Alomar's inappropriate act led to whole week of them

THE BALTIMORE SUN

And so by ordering the umpires back to work Friday, Judge Edmund Ludwig temporarily ended one of the most embarrassing chapters in baseball history, a week after Roberto Alomar spat in the face of John Hirschbeck.

What a week it was, a week in which the principals involved, from Alomar to the major-league officials to umpires to many of the media covering the story, distinguished themselves for their inappropriate actions.

* What Alomar did was dumb. Hirschbeck was right in what he said the day after Alomar spat in his face: Even if Hirschbeck called Alomar an obscenity -- and there is evidence that Hirschbeck did, though not of a racial nature -- spitting was not an appropriate response. Alomar should've walked away. He's a professional player who's been dealing with umpires his entire life, and he should've known better.

What Alomar said about Hirschbeck's demeanor, that the umpire has changed since the death of his 7-year-old son, John, in 1993, was totally inappropriate. Alomar repeated the statement several times the next day. There's no doubt he meant no malice in this; Alomar was only trying to give a context for the spitting incident. It's just the wrong thing to say.

What if someone close to Alomar was involved in some sort of tragedy, and an umpire suggested that Alomar's defense had suffered since the tragedy? He would've been incensed.

For three days, Alomar didn't apologize for a reference to Hirschbeck's son John, and when Alomar did apologize, it came in the form of a press release that he, quite obviously, didn't write.

(The morning after the spitting incident, Orioles general manager Pat Gillick suggested that in speaking to reporters, Alomar suffers somewhat from the fact that English is his second language. Two days later, the club released an apology, in Alomar's name, loaded with words worthy of the Harvard Law Review.)

Alomar has always been a respectful person, a good citizen. He just made some terrible mistakes.

* Hirschbeck does have a short fuse. Whether it's related to his family tragedy is his business. But he does react aggressively to criticism. On May 31, Orioles pitcher David Wells argued from the mound about Hirschbeck's interpretation of the strike zone, and when the inning was over, Hirschbeck intercepted Wells as he walked back to the dugout, and escalated the argument.

Hirschbeck made a terrible call on the third strike to Alomar. The ball was eight inches to a foot outside. Alomar complained mildly at first. He did not demonstrate with his hands, or get in Hirschbeck's face. He did not flip his bat in disgust, something umpires can't stand.

Alomar walked back to the dugout, continuing his argument over his shoulder. Hirschbeck told him to shut up a couple of times, to quit the argument, and Alomar told him, from the bench, to pay attention to the game. By usual standards, nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly not in a pennant race game.

But Hirschbeck ejected Alomar, for the second time in two years. Manager Davey Johnson raced out of the Orioles' dugout, with Alomar right behind him, asking why the second baseman had been ejected. In so many words, Johnson asked, why are you throwing my best player out of such a big game?

According to members of the Orioles' organization, Hirschbeck replied that he didn't care about Alomar, referring to him in an obscene epithet commonly known by the initials SOB. The next day, Hirschbeck, respected around baseball for his integrity, denied calling Alomar anything.

But television replay on ESPN suggests -- if you believe in lip-reading -- that Hirschbeck went on to call Alomar by another, non-racial obscenity, before Alomar spit in his face.

That Alomar spat in Hirschbeck's face is inexcusable. That Hirschbeck escalated the incident is undeniable. That Hirschbeck was permitted to umpire last Sunday's game, after charging into the Orioles' clubhouse Saturday morning and threatening to kill Alomar, is unbelievable, evidence of the lack of leadership in baseball.

* American League president Gene Budig acted swiftly, suspending Alomar for five games the next morning. What logic he used in coming up with five games is not known, because Budig has generally been unavailable for comment.

But think of the five-game suspension in these terms: A player who doctors a baseball or bat is suspended for 10 games. As one umpire said last week, you can spit on a baseball and get 10 games. Spit on an umpire and you get five.

As manager of the Cincinnati Reds, in a position of authority, Pete Rose pushed an umpire and received a 30-day suspension. Based on that precedent, Alomar should've gotten 20 games.

On Tuesday, when there was a doubt whether the regular umpires would work, Budig was in Baltimore. But he did not meet with reporters, did not step up and tell everybody what was happening. Umpire supervisor Marty Springstead, a former umpire and friends with many of the current umpires, was left to straddle the issues and say he really didn't know what was happening.

It was strange to see, as events unfolded, players association head Don Fehr serving, in effect, as a spokesman for Major League Baseball, publicly answering the question everyone wanted answered -- would Alomar be suspended in the postseason? Budig and Bud Selig should've cleared up that issue Tuesday.

* Privately, the umpires didn't believe they could force an immediate suspension of Alomar. They are under contract, with a no-strike clause. What they wanted to do was publicly protest Budig's five-game suspension of Alomar.

They threatened to sit out the playoffs, then didn't show up at Camden Yards until 17 minutes before the scheduled start of Game 1. They held up the start of Game 1 in New York, too.

Everybody got the message. But the umpires persisted; the rhetoric from union counsel Richie Phillips continued, even when they knew they weren't going to win. Phillips said the umpires would not return, so long as Alomar was on the field, a silly protest -- once Budig made his ruling, Alomar had no control of the situation. If they had a problem with Budig, they should've made Budig the focal point of their complaints, not Alomar.

When Alomar made his belated apology, with a charitable donation of $50,000 from Alomar and a $50,000 donation from the Orioles, the umpires union rejected the expression of regret, and asked that the charity be rejected, as well. All week, Phillips and the union invoked the name of Hirschbeck and Hirschbeck's dead son in a fight they knew they weren't going to win, to the point where it seemed as if they were exploiting the tragedy. What Alomar said was inappropriate. What the umpires did was calculated, almost cynical.

On Friday, the umpires went back to work, and Al Clark uttered this: "Ladies and gentlemen, as I've said before, we are the group that represents the honesty and integrity of our national game."

Please. As if players such as Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken and Tom Glavine have nothing to do with baseball's integrity.

* The national media leaped on this story, as the playoffs began, and by the end of the week the issue had grown from a case of an angry player, with a clean track record, spitting on an umpire to something of a metaphor for America. There was a rush to judgment, to condemn Alomar, as bombing suspect Richard Jewell was quickly condemned at the Olympics before he'd been charged with anything. Alomar has been referred to as an animal.

What's wrong with this country, some talking heads have asked, when a player can spit on an ump?

If a player assaulting an umpire can be used as a barometer of what's wrong in America, then we've had lots of problems for lots of years; there have been physical confrontations between players and umpires for years.

This is what it comes down to: Roberto Alomar did something really dumb, and he should be punished severely. That's it.

O's eye shortstop Garcia

* The Orioles want to find an everyday shortstop for next season, and right now, their primary target is Pirates infielder Carlos Garcia, who is available because Pittsburgh wants to reduce its payroll.

* Phillies catcher Benito Santiago is surprised Philadelphia hasn't offered him a multi-year deal. The Phillies want Mike Lieberthal to be their everyday catcher. "If they want to go with Lieberthal next year," said Santiago, "I wish the guy the best. But he's not ready."

* The Colorado Rockies want to re-sign MVP candidate Ellis Burks, but only if he agrees to play center field. The Rockies probably will pursue free-agent catcher Terry Steinbach.

The Rockies, incidentally, signed utility infielder Jeff Huson to a minor-league contract for next year, with an invitation to come to spring training.

Bonds leaving Giants?

* New San Francisco general manager Bob Sabean downplayed the published report that the Giants will trade Barry Bonds this off-season.

"I'd be shocked if there is a deal out there [for Bonds] where a club would come to us and make our team better for the long term and short term. It would almost have to knock us over."

Notice that he didn't say no. The Florida Marlins reportedly are trying to put together an offer for Bonds, and then will try to sign Bobby Bonilla and have a Pirates reunion, with new manager Jim Leyland.

* The Dodgers would like to re-sign shortstop Greg Gagne for next year, but he's not certain he wants to return to Los Angeles; Gagne would prefer to play near his home, in Boston, but the Red Sox already have Nomar Garciaparra and John Valentin.

Pub Date: 10/06/96

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°