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'The duende' exists in Alomar, Orioles

What can we say about Roberto Alomar and that game on Saturday in Cleveland? "Duende" is the word that came to my mind over the weekend, and please allow me to explain. This is not a word to be used casually and, from what I can see in the American press, it is not -- and probably because it takes some careful explaining each time.

What is duende? You might say it is charisma, passion, panache, flair, chemistry. It is soul, style, grace under pressure, star quality. But, as the late jazz critic George Frazier put it, duende is all of that "to the nth power." Duende, he wrote, "is heightened panache, or overpowering presence . . . that certain something."

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In great performances -- music, dance, acting, poetry, sports -- it is that which separates mere talent from genius. Frazier heard duende in the horn of Miles Davis. And he once put it this way: "It was what Ted Williams had even when striking out, but Stan Musial lacked when hitting a home run." And -- you must understand this in order to understand duende -- he did not mean that as a put-down of Stan the Man.

Duende is a psychic-spiritual thing. The literal Spanish definition of duende is "hobgoblin" or "ghost." The Spanish expression "tener duende" means "to have what it takes." But the word has much larger meaning, you see, and the fun comes in the search for that larger meaning. Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet and author of "Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter," called duende the "energetic instinct" that no flamenco dancer or matador could be without.

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"To help us seek the duende there are neither maps nor discipline," Garcia Lorca wrote. "All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned, that it breaks with all styles."

During a discussion of this subject in this space several years ago, former basketball coach and sports pundit Paul Baker wrote: "Duende is turning the tide, making a difference and winning the day, all with style and grace. It can be an isolated act or a person's entire being. . . . Duende runs a fine line between a heroic figure and a jerk. Body language, physical appearance, dress, voice, mettle, timing and dispatch are amalgams of duende."

I think it is what a lot of us mean when we describe something -- an event, a moment in time -- as "almost surreal."

And that is why I reached for the word after Roberto Alomar hit the home run to win that game in Cleveland.

If "the duende" was ever present in American sport, it was with the Orioles, and Alomar specifically, in The Jake in the long shadows of Saturday afternoon. (Duende, the poets tell us, often emerges from the shadows and the dark edges of life.)

When you add it all up -- an incredibly tense, extra-inning playoff game; 23 strikeouts against the Orioles; a pop-up that fell behind the mound, Cal Ripken stumbling as he ran past second base; victory in the 12th inning -- when you do the emotional math of that game, you end up with a bottom line heavy with "the duende." Soaked in it. Swollen with it.

All of which was taken to "the nth power" by Alomar's performance under the strain of a long week of public condemnation for his spitting in the face of an umpire. His ears inflamed with boos, Alomar hit a single in the ninth inning that brought the Orioles back from the dead and tied the fourth game with the Indians. Then he hit the home run that put Baltimore another step closer to a World Series. Then he had his apology accepted by the umpire John Hirschbeck. Then he embraced his older brother, the Cleveland catcher, Sandy Alomar.

And then, Roberto Alomar cried. It was a day of irony, redemption and, ultimately, profound humanity.

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"I'm a man," he told the sportswriters. "I said I made a mistake. I apologized to [Hirschbeck] and his family. Now, I have to continue to play baseball."

Duende is not a halo but an aura. It lives with Roberto Alomar. It might have lived with him before Saturday -- his awesome athletic skills alone might have qualified him for a Top 100 of "duendeistas" -- but what emerged from the autumn shadows was most definitely that mysterious thing we try so hard to understand and describe. That which humbles the rest of us.

Doesn't get any better

Watching the playoffs on television is irresistible. But I'm getting a kick out of listening to Chuck Thompson and Fred Manfra do the play-by-play through a pocket Westinghouse six-transistor radio that, though 30 years old, still crackles when I snap it on. It still works, if you hold it just right and catch WBAL's signal. As a friend of mine said the other day: "Chuck on the radio, calling the Orioles in the playoffs in October. It doesn't get any better than that."

After 13 years, it's great to have this experience in our lives again, isn't it?

% Bring on the Yankees.

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Pub Date: 10/07/96


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