At least O's didn't spit wild-card bit

September 29, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- They couldn't just clinch their first playoff berth in 13 years.

Not these Orioles, who have averaged a crisis a day since February.

They had to clinch on a home run hit by a player appealing a suspension for spitting in an umpire's face.

Is that perfect or what?

"A fitting ending to the season," manager Davey Johnson said.

They had to clinch on a day when the spat-upon umpire charged into their clubhouse threatening to kill that player.

Ho hum, just another day at the office for Team Calamity.

They were a $48 million exercise in turmoil all season; why should the day that they clinched the American League wild-card berth be any different?

The big surprise was that no one demanded to be traded or complained about his role after yesterday's 3-2 victory over the Blue Jays at SkyDome.

"It wasn't so pleasant at times this season," Cal Ripken said, champagne dripping down his chin.

The Orioles bickered and grumped all season, slept through the first 100 games, went 11-27 against the three division winners and almost went through the shredder around the trading deadline, but they pulled themselves together just in time to make the playoffs and chant, "We're No. 4!"

Label it an accomplishment, and say a thankful prayer for the injured back that prevented Seattle's Randy Johnson from pitching the Mariners to the 15 more wins that would have knocked the Orioles out.

The last day of the wild-card race was a metaphor for the whole messy endeavor.

"Good parts, bad parts, nothing easy," Johnson said, summing up yesterday as well as the whole season.

Yesterday, Roberto Alomar was suspended by the American League for spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck on Friday night, appealed the suspension, scheduled a news conference to apologize and then canceled the news conference -- all before lunch.

Then, after being booed throughout the game, Alomar broke a 2-2 tie with a home run in the 10th inning.

"A lot of people didn't think he should be on the field," someone said to Johnson after the game.

"No one in this clubhouse thought that," Johnson said.

If they keep it up, they'll turn Albert Belle and the Indians into the good guys in their playoff series starting Tuesday at Camden Yards.

Alomar was able to play only because of baseball's ridiculously weak punishment system; spitting in an umpire's face was a disgusting act that warranted hurtful sanctions, but Alomar just had to file an appeal to postpone his suspension until 1997.

The unfortunate irony was that Alomar was on the field and Hirschbeck wasn't.

Hirschbeck had been scheduled to work yesterday, but he flew into a rage two hours before the game after hearing from reporters that Alomar had mentioned the death of his young son from a rare disease in 1993.

Alomar had mentioned the tragedy Friday night as a possible explanation for Hirschbeck's short fuse.

Hirschbeck tried to get to Alomar in the Orioles' clubhouse, but another umpire grabbed him and took him away.

Jim McKean, chief of the umpiring crew, decided then that Hirschbeck needed a day off. McKean's utter disgust with Alomar was obvious.

"Only animals spit in other people's faces," McKean said.

After yesterday's game, Alomar tried to deny what he had said about Hirschbeck's son as a half-dozen tape recorders rolled Friday night.

"I didn't mention the dead child," he said. "I just said [Hirschbeck] had changed since his son passed away. Maybe he is confusing what I said."

No, Hirschbeck wasn't confusing what was said; Hirschbeck was in a tearful rage because of what was said, a rage with which any parent could sympathize.

Alomar is a religious, compassionate person who has made mistakes that are out of character, but someone in the Orioles organization needs to make it clear to him that he has grievously erred, that spitting on an umpire and invoking a personal tragedy is way out of line.

And then Alomar needs to stand up and apologize, which he still hasn't done.

Only with this team, of course, could such a story threaten to overshadow the clinching of a playoff spit, er, spot.

Not that anyone in the champagne-soaked clubhouse was worried about Alomar's situation.

The players and coaches were busy partying harder than any second-place team ever did.

Their joy was understandable; they went from nowhere to the playoffs by going 37-21 starting on July 30, a long run of clutch baseball.

True, they have wobbled in with a 6-6 finish, looking increasingly tired and vulnerable.

But they got there.

And what a bizarre success story it was.

What a final week.

Rick Krivda, recalled five times from Rochester in '95 and '96, won the biggest game of the season.

Krivda and Rocky Coppinger bailed the club out when Mike Mussina and David Wells failed down the stretch.

General manager Pat Gillick told reporters on Wednesday -- in the middle of a playoff drive -- that Ripken might be moved to third base next year.

And then, in the end, a player who an umpire wanted to attack wound up hitting the decisive home run.

Could it be any other way with Team Calamity?

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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