Alomar's long nightmare Spitting image: Orioles and star player still misread reaction to incident five months later.


NO INFIELDER ever misplayed a ball worse than the Orioles and Roberto Alomar have fumbled the damage control from his spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck last fall. Five months after the incident, the mild-mannered second baseman is still a poster child for incivility in sport.

Be done with it already. Barely a month goes by without team officials or owner Peter Angelos inflaming the matter: The Orioles announce they will "stand by" the player and pay him during his five-game suspension. A team official asserts Umpire Hirschbeck should keep criticism over that decision to himself. The Orioles reiterate their demand for the ump to apologize, maintaining that his abusive language provoked the incident.

The Orioles could take a cue from the National Basketball Association, which did Dennis Rodman a favor by suspending him immediately after he kicked a courtside photographer in the groin. Mr. Rodman quickly reached a cash settlement with his victim and returned to his role as America's court jester, chatting on the TV talk circuit and making a sitcom cameo. Debate the sanity beneath that rainbow hair, but not the media-savvy: Mr. Rodman understands that an athlete-entertainer can survive, even flourish, as the object of mockery but can't cross the line into contempt.

Mainstream sentiment will be clearer come Opening Day, but the press still freshly seethes over this scandal. A computer-search of the words "Alomar" and "spitting" turns up 1,200 stories in major U.S. newspapers. The national media will likely descend on Fort Myers March 17 when Mr. Hirschbeck umpires his first spring exhibition involving Baltimore.

Mr. Alomar is right that the cameras were unable to record the verbal exchange. But it is his spitting image that endures. Now is the time to end this distraction. Another heartfelt apology and an agreement to accept his suspension without pay, might be his best hope for closure of a controversy that does the Orioles and their second baseman no good.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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