THE SPIT HITS THE FAN

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Perhaps we'll thank Roberto Alomar someday. The second baseman's despicable act of contempt, a spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck, somehow landed on the window of the baseball establishment, washing off just enough film to reveal who was minding the store. We looked inside, and nobody was there.

Oh, a few suits were milling about: a clueless American League president, an interminably interim commissioner, some union people intent on protecting their floor space. But when something had to be done to clean up the mess, nobody was there. If Major League Baseball comes to that realization, then maybe Alomar performed a valuable service.

Until that day, or the day when he shows true contrition, Alomar deserves our contempt, not our applause. On the night of Sept. 27 in Toronto, the Baltimore Oriole spat at the home-plate umpire after getting thrown out of a game for arguing a called third strike. "We've had bumpings, we've had fights," said crew chief Jim McKean, "but I've never really seen a ballplayer try and directly spit in an umpire's face. Only animals spit in people's faces." Alomar had his defenders, people who pointed out that Hirschbeck missed the call and then antagonized Alomar, or that the best second baseman of this generation had never done anything like that in the past--Spray it ain't so, 'To--but Alomar displayed no remorse after the game, and indeed compounded his sin by rationalizing Hirschbeck's ire. "He had a problem with his family when his son died--I know that's something real tough in life--but after that he just changed, personality-wise. He just got real bitter."

When told of Alomar's comments the next day, Hirschbeck had to be restrained from going after him and was forced to sit out the game. So should have Alomar. That morning A.L. president Gene Budig handed down a ludicrously light five-game suspension, but because Alomar immediately appealed even that wrist slap, he was in the lineup. In fact, his 10th-inning homer won the game and clinched a postseason wild-card spot for Baltimore. In the clubhouse celebration afterward, believe it or not, a few Orioles spit beer on one another in imitation of the hero. Budig, who is the former president of the University of Kansas,

could have prevented the chaos that ensued simply by following the precedent of former Yale and National League president A. Bartlett Giamatti. He suspended Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose for 30 days in 1988 after Rose shoved umpire Dave Pallone. Even if Alomar had been permitted to play pending an appeal--an agreed-upon baseball procedure--a 30-day sentence would have sent the proper message.

As it happened, though, the umpires decided to spit back. Shepherded by their grandstanding counsel, Richie Phillips, the men in blue threatened to walk away from the postseason games unless Alomar was suspended immediately. They were not one bit mollified by the apology Alomar wrote. Nor were they impressed by his offer to donate $50,000--an offer matched by the Orioles--to the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University to help find a cure for adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), the degenerative nerve disease that killed Hirschbeck's eight-year-old son John in 1993 and now afflicts his son Michael, 9. While the union urged the institute to reject the money, Hirschbeck told Kennedy Krieger to take it so that something good would come of the incident.

Where was the commissioner in all of this? "We'll see what happens," Bud Selig, the moonlighting Milwaukee Brewers owner, said last Monday. Selig and Budig did manage to stave off the Tuesday walkout by promising to hear Alomar's appeal on Thursday. To add to the bad taste, 50,000 fans cheered and only a few booed as Alomar took the field at Camden Yards against the Cleveland Indians in Game One of their division series. In New York City for the Yankees-Rangers series later that night, umpire Al Clark watched on television as Alomar and the O's defeated the Indians 10-4 and said, "The only way to describe it is beyond beyond."

By Wednesday, Roberto tried to do the right thing in dropping his appeal, which only left Budig's sentence lying there, naked in its leniency. So Phillips again beat the drums for a strike, demanding that Alomar serve his suspension immediately instead of at the start of next season. On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Ludwig in Philadelphia ruled that the Umpires Association would be in violation of its collective-bargaining agreement if it staged a walkout, and so the A.L. umps reluctantly showed up in Cleveland, Ohio, and Arlington, Texas. But we haven't heard the last of the Alomar Affair. This could go beyond beyond-beyond.

It has been a hard year for the umpires, who lead a hard life. On Opening Day in Cincinnati, Ohio, John McSherry collapsed on the field and died of a heart attack; and on the last weekend of the season, they were humiliated by Alomar and then Budig and Selig. They deserve better. In the same way, fans deserve far better baseball leadership. For now, we're just being spit upon.