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Alomar answers in the end AL DIVISION SERIES

CLEVELAND — CLEVELAND -- Roberto Alomar stood in the middle of the champagne-soaked Orioles clubhouse, conducting a live radio interview.

He had hit the game-tying single and the game-winning homer to put the Orioles into the American League Championship Series.

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He had answered question after question, made apology after apology, kept his composure amid the booing, the umpires' protests, the unrelenting media storm.

And then he saw his brother.

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Sandy Alomar Jr. headed straight to Robbie in the clubhouse, embracing his playoff opponent briefly, but firmly.

Not a word was spoken.

But Roberto Alomar burst into tears.

It is over now, this tumultuous Division Series, and maybe this national indictment of a man and his sport.

Umpire John Hirschbeck issued a statement last night forgiving Alomar for spitting on him, saying, "It is time to bring closure to this matter."

Alomar responded with a statement thanking Hirschbeck and his wife and repeating his pledge to make a personal apology.

Even commissioner Bud Selig got into the act, saying that Hirschbeck's statement "gives baseball the springboard it needs to move on."

Alomar can only hope.

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"I'm glad everything has come to an end," he said. "I did what I have to do. I'm a man. I said I made a mistake. I apologized to him and his family. Now, I have to continue to play baseball."

Play in the championship series against New York, in the middle of the tabloid circus, before the most hostile fans in baseball.

Then again, maybe rival fans will learn they are better off not inciting Alomar.

The Orioles second baseman outlasted the crowd at Jacobs Field yesterday, outlasted the Indians, outlasted everyone.

How he did it, no one knows.

"I see him. I look at him. I think some of the life, some of the joy, was pulled out of him in the last week," shortstop Cal Ripken said.

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But little by little, it came back yesterday. The Orioles were down to their final strike in the ninth when Alomar tied the score with a single off Cleveland closer Jose Mesa. And they still faced the daunting possibility of a Game 5 when Alomar led off the 12th with a homer off Mesa, giving the Orioles a 4-3 lead.

Alomar, 28, has always had a flair for the dramatic -- remember his home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 championship series?

But yesterday, he entered another realm.

The great ones maintain an unusual level of calm when the pressure is highest, but Alomar was a man on an island, and he still rescued his team.

Rescued it with a 10th-inning homer to clinch the wild-card berth in Toronto, then rescued it on a day the Orioles set a postseason record with 23 strikeouts.

You can question the morality of it.

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You can argue that Alomar should be out of the playoffs.

You can even claim that the series MVP was American League president Gene Budig, who suspended Alomar for only five regular-season games.

But how many times must a man apologize?

At what point does the punishment -- the overwhelming public backlash -- stop fitting the crime?

"What he did was obviously not justified," center fielder Brady Anderson said. "But I think he's paid for it the last five to six days."

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner made the self-serving claim that he would have personally suspended Alomar.

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The fans in Cleveland who regularly cheer Albert Belle treated Alomar as if he were Art Modell.

And the umpires staged their dog-and-pony show.

"What do they want to do, put him on a cross and crucify him?" Sandy Alomar, the Indians' catcher, asked after the umpires announced their plans to strike. "Crucify him, then."

The pressure clearly got to Alomar -- he was 2-for-11 in the series before going 3-for-6 yesterday.

But still, his teammates expected him to come through.

"I knew he would," said Orioles catcher Mark Parent, a former teammate of Alomar's in San Diego. "He's that good. He's that confident.

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"He has that special ability that every young player and old player like myself wishes they had, and they're ashamed that they only wish they could be like that."

Alomar's home run was the decisive blow yesterday, but it would not have been possible without his RBI single over shortstop Omar Vizquel's head.

On a 1-2 count. With two outs in the ninth.

And the Indians leading 3-2.

"It blew life into us," Ripken said.

"It was like a knife through my heart," Vizquel said.

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Alomar told Sandy later that he could barely pick up the ball in the twilight and shadows enveloping Jacobs Field.

"It was a great pitch," Sandy said. "He just went up there and kind of threw the bat trying to make contact. Then he comes up later and wins the game."

In the interview room afterward, a reporter asked Alomar to describe his hit.

"Which one?" Alomar asked impishly.

"The homer, the homer," said Ripken, sitting next to him. "The big homer."

"Let's put it this way: We have two more steps to go," Alomar said. "I will describe that home run if we all go the way to the World Series. After that, I'll let you know."

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He seemed happy, but moments later, he was in the clubhouse, embracing Sandy, succumbing to his emotions.

The tears streamed down his face.

So much to regret, so much to overcome, so much to endure.

Pub Date: 10/06/96


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