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Roberto Alomar heard plenty of opinions during batting practice. From his Orioles teammates. From club officials. From his agent, Jaime Torres.

But as game time approached, hardly anyone knew whether the Orioles' second baseman would acknowledge umpire John Hirschbeck when he took the field last night at Camden Yards.

Davey Johnson said he offered Alomar the chance to accompany him to his meeting with the umpires during the exchange of lineup cards. But Alomar said he preferred to meet Hirschbeck at first base, one on one.

"A lot of people said, 'Don't do anything,' " Johnson said last night after the Orioles' 3-2 victory over Chicago. "But Robbie's a great guy. He publicly wanted to say, 'Here's my hand of friendship. I'm sorry.' "

But it still wasn't decided.

Johnson said Alomar didn't want to embarrass Hirschbeck, so the manager broached the idea to the umpire during the pre-game meeting at home plate. Hirschbeck agreed, and Johnson gave Alomar the word.

After nearly seven months, peace was at hand.

"He wanted to do the right thing. He didn't know what the right thing was," Orioles assistant GM Kevin Malone said. "I just said, 'Robbie, do what you think is right, do what is in your heart. You will make the right decision.' "

And so Alomar did.

He began jogging from the Orioles' dugout to his position at second base, then took a detour to meet Hirschbeck, the first base umpire, in short right field.

"He caught me by surprise," said Torres, who was sitting in Gillick's box on the club level. "I was not even looking at the field. I was reading an article."

When Torres looked up, he saw Alomar extend his right hand and Hirschbeck do the same, his face expressionless. The two shook hands, exchanged a few words. Alomar put his glove hand on the umpire's shoulder. And he apologized.

"I was kind of watching. I had no idea what he was going to do," Malone said. "When he hit the [first base] bag, it looked like he was going to his position. But then it looked like his heart took him to Hirschbeck."

The encounter lasted maybe five seconds.

The crowd of 38,392 cheered, recognizing the significance of Alomar's gesture.

It won't erase the fact that he spit on Hirschbeck in Toronto last Sept. 27. It probably won't prevent him from getting booed on the road.

But at least it brought closure to one of the ugliest chapters in baseball history.

"He apologized to me," Hirschbeck said. "I said, 'That's great. Maybe now everyone will leave us alone, let us move on.' "

It's time.

Finally, it's time.

"When the whole series is over, I think it will be best for everybody," said Hirschbeck, who will be the plate umpire in tonight's series finale against Chicago.

Hirschbeck said he was not nervous -- "I don't feel I have anything to nervous about" -- but this night was indeed different. A major-league security official drove the umpires to Camden Yards. Usually, they walk from their downtown hotel.

Once at the park, they walked to the umpires' room through an area blocked off to the media. Alomar, meanwhile, met briefly with a crowd of reporters. Asked if he would approach Hirschbeck, he said, "That's something between him and I."

Apparently, he still hadn't made up his mind.

After the game, he declined to comment.

Maroon, the club's PR director, recalled telling the second baseman, "Taking the field is one thing. But there are two things. Perception and reality.

"While the reality of it is that you and John are past it, the perception is that maybe you're not. And the public, for their own satisfaction, has to see something, whether that's right or wrong."

How did Alomar react?

"He didn't say much," Maroon said. "He just kind of listened."

Gillick said he told Alomar, "Be natural. Go out and play the game. Have a good time. Be yourself."

Earlier in the afternoon, Hirschbeck sat in his hotel room, talking about the tense night ahead.

Would he be thinking about the incident on the field?

"No, no, no, really not," Hirschbeck said. "I'm being honest. You keep it in perspective. That was last season. It's over. It's done. You take each game, try to do everything right, not miss any plays.

"We're all human. That happens. But you take each day as a new day."

How did he expect the crowd to react?

"He's a great ballplayer. I'm sure they'll cheer him like they always do," Hirschbeck said. "As far as myself, I don't know. I don't really feel there'll be any animosity toward me. I don't know why there should be.

"[Baltimore] has always been one of my favorite cities to come to. I don't want that to change."

As it turned out, there were scattered boos when Hirschbeck's name was announced, but that was it.

His closest play at first was on a double-play ball by Jeffrey Hammonds in the eighth. A run would have scored if Hammonds had beaten the throw, but he was out by half a step, and Hirschbeck made a strong call.

No one protested.

It was a night for healing, a night for forgiveness, a night to move on.

"I hope we can put it to rest now," Johnson said. "Robbie has done everything he can to make amends. It was a good gesture on Robbie's part, a good gesture on John's part. I'm glad it's over."

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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