Score one for friendship; Healing: Roberto Alomar's signing with John Hirschbeck's local team started the process, but it took a lot more to move their relationship from spit to holy water.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The start of the Sept. 5 game between the Orioles and Cleveland Indians was delayed 89 minutes by rain. Denise Hirschbeck and her three children rode down an elevator to the sub-concourse level at Camden Yards, in search of her husband, John, and a new family friend, Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar.

John Hirschbeck was in the umpires' room, waiting out the delay. His wife and children were visiting from Poland, Ohio. He led them to a hallway outside the visitors' clubhouse, and asked an Indians player to summon Alomar.

The same Alomar who spit in Hirschbeck's face as a member of the Orioles nearly three years earlier. The same Alomar who accused Hirschbeck of becoming "more bitter" after the death of his 8-year-old son, John Drew, in 1993. The same Alomar whom Hirschbeck threatened to kill after learning of his comments the next day.

John Drew Hirschbeck died of a degenerative nerve disease known as adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). His younger brother, Michael, now 13, has the same illness. But Michael, too, wanted to meet Alomar as he stood outside the clubhouse with his mother and two sisters, Erin, 11, and Megan, 8.

He had always been an Indians fan.

This season, with his father's blessing, he also became an Alomar fan.

"If you can't forgive and forget and move on with things, it wouldn't make you a very good person," John Hirschbeck said.

Alomar, 31, signed with the Indians last winter. He and his brother, Sandy, the Indians' catcher, had each autographed Cleveland jerseys for the Hirschbecks to use at a memorabilia auction benefiting ALD research during the All-Star break.

Framed together, the jerseys brought $6,660 -- the most of any item at the auction. Denise had already sent the Alomars a thank-you card, but she wanted to shake Roberto's hand, personally thank him, extend the circle of forgiveness.

"Everyone is human. We all make errors," Denise Hirschbeck said of the spitting incident. "If that's the worst thing Robbie ever does in his life, I don't think he's all that bad."

That night, Alomar approached Hirschbeck, a fellow Catholic.

"During the game, he said to me, 'I have some holy water that my mother sends me from Puerto Rico. Would it be OK if I sent some over for you to use with your children?' " Hirschbeck recalled.

From spit to holy water, Alomar's transformation was complete.

When Hirschbeck came off the field, the water was in his locker.

"For me, it was an emotional relief to actually have a chance to sit down and meet his family," said Alomar, who is traveling in Europe, and relayed his comments through his agent, Tony Cabral.

"Quite honestly, I'd much rather be friends with someone than enemies. John and I were friends before the incident. I was happy to start to repair the friendship. I saw it as a way I could apologize and clear up some of the things that were said."

'97: Cool but cordial

It took time for the wounds to heal. It took Alomar signing with the Indians, the team closest to Hirschbeck's hometown. It took the urging of Alomar's brother, Sandy, and a gentle prompting from a mutual friend, Indians umpires-room attendant Jack Efta.

Before Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Cleveland's Jacobs Field, Hirschbeck and Alomar could be seen chatting easily near second base, as if nothing had come between them, and nothing would again.

"I would say we're closer now," Hirschbeck said. "It's more of a friendship."

Yet, all through the 1997 and '98 seasons, Hirschbeck declined to even stand close to Alomar when he had the option of being elsewhere on the field.

"As a second base umpire, you can choose where you stand in the outfield with none out and none on -- on the second base side, or shortstop side," Hirschbeck said. "Some guys flip-flop back and forth, depending on whether it's a left-handed hitter or right-handed hitter. But I always stand on the second-base side."

That changed after the Alomar incident. When Alomar was at second base, Hirschbeck would slide over to the shortstop side.

"I was still doing my job, being professional -- there's nothing that says where you have to stand," Hirschbeck said. "But we both avoided each other, other than to say, 'Hi, how are you doing?' "

As part of his initial apology, Alomar had donated $50,000 for ALD research to the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Hirschbeck's sons had been treated. The Orioles had matched his pledge, and the money helped scientists attain a research breakthrough.

But in February of '97, Alomar's marketing agent, John Boggs, and Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos said Hirschbeck should apologize to Alomar for swearing at the player and provoking the incident. Hirschbeck responded by saying he didn't owe anyone an apology.

The next April at Camden Yards, Hirschbeck and Alomar appeared on the same field for the first time since the incident. Alomar shook Hirschbeck's hand, put his glove hand on the umpire's shoulder and apologized face-to-face.

"Maybe now everyone will leave us alone, let us move on," Hirschbeck said that night.

But Hirschbeck himself wasn't ready to move forward.

He said he opposed Alomar's on-field apology, preferring a private meeting. But that night at home plate, then-Orioles manager Davey Johnson told him, "You know this game. Everything in it is public." So, Hirschbeck agreed to shake Alomar's hand, telling Johnson, "Do what you've got to do."

Over the next two seasons, Alomar remained an All-Star with the Orioles, occasionally crossing paths with Hirschbeck, their relationship cool but cordial.

Then, last winter, Alomar joined the Indians.

"I live 82 miles from Cleveland," Hirschbeck said. "When he signed with the Indians, I thought, 'Oh geez, now he's going to be right in my back yard.' "

Gentle nudge from others

As luck would have it, Hirschbeck's Opening Day assignment was in Cleveland. One of the first Indians he spoke with was Sandy Alomar, a player whom he had always liked and respected.

"You really need to sit down with my brother and talk," Sandy told him.

"You're right. We should do that," Hirschbeck replied. "We should have done that a long time ago."

That conversation was a beginning -- "It made me feel good that somebody wanted this to happen," Hirschbeck said. "I wanted it to happen, too."

But no meeting took place.

After the opening series, Hirschbeck said his umpiring crew didn't return to Jacobs Field until May 26. It was then that he asked his friend, umpires-room attendant Efta, about Alomar.

"Tell me, Jack, you've been around Alomar. What do you think of him?" Hirschbeck said.

"John, he's one of the two nicest people I've ever met," Efta replied.

Hirschbeck was taken aback.

"You've got to be kidding me," he told Efta.

"And you're the other one," Efta said.

Efta said he had similar talks with Alomar about Hirschbeck. His intent wasn't to bring the two men together. He was just speaking from his heart.

One comment, in particular, struck Hirschbeck.

"A good person can have a bad day," Efta said.

Hirschbeck said he thought about that remark for the next 24 hours. The next night, he was the second base umpire. For the first time since the incident, he positioned himself on Alomar's side.

"I was sitting behind home plate," Efta said. "They were together talking between every pitch. I was amazed at that.

"I mentioned to a friend, we have to get a picture of that. Fortunately, we did. It's a great photo. And they both have their own copies."

At first, Alomar said, he didn't even notice Hirschbeck's change in position. But from that moment, their relationship began to improve.

"It was kind of like just opening the gate," Hirschbeck said. "We started talking. He and I had always gotten along quite well before the incident. It immediately went back to what it was."

Not everything could, though. Too much damage had been done.

'To the next level'

The spitting incident helped create a rift between Johnson and Angelos, who believed that Johnson did not sufficiently back Alomar and accepted the manager's resignation after the 1997 season.

It helped widen a rift between the umpires union and Major League Baseball, starting with the umpires' threatened boycott of the 1996 postseason and climaxing with MLB accepting the resignations of 22 umpires last month.

And it damaged Alomar's reputation with umpires and fans -- former Oriole Eric Davis charged last spring that umpires took retribution on Alomar through the '98 season, and Alomar still is booed in certain cities.

To Hirschbeck, it was all so unnecessary.

"That winter, if someone would have said, 'Robbie Alomar is a good person. John Hirschbeck is a good person. Let's get them together without anyone else and have them sit down and talk,' it would have been over before the season started," the umpire said.

"If anything like this in baseball ever happens again, it should be dealt with in a different way. We could have put the whole thing to rest. We wouldn't have needed anybody else in the room. We could have sat down as two men and worked things out."

Hirschbeck and Alomar have proven they are indeed capable of working together when left alone by the media and their respective factions. Alomar's donations to Hirschbeck's midseason memorabilia auction for ALD helped increase the money raised from $95,000 to $125,000 this year.

"Sometimes, things happen for a reason," Alomar said. "If I could take it [the spitting incident] back, I would wish it never happened. But seeing as how it did happen, hopefully we can take our friendship to the next level.

"Sandy and I have been able to get involved in his charity. We've been able to turn a bad situation into somewhat of a positive situation. My charitable efforts from now on, for the most part, will go toward finding a cure for this disease."

Hirschbeck's son, Michael, is still struggling to overcome ALD. The bone-marrow transplant he received eight years ago from his sister, Megan, was a success. His prognosis is good, John Hirschbeck said, but doctors do not know what the future holds.

This month, the Hirschbecks visited a school in Cleveland that might serve Michael better than his current school in Youngstown. If Michael attends the school, the Hirschbecks will keep their home in Poland, and rent another one in Cleveland.

"There's still damage -- from the disease, or the time he received bone marrow from his sister, or extreme seizures," John said.

"He reads on a first-grade level. Something is not processing correctly in his brain. He does well in math. If you were to meet him, you'd say there was nothing wrong, until you gave him a second-grade book and asked him to read it."

It's an existence that is difficult for anyone outside the Hirschbeck family to understand, but Alomar is trying. He isn't seeking to clear his name. He's just seeking to do the right thing.

"I don't see why he should be booed," Hirschbeck said. "If he and I can forgive and forget, why not everyone else?"

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