Score one for friendship

Healing: Roberto Alomar's signing with John Hirschbeck's local team started the process, but it took a lot more to move their relationship from spit to holy water.

October 27, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN STAFF COLUMNIST

The start of the Sept. 5 game between the Orioles and Cleveland Indians was delayed 89 minutes by rain. Denise Hirschbeck and her three children rode down an elevator to the sub-concourse level at Camden Yards, in search of her husband, John, and a new family friend, Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar.

John Hirschbeck was in the umpires' room, waiting out the delay. His wife and children were visiting from Poland, Ohio. He led them to a hallway outside the visitors' clubhouse, and asked an Indians player to summon Alomar.

The same Alomar who spit in Hirschbeck's face as a member of the Orioles nearly three years earlier. The same Alomar who accused Hirschbeck of becoming "more bitter" after the death of his 8-year-old son, John Drew, in 1993. The same Alomar whom Hirschbeck threatened to kill after learning of his comments the next day.

John Drew Hirschbeck died of a degenerative nerve disease known as adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). His younger brother, Michael, now 13, has the same illness. But Michael, too, wanted to meet Alomar as he stood outside the clubhouse with his mother and two sisters, Erin, 11, and Megan, 8.

He had always been an Indians fan.

This season, with his father's blessing, he also became an Alomar fan.

"If you can't forgive and forget and move on with things, it wouldn't make you a very good person," John Hirschbeck said.

Alomar, 31, signed with the Indians last winter. He and his brother, Sandy, the Indians' catcher, had each autographed Cleveland jerseys for the Hirschbecks to use at a memorabilia auction benefiting ALD research during the All-Star break.

Framed together, the jerseys brought $6,660 -- the most of any item at the auction. Denise had already sent the Alomars a thank-you card, but she wanted to shake Roberto's hand, personally thank him, extend the circle of forgiveness.

"Everyone is human. We all make errors," Denise Hirschbeck said of the spitting incident. "If that's the worst thing Robbie ever does in his life, I don't think he's all that bad."

That night, Alomar approached Hirschbeck, a fellow Catholic.

"During the game, he said to me, `I have some holy water that my mother sends me from Puerto Rico. Would it be OK if I sent some over for you to use with your children?' " Hirschbeck recalled.

From spit to holy water, Alomar's transformation was complete.

When Hirschbeck came off the field, the water was in his locker.

"For me, it was an emotional relief to actually have a chance to sit down and meet his family," said Alomar, who is traveling in Europe, and relayed his comments through his agent, Tony Cabral.

"Quite honestly, I'd much rather be friends with someone than enemies. John and I were friends before the incident. I was happy to start to repair the friendship. I saw it as a way I could apologize and clear up some of the things that were said."

'97: Cool but cordial

It took time for the wounds to heal. It took Alomar signing with the Indians, the team closest to Hirschbeck's hometown. It took the urging of Alomar's brother, Sandy, and a gentle prompting from a mutual friend, Indians umpires-room attendant Jack Efta.

Before Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Cleveland's Jacobs Field, Hirschbeck and Alomar could be seen chatting easily near second base, as if nothing had come between them, and nothing would again.

"I would say we're closer now," Hirschbeck said. "It's more of a friendship."

Yet, all through the 1997 and '98 seasons, Hirschbeck declined to even stand close to Alomar when he had the option of being elsewhere on the field.

"As a second base umpire, you can choose where you stand in the outfield with none out and none on -- on the second base side, or shortstop side," Hirschbeck said. "Some guys flip-flop back and forth, depending on whether it's a left-handed hitter or right-handed hitter. But I always stand on the second-base side."

That changed after the Alomar incident. When Alomar was at second base, Hirschbeck would slide over to the shortstop side.

"I was still doing my job, being professional -- there's nothing that says where you have to stand," Hirschbeck said. "But we both avoided each other, other than to say, `Hi, how are you doing?' "

As part of his initial apology, Alomar had donated $50,000 for ALD research to the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Hirschbeck's sons had been treated. The Orioles had matched his pledge, and the money helped scientists attain a research breakthrough.

But in February of '97, Alomar's marketing agent, John Boggs, and Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos said Hirschbeck should apologize to Alomar for swearing at the player and provoking the incident. Hirschbeck responded by saying he didn't owe anyone an apology.

The next April at Camden Yards, Hirschbeck and Alomar appeared on the same field for the first time since the incident. Alomar shook Hirschbeck's hand, put his glove hand on the umpire's shoulder and apologized face-to-face.

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