Who was that man? Who was that villain at the center of a baseball imbroglio that became a great American morality play? Who was that symbol of the end of civility in sports—and in the country? He had been a golden boy, a once-in-a-generation talent who did magical things on the field from the moment he broke into the majors at 20. But Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar found out just how quickly a man's reputation can come crashing down. Ninety seconds: That was all the time it took for the called third strike, the heated argument, the ejection and, fatefully, the spitting in the face of the umpire. Ninety seconds: That was all the time it took for Alomar, the humble baseball hero, to become the most reviled man in the U.S. A sliver of time in a 16-year Hall of Fame career, and that would be what defined him? Even now, 17 years later, there's pain in Alomar's eyes when he remembers it. "That guy everyone was talking about on the TV screens, in the newspapers?" he says. "That guy wasn't me."
And what about the other man? What about the umpire on the receiving end of Alomar's shocking act? Overtaken by rage, he had charged into a room full of ballplayers the day after the incident and roared at Alomar, "I'll kill you!" Of everything that happened back then—the botched call, the ugly words exchanged—this is what John Hirschbeck most regrets. Yes, Alomar had dragged the umpire's dead son into the story when he said in a postgame interview that Hirschbeck had become bitter since little John's death from adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) three years earlier at age eight, but Hirschbeck knows that he only added fuel to the fire. What if he had held back? What if Alomar had faced the cameras and apologized, as he was about to do the very moment that Hirschbeck, then in his 13th year as an American League umpire, came barging into the clubhouse? Perhaps the story wouldn't have spun out of control. "I'm not proud of that moment," Hirschbeck says.
Both men accepted long ago that what happened between them at the SkyDome in Toronto on Sept. 27, 1996, will follow them until their last days. It was a pre-Twitter, pre-TMZ world, and still this sordid sports story—"The most despicable act by a ballplayer, ever," Hall of Famer Joe Morgan called it—exploded into a national scandal after AL president Gene Budig gave Alomar a slap-on-the-wrist five-game suspension that wouldn't begin until Opening Day of the next season. The story metastasized to talk radio, to op-ed pages, to David Letterman and Rush Limbaugh and Larry King and even the vice-presidential debate that fall, during which moderator Jim Lehrer asked if the incident was a sign of "something terribly wrong with the American soul." (Replied Al Gore, "I think [Alomar] should have been severely disciplined.")
The moment of contrition that the country wanted—no, demanded—took place in Baltimore the following spring. The disgraced ballplayer jogged onto the field at Camden Yards and shook hands with the scorned umpire. The fans in the stands rose to their feet and applauded. The reporters who had flocked to Baltimore could now write the story's final chapter.
Closure for everyone. Everyone, that is, except for the ballplayer and the umpire. What no one knew then was that the public reconciliation had left both men cold. "It was staged," says Hirschbeck, now 58 and still an umpire. "Phony. Nothing in my heart changed in that moment."
Says Alomar, now 45 and living a quiet life in Tampa, "It wasn't the way I wanted to do it."
For both the ballplayer and the umpire, there would eventually be forgiveness and closure, and even an unexpected friendship—but that would not come for years. "All the negative stuff was just the beginning," says Alomar. "The stuff that happened after that? That story is lost."
Consider the moment. It was 1996, and the wounds from what until then had been the longest work stoppage in U.S. sports history were still fresh. The '94 major league players' strike had shone a hot bright light on all that was wrong with the game: the spoiled millionaire ballplayers, the greedy fat-cat owners, the utterly inept leadership. Bud Selig, then the acting commissioner, had yet to assert his authority over the sparring factions within the game that were as power-hungry and self-serving as the warring kingdoms of Game of Thrones.
Consider Alomar. He was 28, already the most famous member of a famous baseball family, and with five Gold Gloves and seven All-Star appearances he was well on his way to the Hall of Fame. The greatest all-around second baseman in the last 50 years? You could make the case. Alomar was also one of the game's good guys. After a five-year run in Toronto, where he had blossomed into one of the game's biggest stars, he had signed as a free agent with Baltimore in December 1995. He was now the star of a team fighting for its first playoff berth since 1983.
Consider Hirschbeck. He was 42, as respected as any other umpire in the game. But three years earlier his off-the-field life had begun to spin out of control. Two weeks after doctors had told Hirschbeck and his wife, Denise, that little John was afflicted with ALD and had only months to live, they learned that their other three children were also carriers of the gene mutation that can cause the rare and deadly disease, which attacks the nervous system. "I used to thank God every day—I had my dream of becoming a major league baseball umpire, I had a great wife and four healthy kids," says Hirschbeck. "It all came tumbling down one day, and after that, yes, I did have a lot of anger in me. There was a lot of Why me?"