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 Hirschbeck.
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 forgiven Alomar.
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.