Alomar has season to forget Year after incident with Hirschbeck, he treads lightly

'Can't win without him'

Infielder hopes to stay healthy for postseason

September 27, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- Roberto Alomar enters the visitors clubhouse on cat's feet, slipping into his locker quietly, signing a couple of autographs for teammate Chris Hoiles then glancing around to check for incoming.

A nearby television carries a Canadian broadcast of the previous night's highlights against the Toronto Blue Jays. One shows Alomar being decked by a Roger Clemens fastball thrown directly at the ear hole of his batting helmet. Alomar escapes beaning by centimeters, but the accompanying commentary still takes a bite out of the second baseman. Alomar reflexively walks to the television, makes a mental note, then returns to his chair.

"These guys " Alomar begins, never finishing.

This has been a year of treading lightly for Alomar, a player so talented and so pivotal to his team that manager Davey Johnson insists "we can't win it without him." For the first time in his career, Alomar has dealt with injuries. He has become involved in a clubhouse controversy with his manager over his failure to attend an exhibition game in Rochester. And today is the anniversary of an incident he would rather forget.

It was a year ago that umpire John Hirschbeck called the second baseman out on strikes in the first inning of a game

against the Blue Jays.

In an action that drew comment even from President Clinton, Alomar engaged Hirschbeck in a heated and profane argument before spitting in the umpire's face. Alomar A firestorm of protest ensued as umpires threatened to boycott the playoffs and the Players Association rallied to defense of the player.

The incident has made him more leery of outsiders. Alomar has walked a careful line with umpires all season. He hasn't turned to argue a call and has purposefully walked away from every disagreement. "That stuff is past. It's over with. I think that was taken care of earlier" when he and Hirschbeck shook hands before a game at Camden Yards.

"He doesn't argue with umpires as much. He walks away," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro says. "In here, I don't see any difference. He's the same to me."

But no matter how hard he attempts to blend into the tapestry of this season, no matter how softly he walks. Alomar remains a focus for attention.

An ankle injury that followed him into the season was followed by shoulder pain that has kept him from hitting right-handed since May 29.

The worst came July 29 when he seriously strained his right groin attempting to beat out a ground ball against the Texas Rangers. The groin injury landed him on the disabled list until Aug. 26. He played for five innings, reinjured the area making a defensive play, then vanished again until Sept. 8. "I'm not 100 percent but I'm getting more comfortable," says Alomar. "I can't guess when I'll be at 100 percent. I'm trying to heal as quickly as I can."

His absences to rehab in Sarasota did not go unnoticed. Broadcaster Jim Palmer recently cited Alomar's infrequent trips to the trainer's room as grist for suspicion.

"I've never been injured like this year," says Alomar, who has targeted his recovery to put him into the best possible shape for next week's Division Series against the Seattle Mariners. "I've never had to deal with rehabilitating from an injury."

Since returning to the lineup, Alomar has been nothing short of brilliant offensively. Despite going 0-for-2 last night in Milwaukee, he's batting .485 (32-for-66) in his last 18 games with 11 extra-base hits and 14 RBIs. Batting strictly left-handed -- fallout from the shoulder injury -- he has driven the ball to all fields.

Overall, Alomar is hitting .328 with 57 RBIs in 111 games. Johnson calls him "my best No. 1 hitter, my best No. 2 hitter, my best No. 3 hitter." Yet he is noticeably limited defensively. Wary of aggravating his groin muscle, Alomar's pirouettes and sleight of glove have been replaced by off-line backhanded flips and careful footwork.

"Everybody in here knows what he can do when he's healthy," catcher Lenny Webster says. "Then you see how he is now. Sometimes you don't know what's going on."

Alomar insists he is playing his way into shape; hence, his lack of time in the trainer's room. "Nobody knows what I'm feeling except me. I want to play. I want to help this team. If I reinjure myself, who does that benefit?" he says.

Certainly not the Orioles. Palmeiro says: "If he's not ready to go for the playoffs, we're done. We can't win. It's that simple."

Mixed in with his injuries has been the $10,500 fine Johnson slapped on him for missing a July 10 exhibition against Rochester along with avoiding an April banquet. He has never publicly addressed the issue.

"I went through this stuff when I was [in Toronto]. I don't want xTC that again. I want to play for the Orioles. I like Baltimore. I like this team. I don't want any problems," he says.

It is a poorly kept secret that Alomar enjoys the support of owner Peter Angelos in the matter. Angelos has already discussed the matter with the Players Association, which has threatened to file a grievance over the fine. The union agreed in July to a postponement with an understanding that the issue would be handled in-house after the season. Labor and club sources believe Alomar will never have to pay a dime.

Alomar has never directly addressed questions about the fine. However, when pressed about his relationship with the manager, he says curtly, "I come here to work. Do you like everybody you work with?"

The relationship has represented the most volatile issue within a relatively quiet season. Johnson has attempted to soothe any bruised feelings. When the subject of Alomar's incident in Toronto arose recently, he says, "It's time to turn the page." To all concerned, the most important chapter begins next week.

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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