JUPITER, Fla. -- Why did Roberto Alomar appear in such a funk last season?
In the opinion of Eric Davis, it wasn't that Alomar disliked manager Ray Miller. It wasn't that he was in the final year of his Orioles contract. It wasn't that he was frequently booed on the road.
No, Davis said yesterday that the source of Alomar's discontent was his difficulties with American League umpires, who continue to seek retribution for his spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck in 1996.
The umpires face renewed scrutiny entering the last year of their contract -- a top baseball official sent a memo to the clubs last week saying the strike zone would be "more strictly enforced."
If the umpires' treatment of Alomar was as biased as Davis portrayed, then the All-Star second baseman isn't the only one who needs to apologize for acting unprofessionally last season.
"People don't realize what he went through the past two years," said Davis, who left the Orioles for the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent last off-season, while Alomar signed with the Cleveland Indians.
"If you looked at Robbie, he didn't have fun last year. Why? Because every day he went out there, he had to deal with the umpires. It was amazing he hit .282 with the way he was treated."
Davis criticized Orioles management for failing to defend Alomar, but former assistant general manager Kevin Malone said the team complained at least once to the league office on Alomar's behalf.
In fact, club officials believed that umpires held a grudge toward the organization that extended beyond Alomar, and repeatedly sent the league films of ball-strike calls that they perceived as unfair.
The question now is if Alomar will be treated differently by the umpires now that he is in Cleveland. And if an incident that haunted the Orioles for more than two years is finally behind them.
Club officials supported Alomar publicly last season, but his lethargic play led to an ugly confrontation with Miller during a team meeting in Chicago on Aug. 26. Davis said the meeting was "uncalled for", and chided Miller and his staff for failing to back Alomar against the umpires.
But how far could the Orioles go? Too often, club officials and teammates made excuses for Alomar's immature behavior. And Miller said that publicly criticizing the umpires would have been "counter-productive".
"If I'm not mistaken, that was one of the things the umpires were upset about, with baseball and the Orioles in particular -- defending Robbie too much," Miller said. "You know what I did. I made the statement, 'How long are people going to boo Robbie?' I tried to help him out with that."
Indeed, Miller went to great lengths to defend Alomar when he was booed on the road and criticized in the media, even questioning whether the jeering of the Puerto Rican native in Tampa Bay was racially motivated.
Alomar's indifferent play was a betrayal of not just his teammates, but also owner Peter Angelos, who received heavy criticism for defending him after the spitting incident.
But Davis, speaking freely now that he is out of the American League, insisted that the umpires drove Alomar to distraction.
"It's frustrating when you go out there, and they're calling pitches on you from here to the trash can," Davis said. "Constantly. Up, down, in, out. You've got to swing at anything and everything. That's frustrating.
"You go day in and day out. You can't say nothin'. The coaches and managers, no one ever came to his rescue. Of course, he didn't feel good about coming to the ballpark. Some days, he came in happy, and he wouldn't let it bother him. Other days, he would let it bother him. He's only human."
The American League, through spokeswoman Phyllis Merhige, declined to comment on Davis' charges. Indians officials were unavailable to comment.
"He complained about it a lot," Miller said. "I know he asked a couple of times, 'How long am I supposed to keep my mouth shut?' I assumed from that question he felt like he wasn't getting a fair shake."
Said Malone, now general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers: "At times, it appeared that there were specific situations when it looked like maybe Robbie was getting squeezed a little bit more.
"It's hard to validate or confirm. It appeared that way by watching film. I would look back on it. Maybe you see what you're looking for. I'm a little hesitant to say to what degree it happened. But it appeared at times that [Alomar was unfairly treated]."
Alomar repeatedly has apologized for spitting on Hirschbeck and refrained from commenting on umpires. But he grew so frustrated with the ball-strike calls last season, he frequently swung at first pitches and bunted in odd situations.
He could have switched leagues as a free agent this winter, but chose instead to sign a four-year, $32 million contract with the Indians. Malone said that Alomar would benefit from "a new start" in Cleveland, where he will be reunited with his brother, Sandy.
Davis, however, still believes that his former teammate needs an advocate.
"He's not going to run from it. But somebody needs to come to his aid. Enough is enough," Davis said.
"You can't see what they're doing? Nobody over there stepped up and said anything about the situation. If they want to know why Robbie was the way he was, that's why he was the way he was."
Pub Date: 2/25/99