oakland but was traded to the New York Yankees on June 21. He began his season slowly and by late April was hitting .214. By the time the trade was consummated, Polonia’s average had risen to .286 in 59 games. He was traded, along with Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret, for Rickey Henderson. Polonia was excited to be a Yankee, in part because of the large Dominican presence in the city. For the Yankees he batted .313 in 66 games.
One event in Milwaukee changed Polonia’s fortunes with the team. On August 17 he was arrested and charged with sexually assaulted an underage girl. The next day Polonia pleaded no contest, avoiding a felony charge. He was freed and ordered to return for sentencing after the season. On October 2 Polonia was sentenced to 60 days and fined $1,500. He was also ordered “to make a $10,000 contribution to Sinai Samaritan Medical Center’s sexual assault treatment center in Milwaukee.”10
Polonia began 1990 as a Yankee. But he was on tenuous footing due largely to the Milwaukee incident. After only 11 games played he was traded on April 29 to the California Angels. “On the surface, it was merely an exchange of a hit man for a guy [Claudell Washington] with pop, a case of both the Yankees and Angels filling vital needs,” a New York sportswriter wrote. “That’s the obvious reason for the trade. The underlying implications are more intriguing. Polonia became persona non grata after he pleaded guilty to having sex with a minor. … Polonia, on the other hand, never fit in. He was a lead off hitter, but the Yankees already had a good one in Steve Sax. And he was a defensive liability. Then the Milwaukee incident made him vulnerable.”11
For Polonia the trade to the Angels was a boon: Through 1993 he was an everyday player. It probably helped that he and manager Doug Rader seemed to hit off. What he could not shake was the backlash that persisted from his sexual-assault conviction.
Two separate incidents, the first during the 1990 season and the second in 1991, illustrate Polonia’s difficulties with fans. In July the Los Angeles Times reported, “The Alameda County district attorney will decide today whether claims by an 18-year-old spectator that he was struck by Angel outfielder Luis Polonia Thursday at the Oakland Coliseum warrant the filing of charges. … Polonia allegedly slapped or pushed a fan after batting practice Thursday, when he heard the youngster shout insults. … Polonia allegedly reached over the railing and made contact with the boy.”12
In May the Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock) reported, “This season Polonia, a California Angels outfielder and Angel Manager Doug Rader got into a screaming match with [Jim] Northrup because Northrup called Polonia, ‘Luis Lockup.’ … Polonia told Rader he was threatened and Rader attempted, unsuccessfully to have Northrup ejected. … ‘Luis Polonia was in a rage because I called him “Luis Lockup.” Okay, now he was guilty. What kind of example is that?’” Northrup said.13
Not all was bad for Polonia, however. He quickly found a home with his new team, and on August 29 got a break that turned him from a platoon player to an everyday player. Against the Texas Rangers, with the score tied in the seventh inning. Jack Howell had reached second base and Texas manager Bobby Valentine had Dick Schofield intentionally walked. Rangers southpaw John Barfield was on the mound.
“Luis Polonia looked to his left, but no one stirred,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “… Polonia looked to his right. Still no one moved. He looked to his manager, Doug Rader, and Polonia heard the words he never thought he would hear.”
Polonia reported that Rader told him, “Get ready to hit against the left-hander…Go out there,” adding, “that was the best thing he could do for me.”14 Polonia singled in Howell. That opened the floodgates, and before the inning was over the Angels scored seven times.
Two weeks earlier Polonia had exacted some revenge on the Yankees, when he struck an inside-the-park grand slam against them on August 14. Reflecting on the game, he said, “I got my heart broken by the Yankees and A’s. I get on fire every time I face them. I feel like I want to do so much. My heart is burning. … It was the Yankees who got burned Tuesday night.”15
Polonia finished the season batting .336 with the Angels. He played in 109 games. He also worked his way into everyday status moving into the new season. Polonia averaged 150 games played over the next three seasons. He averaged about 50 stolen bases a season and 80 runs scored. However, his batting averages dropped each season from .296 to .286 to .271. Entering free agency, Polonia signed with Yankees.
Polonia had always maintained that he wanted to return to New York. But by 1995 his role had changed and he found playing time diminished. Polonia and Yankees manager Buck Showalter did not see eye to eye.
Polonia batted a solid .311 in 95 games in 1994. He was a positive contributor to the Yankees’ season. His teammates appreciated him and didn’t mind poking fun at him either: “The Yankees hung a bat wrapped in tinfoil in their clubhouse yesterday to commemorate Luis Polonia’s home run Tuesday night. They called it the Silver Slugger Award. It was Polonia’s first home run in 650 at-bats.”16 The Yankees were in first place when the players strike ended the season in August. As he cleaned out his locker, Polonia said, “A weird day. … I’m going to stay five, six days. Something might happen.”17 As the article added: “It didn’t.”
Right from the start of the 1995 season, Polonia and Showalter were at odds. This had carried over from the previous year when Polonia was benched four consecutive games against left-handed starters in July. Showalter was upfront with Polonia, telling him he would see limited playing time against southpaws. But Polonia didn’t take that well. “I’m not happy. I know he’s experimenting, but I don’t like the idea. I don’t like playing ball, hitting eighth or ninth. I think I did excellent last year. … I was having fun. … Imagine me hitting only against right-handers and hitting eighth.”18
Polonia poked the wrong bear. With less playing time, he became more anxious. Not a recipe for success! In June he said, “I don’t want to be traded but if it comes to the point where I’m the one who will be sitting, they should be reasonable and let me go somewhere where I can play.”19
Reasonable the Yankees were, shipping Polonia off to Atlanta on August 11. The Braves acquired him to help the team in their stretch drive. Polonia played sparingly, getting in 28 games. In the playoffs and World Series, he contributed to the Braves championship run. In Game One of the Division Series between the Braves and Colorado Rockies, Polonia drove in David Justice on a slow roller that tied a tight ballgame in the sixth inning. A sacrifice by Polonia in Game One of the National League Championship Series with Cincinnati set up the winning run in the 11th inning. In the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, Polonia played the field in Games Three through Five, and was 4-for-14 with a home run and 4 RBIs.
With free agency looming, Polonia signed a nonguaranteed contract with the Seattle Mariners over the winter. He was released during spring training. On April 19 he signed with the Baltimore Orioles and was assigned to their Triple-A affiliate in Rochester. After 13 games he was called up to Baltimore.
Polonia’s play did not impress the Orioles. On June 19 he made a baserunning blunder that seemed to seal his ultimate fate. Wrote the Baltimore Sun: “… (T)he biggest offender in this game of Stupid Oriole Tricks was Luis Polonia, who got picked off second while dustin’ and adjustin’ his uniform pants. … ‘He wasn’t even looking at the pitcher or shortstop,’ [manager] Davey Johnson said, “He was looking at the ground. Then the guy turned around. We’re just not paying attention. That was just a vapor lock.”20
The Orioles designated Polonia for assignment on August 2. In 58 games played, he had hit .240. On his way out the door, an obviously bitter Polonia took a parting shot. Buster Olney reported, “Polonia sharply criticized the way the Orioles play, saying that while they have the talent to win, they won’t unless they approach the game more unselfishly.” Olney went on, quoting Polonia, “People on the Orioles are always worrying about what other people do, criticizing, instead of just going out and playing the game right.”21
“Players are critical? ‘Players and coaches,’ he said.”22
Two weeks later, on August 17, Polonia again signed with the Braves. Perhaps they were hoping that he would repeat his previous success. During the remainder of the season he was used sparingly. In 31 at-bats he hit .419. He also didn’t see much playing time in the postseason, going hitless in 10 at-bats and drawing a walk. But he was asked to contribute to the Braves in a unique way. “Polonia is the only Brave who has played for the Yankees, who has a feel for the dynamics of Yankee Stadium, who has some idea what it is like to play before the most rabid and volatile fans around. … Polonia said the biggest topic of conversation would be the dimensions of the playing field.”23
Perhaps it helped Atlanta. They won the first two games of the World Series, played in New York, before succumbing to the Yankees, four games to two.
When the season ended, Polonia had no contract. In March 1997 he signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They assigned him to the Mexico City Tigres. He hit .377 in 110 games, scored 105 runs, and stole 48 bases. That led to an invitation to spring training. However, Tampa Bay did not sign Polonia and he returned to Mexico City for the 1998 campaign. He had another stellar season, hitting .381.
On December 18, 1998, Polonia signed a minor-league contract with the Detroit Tigers. He was assigned to Toledo, their Triple-A affiliate, to start the season. After 42 games, he was called up. By mid-June Tigers manager Larry Parrish had said that Polonia had won the leadoff job. For Polonia, Detroit represented a triumph of perseverance. He said, “When you hang in there, God always gives you a chance. He gave me two bad years, maybe to see how I could take it. I always kept my faith.”24
Used almost exclusively as a designated hitter, Polonia played in 87 games. He hit .324, and added some pop, hitting 21 doubles, 8 triples, and 10 home runs. His .526 slugging percentage was 100 points over any other season in his career. This earned him a return for the 2000 season.
Opening Day. Comerica Park. Luis Polonia, leading off for the Tigers, tripled. He then was singled in, scoring the first run in the ballpark’s history. It could be argued that it was the highlight of his Detroit season in 2000. Though he continued to hit well, the Tigers were interested in seeing some of their younger prospects at the major-league level. As the trade deadline approached, they had another incentive to move on from Polonia. With just 52 more at-bats, he would be guaranteed a contract for 2001. Unable to trade him by the deadline, they released Polonia on July 31. In 80 games, he had hit .273.
Polonia didn’t have to wait long before the Yankees came calling. He signed on for a third stint with them on August 3. Joe Torre said of the signing, “We’re at a point now where we have to look at the little things that help you win a game here, there. … I’ve always liked him as a hitter. He’s got some speed. That makes up for problems he has defensively. And he works hard.”25
In 37 games Polonia hit .286. His primary role was to spell David Justice in the field, allowing Justice to DH as the season wore along. Seeing limited play in the postseason, he did have one notable appearance in the World Series. In Game One his single helped the Yankees overcome a one-run deficit in the ninth inning. The Yankees went on to win the game in extra innings. They also went on to win the World Series, defeating the New York Mets. This was Polonia’s swan song. After the Series he was made a free agent and never returned to the major leagues.
Polonia was not finished with baseball. He returned to play with the Mexico City Tigres for the 2001 and 2002 seasons. He also continued playing winter ball with the Dominican Republic. That led to continued appearances in the Caribbean Series, which the Dominican team won with regularity. In total Polonia made 14 appearances in that series. He also represented the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. In 2006, at age 42, he replaced an injured Vladimir Guerrero in the WBC.
Polonia also opened a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. In 2016 he was named to the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame He finished his playing career in 2010.
Polonia had three children. One son, Rodney, was signed by the Pirates organization. His two other children went into careers as entertainers: Albert is a rap artist, Bianca an entertainer and singer. Luis also acted in the 2018 film Jugando a’ Bailar. Surprisingly, he plays a baseball player.
Polonia ultimately had a long and fruitful career. He played in 1,379 games and batted .293. He played an important role on two pennant-winning teams, the 1988 A’s and 1994 Yankees, who didn’t play postseason baseball because of a labor dispute. He played in four World Series with the: A’s, Braves (twice), and Yankees.
Perhaps he overvalued his own contributions. Certainly he felt he was an everyday player. With the exception of the California Angels, not one team he played for felt the same way. His strengths were that he could hit, he had speed, and from accounts, he was a good teammate.
His weaknesses were that he was a one-dimensional singles hitter. He was a poor baserunner, and while he stole 321 bases in the major leagues, he was thrown out 145 times, leading the league in that category three times. He was also a poor fielder. His career wins above replacement score (WAR) stands at 9.0.
But Polonia really stands out for his tenacity. He never stopped believing in himself. It would have been easy to give up his dream after spending two years in Mexico City, but he picked himself up and refused to let his dream die away. Twice, in mid- and late career, he signed minor-league contracts, and then earned a spot on a major-league roster. So it can be said of him, he had a good career.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:
1 Polonia also played in the 1988 World Series with the Oakland Athletics and in the 1996 Series with the Braves.
2 Robyn Norwood, “Polonia Aims to Give Angels a Quick Start,” Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1992: 222.
3 Mark Kriegel, “Bronx Beams as Luis Makes Turn for Home,” New York Daily News, April 4, 1994: 52.
4 “Polonia’s First Season a Most Valuable One,” Wisconsin State Journal (Madison), September 12, 1984: 23.
5 Frank Blackman, “Polonia Just Having Fun,” San Francisco Examiner, April 29, 1987: 58.
6 Frank Blackman, “Polonia Has Made His Mark: A’s Must Find Him a Spot,” San Francisco Examiner, June 2, 1987: 53.
7 Frank Blackman, “Pugnacious Polonia Beats Up Mariners,” San Francisco Examiner, August 11, 1987: 51, 55.
8 Frank Blackman, “Majors: Polonia Wants Trade,” San Francisco Examiner, April 11, 1988: 56.
9 “Boston Masterpieces Hang in the Garden,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1988: 183.
10 Michael Kay, “Luis Gets Sixty Days,” New York Daily News, October 3, 1989: 68.
11 Phil Pepe, “Luis Swapped for Claudell,” New York Daily News, April 30, 1990: 43.
12 Helene Elliott, “Bay Area District Attorney Mulls Charges Against Angels’ Polonia,” Los Angeles Times, July 27, 1990: 50.
13 Ken Boatmen, “Players See, Know Their Enemies,” Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), May 29, 1991: 42.
14 Helene Elliott, “Angels Let Polonia Hit, and Hit He Does,” Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1990: 54.
15 Helene Elliott, “An Inside Job for Polonia,” Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1990: 114, 118.
16 Jeff Bradley, “Flashes,” New York Daily News, June 30, 1994: 78.
17 Jeff Bradley, “Short Year,” New York Daily News, August 12, 1994: 23.
18 Jeff Bradley, “Buck Tinkering Peeves Polonia,” New York Daily News, April 18, 1995: 44.
19 Tom Pedulla, “Ripken, Orioles Pound Yankees,” Journal News (White Plains, New York), June 20, 1995: 25.
20 Ken Rosenthal, “It Might Be Difficult to Seek Shelter, When You’re Not in the Storm,” Baltimore Sun, June 20, 1996: 173.
21 Buster Olney, “Polonia, Heading Toward Exit, Takes a Shot,” Baltimore Sun, August 3, 1996: 31.
23 Curtis Bunn, “Polonia Spreading The News About Playing in New York,” Atlanta Constitution, October 19, 1996: C11.
24 John Lowe, “Polonia’s Arrival a Top Surprise,” Detroit Free Press, June 10, 1999: 49.
25 Ronald Blum, “Yanks Re-Sign Luis Polonia,” Ithaca Journal, August 4, 2000: 17.