Who was that man? Who was that villain at the center of a baseball imbroglio that became a great American morality play? Who was that symbol of the end of civility in sports—and in the country? He had been a golden boy, a once-in-a-generation talent who did magical things on the field from the moment he broke into the majors at 20. But Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar found out just how quickly a man's reputation can come crashing down. Ninety seconds: That was all the time it took for the called third strike, the heated argument, the ejection and, fatefully, the spitting in the face of the umpire. Ninety seconds: That was all the time it took for Alomar, the humble baseball hero, to become the most reviled man in the U.S. A sliver of time in a 16-year Hall of Fame career, and that would be what defined him? Even now, 17 years later, there's pain in Alomar's eyes when he remembers it. "That guy everyone was talking about on the TV screens, in the newspapers?" he says. "That guy wasn't me."
And what about the other man? What about the umpire on the receiving end of Alomar's shocking act? Overtaken by rage, he had charged into a room full of ballplayers the day after the incident and roared at Alomar, "I'll kill you!" Of everything that happened back then—the botched call, the ugly words exchanged—this is what John Hirschbeck most regrets. Yes, Alomar had dragged the umpire's dead son into the story when he said in a postgame interview that Hirschbeck had become bitter since little John's death from adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) three years earlier at age eight, but Hirschbeck knows that he only added fuel to the fire. What if he had held back? What if Alomar had faced the cameras and apologized, as he was about to do the very moment that Hirschbeck, then in his 13th year as an American League umpire, came barging into the clubhouse? Perhaps the story wouldn't have spun out of control. "I'm not proud of that moment," Hirschbeck says.
Both men accepted long ago that what happened between them at the SkyDome in Toronto on Sept. 27, 1996, will follow them until their last days. It was a pre-Twitter, pre-TMZ world, and still this sordid sports story—"The most despicable act by a ballplayer, ever," Hall of Famer Joe Morgan called it—exploded into a national scandal after AL president Gene Budig gave Alomar a slap-on-the-wrist five-game suspension that wouldn't begin until Opening Day of the next season. The story metastasized to talk radio, to op-ed pages, to David Letterman and Rush Limbaugh and Larry King and even the vice-presidential debate that fall, during which moderator Jim Lehrer asked if the incident was a sign of "something terribly wrong with the American soul." (Replied Al Gore, "I think [Alomar] should have been severely disciplined.")
The moment of contrition that the country wanted—no, demanded—took place in Baltimore the following spring. The disgraced ballplayer jogged onto the field at Camden Yards and shook hands with the scorned umpire. The fans in the stands rose to their feet and applauded. The reporters who had flocked to Baltimore could now write the story's final chapter.
Closure for everyone. Everyone, that is, except for the ballplayer and the umpire. What no one knew then was that the public reconciliation had left both men cold. "It was staged," says Hirschbeck, now 58 and still an umpire. "Phony. Nothing in my heart changed in that moment."
Says Alomar, now 45 and living a quiet life in Tampa, "It wasn't the way I wanted to do it."
For both the ballplayer and the umpire, there would eventually be forgiveness and closure, and even an unexpected friendship—but that would not come for years. "All the negative stuff was just the beginning," says Alomar. "The stuff that happened after that? That story is lost."
Consider the moment. It was 1996, and the wounds from what until then had been the longest work stoppage in U.S. sports history were still fresh. The '94 major league players' strike had shone a hot bright light on all that was wrong with the game: the spoiled millionaire ballplayers, the greedy fat-cat owners, the utterly inept leadership. Bud Selig, then the acting commissioner, had yet to assert his authority over the sparring factions within the game that were as power-hungry and self-serving as the warring kingdoms of Game of Thrones.
Consider Alomar. He was 28, already the most famous member of a famous baseball family, and with five Gold Gloves and seven All-Star appearances he was well on his way to the Hall of Fame. The greatest all-around second baseman in the last 50 years? You could make the case. Alomar was also one of the game's good guys. After a five-year run in Toronto, where he had blossomed into one of the game's biggest stars, he had signed as a free agent with Baltimore in December 1995. He was now the star of a team fighting for its first playoff berth since 1983.
Consider Hirschbeck. He was 42, as respected as any other umpire in the game. But three years earlier his off-the-field life had begun to spin out of control. Two weeks after doctors had told Hirschbeck and his wife, Denise, that little John was afflicted with ALD and had only months to live, they learned that their other three children were also carriers of the gene mutation that can cause the rare and deadly disease, which attacks the nervous system. "I used to thank God every day—I had my dream of becoming a major league baseball umpire, I had a great wife and four healthy kids," says Hirschbeck. "It all came tumbling down one day, and after that, yes, I did have a lot of anger in me. There was a lot of Why me?"
The moment, the ballplayer and the umpire converged when Alomar stepped up to the plate in the first inning of a Friday-night game between the Blue Jays and the Orioles. On a 3--2 count, Toronto righthander Paul Quantrill fired a fastball that Alomar, a switch-hitter batting lefthanded, watched pass on the outside of the plate. Hirschbeck called it a strike. "I'm known for having a big strike zone," says Hirschbeck, "but I when I looked back at replays, I thought, Oh, s---, that was way too far outside. I say all the time, Why didn't I just say, Ball four? We could have avoided all this."
Alomar snapped his head back at Hirschbeck. "What?" he said.
"You better swing at that pitch," Hirschbeck said to Alomar.
"I'll swing if it's a strike."
"Another word, and you're gone."
Alomar headed back to the dugout, barking, "Just pay attention to the game!" He says now, "Then someone else from the dugout said something that I think John heard and thought was me."
"You're gone!" Hirschbeck yelled. With Orioles manager Davey Johnson standing between them, Alomar shoved his way back toward Hirschbeck, and then spit at him. "He spit all over my face is what he did," Hirschbeck would say after the game. "In my eyes, everywhere." It was a stunning act, instantly up there on the Mount Rushmore of the foulest moments in sports, alongside Kermit Washington's punch of Rudy Tomjanovich, later to be joined by Mike Tyson's biting of Evander Holyfield's ear and Latrell Sprewell's choking of P.J. Carlesimo.
While video of Alomar's blowup has been dissected like the Zapruder film, the exact words he exchanged with Hirschbeck are still in dispute. What did the umpire say that set Alomar off? A racial slur? Something else? Says Alomar, "He said something I don't want to say—something negative, something touchy."
Claims Hirschbeck, "There wasn't any real verbal exchange—it was him screaming, him spitting and me yelling, 'You spit in my f---ing face!' That's it."
No one cared after the game that the Orioles had lost 3--2. Every reporter in the cramped visitors' clubhouse surrounded Alomar's locker. "I know that's something real tough in life," Alomar said, referring to the death of Hirschbeck's son. "He just changed personality-wise. He just got more bitter."
Alomar claims now—for the first time—that he was led on by reporters, that he had not been aware of Hirschbeck's family tragedy until a reporter mentioned it to him that night. "How would I even know?" he says. "You can put a Bible in front of me. I never was the one who first talked about his son. They asked me a question about it, and I said he's had a tough life. I was betrayed."
The next afternoon Hirschbeck, eager to move on, arrived at the SkyDome early to face reporters. "Can we talk to you about what Alomar said last night?" a writer asked him in the umpires' room.
"What did he say?" Hirschbeck asked.
"He said you'd become bitter after your son died," the writer said.
"That son of a bitch is going to mention my son?" Hirschbeck recalls saying. "You want a story? I'll give you a story."
Hirschbeck stormed a few steps down to the visitors' clubhouse. "You talk about my kid, I'll kill you!" Hirschbeck screamed at Alomar. He remembers little else from that moment other than fellow umpire Jim Joyce's arms twisted around his neck as Joyce pulled him back and said, "Calm down, John, calm down!" Alomar had been preparing to face reporters and read a carefully crafted statement of apology, but after Hirschbeck's outburst the Orioles advised their second baseman to hold off.
"I was in a rage," Hirschbeck says. "I just walked away and left the ballpark—I didn't care."
He wanted to disappear, to be left alone with his wife and his three children back home in Poland, Ohio. But when he returned home that Sunday night, there were so many television crews on his street that he had to call the police to tell them that his neighbors could not to get to their houses. The media requests were relentless. "We're very private people," says Hirschbeck. "Our idea of a big night is to have a few friends over for a cookout on the grill. Having everybody in the world asking for something—for articles, for books, someone wanted to do a movie—it was all something I wasn't prepared for."
The truth? He wanted to turn his back on the world. But he would always remember the words he heard that weekend from an old friend: "How you handle yourself through this is going to define you as a person."
The ballplayer made a pact with himself long ago: He was never going to be one of those players who hung around too long. When it was his time to go, he would go, and he would never turn back. No regrets. So at 36, just 276 hits away from 3,000, Alomar walked away from the game in the spring of 2005, even as the Rays were offering him a starting role. "I knew better than anyone else: It was my time to go," he says.
He has indeed never looked back—but he cannot say he has no remorse. "It's my only regret in baseball," Alomar says of the one moment when he was at his worst, a moment captured by cameras for the world to see. "I still feel very sad." He wanted to disappear after that weekend in Toronto, to go home to Puerto Rico, to his oldest friends, to his mother, Maria. Instead, in the throes of a pennant race, he somehow raised his game, hitting a game-winning 10th-inning home run the next night to clinch the AL wild-card berth for the Orioles. In the Division Series, against the Indians, he hit a game-winning single in Game 4 to send Baltimore to the ALCS.
But Alomar's heroics seemed to attract only more boos, more hate, especially after the announcement of the five-game suspension, which permitted him to play in the 1996 postseason. Was that his fault? He was booed every time he took the field. In New York City during the ALCS, Alomar said Yankees fans threw batteries at him. He also claims that Hirschbeck's fellow umpires retaliated against him with a bigger strike zone. He kept his composure on the field, but underneath, he says, "I felt like the world was against me." After the last game against the Indians in the Division Series, his brother Sandy, Cleveland's catcher, walked into the Orioles clubhouse and found his brother sitting at his locker, sobbing.
Three days after his confrontation with Hirschbeck in Toronto, Alomar formally apologized and gave $50,000 (matched by his club) to ALD research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins, where little John had been treated. He donated his earnings from his suspended games at the beginning of 1997 to charity. But he also said and did things that suggested that he still didn't get why everyone was mad at him. He said, for instance, that people didn't know his side of the story. It didn't help that Orioles owner Peter Angelos, staunchly defending his player, insisted that Hirschbeck apologize to Alomar for what was said on the field.
The following spring, union head Donald Fehr urged Alomar to shake Hirschbeck's hand the first time the two were scheduled to be on the same field together, during an April series in Baltimore, and Alomar did. "I'm sorry," he said on the field to Hirschbeck, who replied, "Maybe now we can both do our jobs."
But Alomar knew better: After the apology and the handshake, Hirschbeck was still far from over the matter. Alomar could see it every time he came to bat with Hirschbeck behind the plate; the umpire wouldn't even look at him. He could see it in how Hirschbeck, when he was working the field, would move away from his usual perch behind second base so he wouldn't have to be anywhere close to Alomar.
"I paid my price, for many years," says Alomar, "mostly because I would never be able to move on until John really forgave me."
The umpire too had made a pact with himself long ago: He would leave the game on his own terms. With all Hirschbeck had gone through, some people around him wondered if he would just walk away. But he never left—not through family tragedy, the Alomar controversy and even the serious health issues he'd later face. He underwent neck surgery in 2008 (and missed the entire season) to deal with the wear and tear of all those years on the job. Then, in '09, he learned that he had testicular cancer, which was treated but then recurred, forcing him to sit out the 2012 season. (He is once again cancer free, and he has returned to baseball full time.) It was almost an accident that he was an umpire in the first place—in high school he had started working Little League games to pay his way to prom—but he had grown to love the job and the game.
Much of what happened in Toronto "is fuzzy," says Hirschbeck. "For the most part my memories are nothing distinct." In the months and years after, when Denise would say, "Isn't it time to move on?" Hirschbeck would ignore her. He saw the incident with Alomar as just another bad break in a life that had been full of them. Not only was little John gone, but his younger brother Michael was battling to stay alive after a bone marrow transplant from his little sister Megan. "It was, again, anger that this was happening to me," says Hirschbeck, who also felt the hate from Orioles fans; when he went to Baltimore, he checked into hotels under a different name. "When it happened, I just thought, I really do not need this in my life."
Hirschbeck opened the paper one morning before the 1999 season and saw that Alomar had been traded to the Indians. "I was like, Oh, s---. There are 29 other teams, and he has to come to our backyard?"
Before a series in Cleveland that May to which Hirschbeck's crew had assigned, the umpire casually asked one of the umpire attendants, Jack Efta, what he thought of Alomar. "One of the two nicest men I've ever met," Efta said.
"Who's the other?" asked Hirschbeck.
Says Hirschbeck, "That was the moment I said, You know what? Enough's enough. What's the sense in living with this feeling?" Also, something in Hirschbeck had changed. "You hear all the horrible things in this world," he says. "In John's case, he didn't feel pain that we know of when he died—he died in our arms. Cursed? No. I'm blessed."
The next day Hirschbeck was standing behind second base with the Indians on the field. "Hey, Robbie, how you doing?" he said. He says now, "The floodgates were opened." They asked each other about their families and talked about little things—"just a regular conversation," says Hirschbeck. The next day Alomar met with the Hirschbeck family in the stadium tunnel before the game. "He gave Denise a big hug," says Hirschbeck. "It was like a making up with the whole family. And it was time to move on."
There was forgiveness and closure for both men and the beginning of a friendship. "I got to know him as a man," says Alomar, "and I could see that we were the same in a lot of ways—both quiet, both private. He's a great father, a great family man. Humble." The umpire, too, began to see another side of the player: When Michael Hirschbeck worked in the Indians' clubhouse as a batboy, he and Alomar developed a bond as Alomar showed him the ropes. "I love that kid," says Alomar. "I remember he always had a smile on his face." When Hirschbeck held his first golf tournament to raise money for ALD, he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from people all over baseball, but he was most taken aback when boxes of shoes, shirts, gloves and memorabilia arrived from Alomar. Roberto and Sandy's framed jerseys went for more money than anything else at Hirschbeck's charity auction.
"There's no bitterness, there's no anger," says Hirschbeck. "The best part of the closure is that Robbie and I, we have a friendship."
They do not talk regularly, they have not seen each other in years, but the two men reach out to each other at important moments.
Four years ago, Hirschbeck learned he had cancer. Soon after, his phone rang. It was Alomar. "Anything I can do to help?" he said. "I'm here for you." Last year Hirschbeck's cancer returned. Even as he went through chemotherapy, even when his back gave out, even when there was every reason for him to walk away, he stayed in the game. "My daughters told me not to go out like that," he says. He returned this spring for his 31st season, and while he's healthy again, he thinks that maybe this will be his last year and it will be time, finally, to walk away.
These last few years have not been easy for Alomar, either. In 2010 he was embroiled in a contentious divorce with his then wife, Maria Del Pilar, who alleged that he had exposed her to the AIDS virus. (Alomar denied that claim, and the two settled out of court.) That same year, when Alomar was up for the Hall of Fame for the first time, countless writers dredged up the spitting incident and turned to Hirschbeck for his thoughts on the player's candidacy. "Roberto Alomar is the greatest second baseman I've ever seen," Hirschbeck would tell each writer. "If that's the worst thing Robbie Alomar ever does in his life, he's led a very good life."
The weekend of the announcement in January, Alomar was in New York City, surrounded by friends who'd flown in to be with him. He was assumed to be a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But, incredibly, he was eight votes short. The punishment had been delivered. His phone rang later the same day. It was Hirschbeck. "I'm sorry," he said. "If what happened that day entered into this decision at all ... I'm sorry. We'll get it next year." In 2011, Alomar was voted in with a whopping 90% of the vote. Again, his old friend was one of the first to call. "We made it," Hirschbeck said. "We made it."
Alomar is happily remarried now—he and his wife, Kim, wed in Toronto last summer—but lately he has been feeling an itch: He wants back in the game. He joined the Blue Jays as a special assistant in the spring of 2011 and began helping out in small ways, traveling around Canada teaching the game to young players; now he hungers for a bigger role. He wants to expand the team's presence in Puerto Rico and help bring a championship back to Toronto. "I think I have a lot to give," he says. "This is the game I've loved since I can remember—it gave me everything. It's time to give back."
Yes, that one moment 17 years ago follows Alomar wherever he goes, and in quiet moments when his mind wanders, there's regret and there's a sadness that lingers still. But then he thinks of the good and the beauty that came after, and he feels nothing but hope.
"I'm known for having a big strike zone," says Hirschbeck, "but when I looked back at the replays I thought, Oh, s---.... Why didn't I just say, Ball four? We could have avoided all this."
5 Completely Trivial Things We Learned About Roberto Alomar and John Hirschbeck
Hirschbeck has called three World Series—1995, 2006, and '10—and was behind the plate when Barry Bonds hit his record 756th home run, passing Hank Aaron on the alltime list, and when the Phillies' Roy Halladay threw his no-hitter against the Reds in the '10 NLDS.
A videotape of the game marred by the spitting incident remains stowed away in a desk drawer at Hirschbeck's Ohio home. But "it's not something I plan on converting to DVD," he says.
In 2010, Alomar's financial adviser introduced him to Facebook as a way to look up old friends. One of his first searches was for Kim Perks, who had worked as a SkyDome luxury box hostess while Alomar was a Blue Jay from 1991 to '95. They were married in Toronto in 2012. She helps to run the Roberto Alomar Foundation.
Alomar owns a Toronto-based athletic apparel company called Alomar Baseball.
Sandy Alomar Sr., Robbie's father, is a roving instructor with the Blue Jays; Sandy Jr. is a bench coach for the Indians.
Photograph by MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS
SPIT AND POLISH Seven months after the spitting incident in Toronto, Alomar (far left) and Hirschbeck shared a public handshake in Baltimore (right)—but neither man was ready to be friends.
TED MATHIAS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
JONATHAN BIELASKI FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
THE LAST STRAW What the two men said during the argument on the field is still a mystery, but the conflict escalated afterward when Alomar mentioned Hirschbeck's dead son.
JOEY TERRILL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
JOHN IACONO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
GROUND RULES Before his blowup with Hirschbeck, the slick-fielding Alomar was one of baseball's good guys and was well on his way to being considered one of the best second basemen in history.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SWING TIME Just weeks after his spat with Hirschbeck, Roberto Alomar (12) led the Orioles to the ALDS, where they defeated the Indians—and his brother, Sandy Alomar Jr. (15).