Baseball needed this like it needed another work stoppage. Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck and set off an ugly chain of events that once again turned America's game into America's shame.
What timing. The image of the national pastime has been in a state of slow repair since the lengthy players strike wiped out the 1994 World Series and left fans disillusioned and disenfranchised. The postseason -- featuring several teams with nationwide appeal -- figured to help in that revival. There even is room for hope that a comprehensive new labor agreement will be struck some time during the coming winter.
Another day, another public relations disaster. Alomar may have had a legitimate gripe when Hirschbeck called him out on a pitch that appeared to be well out of the strike zone Friday night, but that quickly became irrelevant.
If he had blown his stack in the manner of Earl Weaver, it would have been forgotten by morning. If he had bumped the umpire in anger, it would have led to a short suspension. If he had taken the Gatorade bucket out of the Orioles dugout and dumped it over Hirschbeck's head, it would not have caused the national stir that has resulted from his display of disrespect.
Then Alomar made the matter many times worse in an ill-fated attempt to explain himself after the game, invoking the death of Hirschbeck's 7-year-old son as a possible explanation of why the umpire might have had a bad attitude.
If ever the public had reason to lose faith again in the game and its stars, this was it. Alomar was supposed to be one of the good guys, and there he was, acting out a scene every bit as ugly as anything -- and maybe everything -- ever pinned on perennial bad boy Albert Belle.
American League president Gene Budig moved swiftly to impose a five-game suspension on Alomar, but he may have moved too swiftly. He clearly misread the seriousness of the situation and managed only to compound the disrespect that had been shown to Hirschbeck and the umpires of both leagues.
Five games is the same penalty given to players who roll around in the dirt over a hit-by-pitch. No wonder umpires have voted to boycott the postseason.
Budig wanted to avoid punishing the entire Orioles team for Alomar's mistake, but it ended up looking as if he were more interested in window dressing than in actually addressing a serious situation.
However, Budig is bound by a disciplinary system that already is an insult to the umpires, the fans and the intelligence of anyone else who has seen it flouted and circumvented by the players, their teams and their litigation-happy union representatives.
Alomar was suspended for five regular-season games, but he had the option of appealing the suspension so that he could stall long enough to help the Orioles clinch a playoff spot. Players routinely appeal their suspensions until it is more convenient to serve them, then routinely drop the action, knowing that an appeal is futile because it will be heard by the same official who made the original decision.
If the penalty is severe enough, the union representatives go to work, threatening to file a grievance or take other legal action to undermine the decision of the league president.
That happened earlier this year, when Belle was disciplined for allegedly trying to injure Milwaukee Brewers infielder Fernando Vina. The union came to Belle's defense, seemingly more interested in picking a fight with management than in protecting the safety of the other union member involved in the collision.
The umpires cannot complain on that count. Major League Umpires Association chief Richie Phillips also has worked to assure that the league presidents have little control over the behavior of the umpires, which has served to heighten tensions between the umpires and the players.
The situation has been aggravated by the leadership vacuum that has existed since baseball owners decided that they didn't want an independent commissioner telling them what to do. Bud Selig has tried to fill the commissioner's chair, but his conflicting roles as club owner and interim commissioner make it impossible for him to be an effective leader.
Not that a strong commissioner could have prevented what happened on Friday night, but a strong, independent commissioner would have been in a position to act decisively -- in the best interests of baseball -- and minimize the damage to the image of the game.
Pub Date: 10/01/96