Former Oriole Roberto Alomar will find out today whether his stellar career as one of the best second basemen in the history of baseball will outweigh one ugly moment in 1996 that has scarred his reputation ever since.
Alomar's name appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this past November, and he is considered the strongest candidate to gain induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame when the results of the balloting are announced by the Hall and the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
If he comes up just short of the 75 percent requirement for election, it won't be hard to make the case that the night he spat in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck was a deciding factor in the outcome.
Hirschbeck hopes that doesn't happen.
"If I could vote, I would vote for him," Hirschbeck said by telephone Tuesday from his Ohio home. "I would love to see him go in."
Maybe this is a timely message while a certain golf megastar remains in hiding, but there is forgiveness for those who seek it sincerely.
Alomar has worked hard to live down that night in Toronto - Sept. 27, 1996 - when he exploded in anger over a called third strike and ended up in a nose-to-nose shouting match with Hirschbeck. Orioles manager Davey Johnson tried to push Alomar away from the dispute, but Alomar poked his head past Johnson's shoulder and spat into the face of the umpire - an immature, impulsive act that would severely tarnish his golden-boy image.
It would have been the wrong thing to do under any circumstance, but the incident was magnified by the countless television replays and the target of his anger, an umpire who was going through the most painful of family crises in a very public job. Hirschbeck and his wife, Denise, had lost a son to a rare degenerative disease that had also struck another of their sons. Their story was told poignantly in a series of articles in The Baltimore Sun that won a Pulitzer Prize.
Nearly 14 years later, Hirschbeck was facing another personal crisis last fall - he had just been diagnosed with testicular cancer - when the telephone rang.
It was Alomar, who had heard about his illness through a mutual friend.
"He called me that day," Hirschbeck said. "He just wanted to know how I was doing. We were friends before [the spitting incident], and we have been friends since that. I would hope that nobody ever uses that incident against him getting into the Hall of Fame."
Alomar and Hirschbeck made up publicly before a large crowd at Camden Yards the first time they were on the same field in 1997. The O's second baseman trotted out to short right field and shook hands with the umpire, and their friendship was restored, but Alomar's amends went way beyond that.
"That's not me. Everybody knows who I am," Alomar told the Associated Press. "It was one stupid moment that happened to me when I played. The main thing is I accepted my mistake."
He was disciplined by Major League Baseball for the incident and ordered to donate $50,000 to the charity raising money to fight adrenoleukodystrophy, the disease that claimed the life of John Drew Hirschbeck in 1993. Later, Alomar voluntarily donated $252,000 and joined Hirschbeck to promote awareness of the genetic disorder.
Hirschbeck would not comment on unconfirmed reports that Alomar is battling HIV - a recently settled lawsuit by Alomar's ex-girlfriend said he has the virus. But Hirschbeck said his wife and daughter recently ran into Alomar unexpectedly and said he "looked great." Hirschbeck said he also is doing well and that was confirmed during his recent four-month checkup.
Perhaps in the next day or two, Hirschbeck will get the opportunity to pick up the phone and give Robbie a call to congratulate him on a great career and the greatest honor that can be bestowed on a baseball player. If he can forgive and forget, he thinks that should be pretty easy for everybody else.
"I don't think that one bad day in a person's life should be held against him forever," Hirschbeck said. "He has moved beyond that. I have moved beyond that. I hope everybody else has moved beyond that, too."
We'll find out soon enough, but we won't really be sure. Alomar was a work of art at second base and a terrific offensive player. There is absolutely no question that he possessed Hall of Fame talent. The only thing he lacks is one big offensive milestone, but he was a career .300 hitter who amassed 2,724 hits over 17 seasons, which ought to be enough when you take into account his otherworldly talent with the glove.
"This is my 28th year in baseball," Hirschbeck said, "and he is, by far, the best second baseman I have ever seen."
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM), and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.