Only Alomar can turn jeers to cheers


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The words sounded almost cold, especially coming from Cal Ripken, a player who rarely speaks out on divisive issues.

"The reality of the situation is he's going to pay for that mistake the rest of his career," Ripken said Saturday night, referring to Roberto Alomar.

Orioles manager Ray Miller thinks that's unfair. Players and club officials think it's unfair. And Alomar surely thinks it's unfair, too.

Well, life's unfair.

If fans won't forgive Alomar for spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck more than 18 months ago, the second baseman needs to help them forget.

By ignoring their boos.

By carrying himself with dignity.

And mostly, by becoming a great player again.

General manager Pat Gillick said two weeks ago that Alomar remains bothered by the booing on the road, to the point where it might be affecting his play.

That wasn't apparent in 1996 after Alomar hit the home run that put the Orioles in the playoffs and another to win the Division Series against Cleveland.

And it wasn't readily apparent over the weekend at Tropicana Field, where Alomar was booed lustily, yet reached base seven times in three games.

He should be used to the jeering by now. And he should know that as bad as it was in Tampa Bay and Texas, it will be even worse in Boston and New York.

The fans can't let go. The Orioles can't let go.

The cycle never ends.

Miller said Saturday that Alomar might be a victim of racial prejudice. Outfielder Eric Davis described the fans' conduct as "downright disgraceful."

The Orioles' frustration is understandable. Wil Cordero is a convicted wife beater, but doesn't get booed on the road like Alomar.

Why not?

Cordero isn't as prominent a player. His offense was not shown repeatedly on ESPN. And the reaction to Cordero's 90-day suspended sentence was muted compared to the outrage over Alomar's five-game suspension.

Again, life's unfair.

To this day, club officials believe that Hirschbeck provoked Alomar, but no one wants to hear it. Fans viewed the spitting incident as everything that is wrong with professional sports. When they boo, they're exercising their constitutional right to free speech -- and they're paying good money for that privilege.

Prejudice? That's probably too easy an out. The fans aren't necessarily prejudiced against players from Puerto Rico. They're prejudiced against athletes who show no respect for authority figures.

Still, it's probably true that Alomar would have been forgiven more easily if he were white.

Consider the case of Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski, who spit in the face of San Francisco 49ers receiver J. J. Stokes on "Monday Night Football" last season.

Romanowski, a white player, got fined only $7,500 for spitting on Stokes, a black. The incident was a hot topic at the Super Bowl, but Romanowski probably can live happily ever after now.

The reason might have more to do with his sport than race -- football is more faceless than baseball, and visiting players aren't introduced four or five times a game.

But Ripken offers another contrast.

He maintains a spotless image, and, as the game's leading ambassador, deserves his special status. But even Miller is startled by the difference in the way Ripken and Alomar are received.

"Cal is such an icon to everybody, and he should be -- he signs forever and ever," Miller said. "Robbie sticks his head out of the dugout, and everyone boos. And Robbie has signed a million autographs."

Miller is entering dangerous territory by raising the issue of prejudice. But he says that Alomar needs an advocate, "wants someone to speak for him right now."

Former manager Davey Johnson didn't, at least not to the satisfaction of owner Peter Angelos. Miller, mindful of past rifts, goes out of his way to talk up Alomar. It's in his best interests. But the booing truly appears to bother the manager.

"Is he supposed to turn all his money over to a convent? Give it all to charity?" Miller asked. "What sways people? Maybe he needs to talk more, become more public, become more personable. I don't know."

No one does, actually. Alomar bares little of his soul, reluctant to stoke the issue. Ripken possesses a unique platform, and stands in the best position to defend his teammate. But would that even be a wise move?

Several Orioles say the booing is actually less than it was last season and that it will further diminish in time if players and club officials would just stop dwelling on the subject.

That might be the most logical course, but you can understand Miller's more emotional reaction. Alomar made one mistake, and he's tarred for life.

"It's terrible," Davis said. "They boo because they hear someone else boo. That's ridiculous. As far as I'm concerned, he's the best second baseman to ever lace them up. He admitted he made a mistake. What else can he do? You're talking about something two years ago."

L You're also talking about an argument the Orioles can't win.

L If the fans won't forgive, Alomar needs to help them forget.

Just play, Robbie. Just play.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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