Hirschbeck happy for Alomar's Hall induction
Fifteen years after incident, umpire, player remain friendly
PHOENIX -- The two have long moved past the incident, and if anyone has any doubt, they should look no further than what umpire John Hirschbeck had to say about Roberto Alomar, who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday."I'm very, very happy for him," said Hirschbeck, whose crew was working the Dodgers-D-backs game on Sunday at Chase Field. "I've been in the big leagues for 29 years, and he's by far the best second baseman I've ever seen. Hitting, fielding -- he was the whole package. I think he should have gotten in the first time, but he's very deserving. I'm glad he's in." Alomar will be inducted along with Bert Blyleven and Pat Gillick. Sunday's annual induction ceremony, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. ET behind the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, N.Y., will be broadcast live on MLB.com and MLB Network with coverage beginning at 11:30 a.m. ET. Hirschbeck and Alomar were forever linked when on Sept. 27, 1996, near the end of Alomar's first year with the Orioles, Alomar spat on the veteran umpire during an argument that escalated about a called third strike in a hotly contest game at Toronto.
Alomar was ultimately suspended for five games, although he claimed at the time that Hirschbeck called him a derogatory name that caused his reaction. Despite 12 All-Star appearances and 10 Gold Gloves, almost any mention of Alomar invokes the image of that incident."It's just one of those things that happened in life, and then it's over," Hirschbeck said. "It seemed like a big deal at the time, but now when you look back, we've both moved on from it. Forgiveness is an important thing in life. There are no hard feelings. I'll say this remark until the day I die: If that's the worst thing Robbie Alomar ever does in his life, he's led a very good life." Some observers, however, suspect that the incident weighed heavily on eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, who did not to elect Alomar in 2010, his first year on the ballot, when he was eight votes shy of election. This year, he garnered 90 percent of the vote, way up from 73.65 percent in 2010. Alomar has said consistently that he and Hirschbeck long ago became good friends. Hirschbeck hasn't had it easy. His young son, John, died from a vicious disease in the years before the incident and another son, Michael, also had a fierce battle with it. Hirschbeck has survived testicular cancer and serious back surgery. Back trouble kept him out for a while this year. Hirschbeck is a distinguished veteran umpire. He went on to become the first president of the World Umpires Association, and was behind home plate in San Francisco on Aug. 7, 2007, when Barry Bonds hit his 756th homer to pass Hank Aaron for first place on the all-time list. Likewise, he was the plate umpire last Oct. 6 at Philadelphia, when Roy Halladay no-hit Cincinnati in the first game of the National League Division Series, becoming only the second pitcher in history to throw a no-hitter during the postseason. So when Alomar missed the cut in 2010, he was concerned about Hirschbeck. But Hirschbeck didn't waste a moment placing one of the first calls Alomar received. "We have a great relationship," Alomar said during a conference call staged by the Hall on Friday. "He and I have become great friends. I want people to know that the year I didn't make it, one of the first calls I got was from him. He said he felt sorry because maybe one of the reasons I didn't make it was because of the incident. I told him, 'No. It was not your fault. It was my fault.' John embraced me the same way I embraced him." But according to Hirschbeck, the two didn't embrace right away. There was a much heralded public shaking of hands before the start of an Orioles game on April 22, 1997. Alomar had served his suspension, and it was Hirschbeck's first Orioles game since the incident. When Hirschbeck went out to take his position that night behind first base, Alomar trotted out to second and shook his hand. That was staged. The real reconciliation happened two years later after Alomar moved on to the Indians, where he joined his older brother, All-Star catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., for two seasons. The Alomars are the sons of Sandy Sr., a former Major League infielder and coach. Hirschbeck lived outside Cleveland but didn't work his first game there during the 1999 season until May at what was then called Jacobs Field. Hirschbeck recalled asking the club attendant, Jack Efta, who took care of the umpires' room what he thought of Alomar. "He said, 'You know, John, he's one of the two nicest people I've ever met. You're the other,'" Hirschbeck said. "So when he said that I figured it was time for this to be over." That night, Hirschbeck was assigned to second base, positioning himself immediately to the right of Alomar. "I said hello to him," Hirschbeck said. "Kind of like, 'How are you doing?' And the flood gates opened. He started talking and that was the end of it." Alomar, one of the greatest defensive second basemen in history and a fabulous switch-hitter, had 2,724 hits, 210 homers, 1,134 RBIs, 474 stolen bases and a .300 average in 2,379 games. His 2,320 games played at second base is the third-highest total in Major League history. All of them, obviously, Hall of Fame numbers for his 17-year career with seven teams. Hirschbeck won't be in Cooperstown on Sunday -- he'll be working a game. But he has a message to deliver to Alomar. "I wish him all the best," Hirschbeck said. "It's got to be a beautiful, happy day. He has a great family. I don't know his mom, but of course I know his brother and his dad very well. It's going to be a very, very special and great day for his family, and I wish him all the best in the world."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.