John Hirschbeck, the longtime umpire involved in Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar's infamous 1996 spitting incident, and who later was profiled in a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story by The Baltimore Sun, has retired from Major League Baseball, the commissioner's office announced Tuesday.
Hirschbeck, 62, the crew chief in last year's World Series and a big league umpire since 1984, had announced his planned retirement last year, two decades after he became embroiled in a high-profile episode with Alomar, a perennial All-Star, as the Orioles battled for an American League wild-card berth.
On Sept. 27, 1996, against the Blue Jays in Toronto, Alomar took a called third strike in the first inning. Unhappy with the call, Alomar began arguing with Hirschbeck, the home plate umpire, as he returned to the dugout. The two continued to bicker; Alomar said Hirschbeck yelled something at him when he was in the dugout. Alomar responded, "Just pay attention to the game," and Hirschbeck, who said he had warned Alomar against further provocation, ejected him.
Orioles manager Davey Johnson ran out of the dugout. Alomar followed. As they screamed in protest at Hirschbeck, Johnson tried to position himself between Alomar and the umpire. But at one point, after Alomar had gotten close to Hirschbeck, he jerked his head forward and spat in the umpire's face.
Alomar later claimed that Hirschbeck had called him a derogatory name; Hirschbeck denied the charge. In the clubhouse after Toronto's 3-2 win, Alomar mentioned that Hirschbeck's oldest son, John Drew, 8, had died years earlier of a rare degenerative disease called adrenoleukodystrophy: "I know that's something real tough in life," Alomar said. "He just changed personality-wise. He just got more bitter."
Fellow umpire Jim Joyce had to restrain him and lead Hirschbeck back into the umpires' dressing room. Alomar did not read his prepared statement, and after the game, in which his 10th-inning homer helped the Orioles clinch a playoff berth, he was asked whether he regretted spitting at Hirschbeck. "What would you do if someone called you an -------?" Alomar answered rhetorically.
But the two quickly moved on. Alomar was suspended five games — to be served not during the playoffs but in the 1997 season — and pledged a $50,000 donation to the Kennedy Krieger Institute on Sept. 30 along with his apology to Hirschbeck. By Oct. 5, Hirschbeck said in a statement that he had forgiven Alomar. Alomar, in kind, expressed gratitude and a desire to "put this behind us and go forward."
The following April, Alomar and Hirschbeck shook hands before an Orioles game against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards. "He apologized to me," Hirschbeck said. "I said, 'That's great. Now maybe everyone will leave us alone and let us move on.'" The two later became friends, partnering to promote awareness of ALD and raise funds for research of the disease. When Hirschbeck learned he had cancer in 2009, Alomar called to offer help.
In 2014, Hirschbeck's younger son, Michael, died at 27. Michael also had ALD, which affects the nervous system. The Hirschbecks' struggle with the disease was chronicled in a December 1996 story in The Sun, "The Umpire's Sons," by Lisa Pollak, that won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
Here's an excerpt:
The boy loves games of chance. He loves slot machines and playing cards and instant-win lottery tickets. He learned at an early age to count coins, and to bet them. He learned in the hospital that money comes in get-well cards. Michael Hirschbeck learned to play gin in the hospital, too. His father taught him, during the long weeks of waiting, between the chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant and seizures and pneumonia and days when he was too sick to even eat a cup of ice chips. He never asked a lot of questions, even the day his parents told him he had the same disease as his older brother, who was already dying, and that it would take his baby sister's bone marrow to save his life. He was 5 years old.
Read the full story here.