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Roberto Alomar took a slight detour on the way to second base last night. He veered into right field and stopped for a very public -- and very private -- meeting with umpire John Hirschbeck just moments before the start of the game between the Orioles and Chicago White Sox.

They shook hands. The Camden Yards crowd cheered its approval. And, perhaps with that brief moment of personal contact, brought to a close one of the most unpleasant episodes in recent baseball history.

It has been 6 1/2 months since Alomar spit on Hirschbeck during a heated argument at SkyDome in Toronto. The Orioles' second baseman has apologized publicly for the incident. He has donated a large sum of money to the foundation seeking a cure for the disease that took the life of one of Hirschbeck's young sons. He recently agreed to donate the money he was paid during his five-day suspension to charity.

He had done all the right things to put the incident behind him, and yet the world seemed to be waiting for last night's face-to-face meeting to bring closure to the whole ugly affair.

"I hope so," Hirschbeck said after the game. "I hope that now that you've seen us shake hands, you'll let it go. All along, I felt like, let me get into Baltimore and we can get this behind us."

Hirschbeck was not surprised by Alomar's abrupt right turn. He had been told by Orioles manager Davey Johnson shortly before the game that Alomar would approach him.

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

In fact, it seemed like the only people who already felt it was over were Alomar and Hirschbeck, both of whom had spent the past several months trying to get on with their lives.

"The only thing I can say is, I'm really happy it's going to happen so we can get this over with," Alomar said before the game. "John wants to put everything behind him. I want to put it behind me. I hope that after tonight, you will leave me alone and let me play baseball.

"He's a great person. He wants to go on with his life and it seems like you guys [the media] won't let him. Hopefully I can go on with my life and he can go on with his and we can leave it at that."

The prospect of their first face-to-face meeting prompted speculation that there would be some kind of conciliatory on-field gesture, but Hirschbeck insisted that he didn't know Alomar's intentions until minutes before he took the field.

"Again, the media makes a big thing out of this," Hirschbeck said yesterday afternoon. "I believe that from what I've heard, Robbie has tried to put it behind him. He wants to go out and play baseball. I said the same thing back in the fall. The incident was over. He apologized. I forgave him. It's time to move on.

"I want to go out and do my job and get every play right, just like I do in every city."

Still, he had to wonder how he would be received by the fans at Camden Yards, who cheered Alomar through the playoffs last October and have embraced the notion that Hirschbeck had a hand in provoking the incident.

Just to be safe, Major League Baseball added extra security for the umpiring crew, restricting access to the tunnel that leads to the umpires' dressing room before and after the game.

"He's a great ballplayer," Hirschbeck said. "I'm sure they'll cheer him like they always do. As far as myself, I don't know. I don't really feel there will be any animosity toward me. I don't know why there should be. It's always been one of my favorite cities to come to. I don't want that to change."

There were a few boos when Hirschbeck was introduced before the game, but the crowd was quick to applaud the brief meeting with Alomar in shallow right field.

The fans apparently were in agreement with the two principals in this six-month soap opera. It was time to move forward.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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