The most reviled man in baseball stood in the jubilant visiting
clubhouse at Jacobs Field last Saturday and cried like a baby.
They were not tears of joy because his Baltimore Orioles had
advanced to the American League Championship Series by knocking
off the heavily favored Cleveland Indians in Game 4 to win the
best-of-five Division Series. They were not tears of elation
over his single that tied the game in the ninth inning and his
homer that won it, 4-3, in the 12th. And they were not tears of
relief that his personal ordeal, which had gone on all week, was
over. For it isn't, and it may not be for a long time.
The tears of Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar flowed when
his older brother, Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., stopped
by the Baltimore clubhouse after the game to show support for
Roberto. No words passed between the two, just a hug, then Sandy
Jr. softly touched his brother's face. It was a face full of
regret over what happened on Sept. 27, when he became so enraged
that he spit at umpire John Hirschbeck, and then was vilified
from coast to coast.
"I love my brother," Roberto quietly told SI at his locker,
after the clubhouse had emptied. "I'm not a bad person. I care
about my family. I care about kids. I'm from a good family. I
made a mistake. God knows I didn't mean anything bad."
Spitting in Hirschbeck's face after the umpire had ejected
Alomar from a game in Toronto was indefensible and warranted a
far stiffer penalty than the five-game suspension (to be served
at the start of the 1997 season) handed down by American League
president Gene Budig. And what Alomar said following the
game--that Hirschbeck had become "bitter" since his young son,
John, had died in 1993 of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare and
usually fatal brain disorder--was not intentionally malicious
but was nonetheless insensitive.
October 13, 1996
The reaction to Alomar's behavior and the inadequate punishment
he received was swift and biting. Major league umpires
threatened to strike during the playoffs. The media lit into
Alomar as if he were a murderer. He was booed every time he came
to the plate at the Jake and was routinely subjected to the kind
of abuse directed at him last Friday, after he struck out in the
third inning of Game 3: Four fans raced to the seats behind the
Orioles' dugout, screamed at and taunted Alomar, and then
high-fived each other.
"It has worn on him big-time," Orioles manager Davey Johnson
said last Saturday. "What people don't understand is that he has
always been liked. He doesn't understand when people don't like
him. He's a very sensitive, very emotional player."
"[After the spitting incident] he was just going through the
motions, he was in a daze," said Orioles centerfielder Brady
Anderson. "You could see the pain in his face and the hurt in
"The criticism got to him," said catcher Mark Parent. "But he's
not a monster. He doesn't have a rap sheet. I've known him and
his family since he was 17. He's a nice kid from a great family.
His parents taught him the right and wrong way. Now people think
he's Ty Cobb."
Cobb was violent and psychotic. Alomar is immature and selfish,
high-strung and pampered. "He's a harmless guy who doesn't
bother anyone," former teammate Dave Stewart once said of him.
Until the Hirschbeck episode Alomar, who signed with Baltimore
as a free agent last December after spending five seasons with
the Toronto Blue Jays and three with the San Diego Padres, had
three instances in his nine years in the majors--all last
season--when his character was called into question.
On May 17, 1995, upset over ball-and-strike calls, Alomar threw
his glove in the direction of plate umpire Rich Garcia at the
end of the game and was suspended for two games (later reduced
to one). After Toronto traded pitcher David Cone to the Yankees
for three minor leaguers on July 28, Alomar sulked and sat out a
game because he felt Blue Jays management had stopped trying to
win. He also missed the last four games of the 1995 season,
complaining of a sore back. Skeptics in the media said he was
trying to protect his .300 average--a charge that Alomar, who
was hitless in the last three games he played, denied. None of
that went over well with the fans in Toronto, where he was once
the club's most popular player.
The Hirschbeck incident, however, was aberrant behavior for
Alomar. "One hundred percent, totally out of character," says
Sparky Anderson, who managed for 26 years in the majors. "If
you'd asked me if he was capable of this, I would have laughed
at you. He's a good kid. Ask everyone, I mean everyone, and
they'll tell you the same thing. He has always been a pro."
For the most part Alomar has had a good relationship with
umpires and enjoys talking to them during games. But he has had
other run-ins than the ones involving Garcia and Hirschbeck.
Alomar has been ejected four times in his major league career
for arguing balls and strikes. In the latest incident,
Hirschbeck called him out on a pitch that on televised replays
clearly appeared to be outside. The two men started chirping
back and forth, and words continued to be exchanged after Alomar
returned to the dugout. Hirschbeck finally tossed Alomar, and
then Alomar and Johnson raced to home plate and argued the
ejection. As Alomar was being pushed away by Johnson, he spit at
Three days later Alomar issued a formal apology, but the fact
that it was a written statement issued by the Orioles'
media-relations department made it seem insincere. As part of
his apology Alomar pledged $50,000 to a foundation that fights
ALD, a donation matched by the Orioles. He also said that he
wanted to apologize in person to Hirschbeck and his family.
"This has hurt Roberto more than anyone knows," says Sandy Jr.
"But the people who have criticized him have made mistakes too."
Last Saturday, Hirschbeck issued a statement saying that he has
Roberto, who has led a quiet, private life off the field, became
more reclusive after the incident. He tried not to read
newspapers or listen to TV and radio reports, and shied away
from one-on-one interviews because he was scared of saying the
wrong thing. "He got gun-shy," says John Boggs, Alomar's
marketing agent, who handles his endorsements. "He thought the
world was against him."
As he usually does, Alomar turned to his family. He calls his
mother, Maria, in Puerto Rico regularly. He occasionally talks
to his father, Sandy Sr., a former major league player and
coach, about baseball. In the week after the run-in he called
his folks more often than usual. "Where can you get better
advice than from your parents?" he said last week.
Alomar comes from a good family, a baseball family not unlike
the Ripkens. Sandy Sr., who played 15 years in the big leagues,
often brought Sandy Jr. and Roberto to the ballpark with him.
Alomar Sr. last played in 1978 and made a modest living in the
game. When Roberto was a kid, the family's house in Puerto Rico
was repossessed, which may have taught him the value of money.
He is thrifty now, but, says Sandy Sr., he's very generous in
helping his parents financially.
Sandy Jr. is considered one of the classiest players in the
majors, and he's the more personable of the Alomar brothers.
Sandy Jr. is married, Roberto is single. After the controversies
with the Blue Jays last year, Sandy Sr. said Roberto "had a
little growing up to do. Playing with [Orioles shortstop] Cal
Ripken Jr. will help him grow up; Cal's the most disciplined
player in the game."
After the incident with Hirschbeck, Sandy Sr. told Roberto "to
play your game." However, Alomar wasn't able to do that until
the ninth inning of Game 4. Before then, he had three soft
singles in 15 at bats, hadn't been a factor defensively or on
the bases, and hadn't played with his usual flair and emotion.
In short, he was not playing like the best second baseman the
American League has seen in the last 50 years, which is what he
is. Twice when he was called out on close plays, he didn't
argue with the umpires but sheepishly walked off the field.
Then, in the ninth last Saturday, with two outs, runners on
first and second and the Orioles trailing 3-2, he walked to the
plate to yet another chorus of boos. The Indians' closer, Jose
Mesa, was throwing in the mid-90s. The crowd was going wild. "At
that time of day, between 4 and 4:45, you can't even see the
ball because of the shadows," said Anderson. "I hit at that time
[on Friday], and I popped out against Jack McDowell. It was one
of the proudest at bats of my career, because I hit a ball that
I couldn't see. There's zero visibility. They wouldn't let a
plane take off from home plate at that hour."
On a 1-and-2 pitch, Alomar flared a single to left centerfield
to score pinch runner Manny Alexander with the tying run. "I
felt like a dagger went through my heart," Indians shortstop
Omar Vizquel said after the game. In Alomar's next at bat,
leading off the 12th, he smoked Mesa's 1-and-1 slider into the
right-centerfield seats, giving Baltimore a 4-3 lead. Despite
striking out a playoff-record 23 times in the game, Baltimore
hung on to win and claim the right to meet the New York Yankees
in the American League Championship Series. When the Orioles ran
out of the dugout after the final out, they went to second base
to celebrate around Alomar. Baseball's biggest villain had
become a hero again.
How did he do it? How did he keep his focus while playing under
such a cloud of controversy and intimidation? "Because he has
been in baseball all his life, his instincts for the game are
unbelievable and he let them take over," said Orioles outfielder
B.J. Surhoff. "He's tough mentally."
Alomar will be booed throughout the playoffs, and probably into
next season. He might also lose some of his endorsements, but at
week's end none of the companies he represents, including
Reebok, whose batting gloves and shoes he endorses, has pulled
back. His Reebok deal runs through 1997, and the company has
told Boggs that it is standing behind Alomar.
Will people forgive him? "As time goes on, I think so," Brady
Anderson said. "When they see how remorseful he is, how much he
wants to atone. It happens all the time in sports. Look at
[Yankees] Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. It was great to
see them come back. Richard Nixon had to resign, but in his last
days he was beloved. People will forgive Robbie if they haven't
"Robbie tried his best to apologize, but people won't let him,"
Parent said. "I'm so happy for him right now. He's a great
player, one of the best ever. I just hope that his career lasts
long enough so that people will forget this."
There are those who will never forget what Alomar did to
Hirschbeck. But there are also a great many who will never
forget Game 4, when, once again, he became a hero.