Commentary

Big mistake shouldn't keep Alomar out

Spitting incident won't be forgotten but should not derail journey to Cooperstown

Originally Published: December 30, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Roberto AlomarTony Tomsic/Getty ImagesRoberto Alomar had the instincts to make magic happen at second base over his 17-year career.
It's only natural for baseball writers and stat guys to compare Roberto Alomar to Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and the 16 other second basemen in the Hall of Fame. Alomar's former teammates and opponents can feel free to do the same.

Pat Gillick, the man who brought Alomar to Toronto by trade in 1990 and to Baltimore as a free agent five years later, opts for a comparison from a different sport -- where fluidity is prized and teeth are optional.

Gillick saw a touch of Derek Jeter in Alomar. But he also glimpsed a little Wayne Gretzky.

"I'm not putting them in the same category, but if you watched Gretzky play hockey, he scored a lot of goals because he was in the right place at the right time," Gillick said. "He was always thinking ahead about how the play was developing and where the puck was going to be.

"It was the same thing with Alomar. He had this instinct where he knew what was going to transpire before it took place. You see some infielders catch a relay throw and double-pump or look where they need to throw it. Robbie never did that. As soon as he got the ball, he immediately turned and threw to third or home or wherever he needed to throw. There was absolutely no hesitation."

Alomar, 41, is making his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, and his credentials scream first-ballot guy. During a 17-year career with the Padres, Blue Jays, Orioles, Indians, Mets, White Sox and Diamondbacks, Alomar made 12 All-Star teams, won 10 Gold Gloves and finished among the top six in most valuable player voting five times.

As the chart shows, Alomar also passes the dominance test. During the 14-year-period spanning his debut on April 22, 1988, in San Diego through the end of the 2001 season in Cleveland, Alomar ranked among the game's top five in seven offensive categories.

He also stacks up nicely with his positional peer group. Alomar retired with more career hits (2,724) than Morgan, more runs scored (1,508) than Nap Lajoie, more doubles (504) than Rod Carew, more stolen bases (474) than Frankie Frisch and a higher OPS (.814) than Sandberg.

Alomar drove in 100 or more runs twice but never struck out 100 times. He hit in the leadoff spot 446 times, batted second 1,043 times and hit third 700 times in his career. He was capable of getting on base to set up the big boys behind him or hitting the ball with authority to knock in the little guys in front of him.

"I definitely think he's worthy," said Tony Gwynn, Alomar's former San Diego teammate. "Robbie Alomar could do whatever you needed him to do. If you needed a big hit or you needed him to hit a home run or get a runner over, he could do all of that. Back then, you didn't have many second basemen who could dominate the game like he did."

Alomar was a blissful amalgam of genetics and access. He learned how to act like a big leaguer as an grade-schooler, hanging around clubhouses in Anaheim, Arlington and the Bronx while his father, Sandy, was in the waning stages of his career. Roberto was kindergarten age when he met pitcher Nolan Ryan in the Angels' clubhouse. In April 1988, at age 20, he singled off Ryan for his first major league hit.

Alomar also was hardwired for pressure-packed circumstances. In Game 4 of the 1992 American League Championship Series, with the Oakland Coliseum infield shrouded in shadows, Alomar pierced the darkness with a dramatic two-run homer off Dennis Eckersley. Then he threw out pinch runner Eric Fox at the plate to keep the game alive and allow teammate Pat Borders to win it with a sacrifice fly in the 11th. All told, Alomar hit .313 in 58 postseason games.

Jeter has his signature play -- the jump throw from the shortstop hole. Alomar, in contrast, had a smorgasbord of moves. He could range to his right, slide to his knees and come up throwing in a flash. No second baseman sprinted farther into right field to catch pop flies. And Alomar mastered the element of surprise; if he took a double-play feed and realized there was no time to get the runner out at first base, he would spin and throw to third and catch an overzealous baserunner on his way back to the bag.

"I must have seen him do that 15 times," Gillick said.

For three years in Cleveland, Alomar and Omar Vizquel were the Bolshoi Ballet of double-play combinations. If Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker set the standard for consistency and reliability over time, Vizquel and Alomar raised the bar for artistry.

"As long as I've played, I've never seen anyone better than them," Indians pitcher Mark Langston, a 16-year veteran, said in the summer of 1999. "Sometimes they do something so special, you want to call timeout, go over and give them a hug."

Through the years, Alomar endured the occasional criticism for being overly flashy and confident to the point of arrogance. He could appear aloof at times, and he had a reputation as a clubhouse lawyer.

But those personal flaws pale in comparison to the big blot on his résumé. In September 1996, Alomar spit in umpire John Hirschbeck's face during a confrontation in Toronto. It was such an egregious breach of conduct from both a baseball and a societal standpoint that the incident sticks to Alomar like pine tar more than 13 years later.

Should it stand between Alomar and a place in Cooperstown? The answer is clearly "no." Many Hall of Fame candidates have lost support because of calculated, premeditated actions from bat corking to steroid use. Alomar's transgression, while serious, was a momentary lapse of judgment born of anger in the heat of competition.

His most ardent defender is Hirschbeck, who objects to the mere thought of voters using the spitting incident to keep Alomar out of Cooperstown.

Since that ugly confrontation, Alomar has contributed generously to the fight against adrenoleukodystrophy, the genetic disorder that's caused such heartache for Hirschbeck and his family. Hirschbeck's son John was 8 years old when he died from the disease in 1993, and another son, Michael, survived ALD after receiving a bone-marrow transplant.

When Hirschbeck organized a fundraising golf tournament, Alomar was among the first to donate memorabilia and give to the cause. Hirschbeck characterizes Alomar as a "good person" and considers him a friend.

"I've said this many, many times, and my family probably gets tired of hearing me say it. But if that's the worst thing the guy ever did in his life, then he's led a really good life," Hirschbeck said.

"Was I angry at the time? Yeah. I was mad. I was ticked off. But you forgive and you forget and you move on with life. It's one of those things that happened in the heat of the moment. He made a mistake, but I don't hold a grudge about it. And I would hope and pray that nobody else lets it interfere with what he accomplished professionally."

Alomar's Hall of Fame case wouldn't generate this much discussion if not for an abrupt and inexplicable late-career fade. In 2001, after he posted a .956 OPS for Cleveland and finished fourth in MVP voting, general manager Mark Shapiro traded him to the Mets to help keep the Indians' payroll in line. Alomar bombed out in New York, failed to rediscover the old magic while playing alongside brother Sandy with the White Sox, then flopped in late-career auditions with the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays. He couldn't even survive spring training with Tampa Bay in 2005.

[+] EnlargeUmpire John Hirshbeck
Carlo Allegri/AFP/Getty ImagesRoberto Alomar's career will always be tarnished by the incident in 1996, when he spit in umpire John Hirschbeck's face.

It was a decline more befitting a one-dimensional slugger -- say, Mo or Greg Vaughn -- than a multifaceted athlete who never relied on power to make an impact. Some observers thought that Alomar's outlook changed after the Hirschbeck incident, and it sapped a little of his passion for the game.

"Maybe it's because Robbie started playing at such a young age," Gwynn said. "He was a professional at 17 and he got to the big leagues relatively quickly. Sometimes in this game, there is no explanation. Sometimes you just don't like what you do anymore."

Alomar kept a low profile until this past January, when a former girlfriend filed a lawsuit charging that he forced her to have unprotected sex even though he had the AIDS virus. Alomar has denied that he has AIDS, and his lawyer called the allegations "frivolous" and "baseless." The suit was settled in May.

Alomar, now married and living in Florida, appeared in Toronto this past summer in conjunction with a Blue Jays reunion. He attracted a big crowd at the Rogers Centre and addressed his Hall of Fame aspirations. He has since reiterated how special it would be to make it to Cooperstown.

"If I get there, it will be the end of the book," Alomar said in an interview in November. "The greatest feeling of my life."

Alomar never hesitated on those relay throws, and there's no reason for him to wait now. He belongs in Cooperstown, as a first-ballot guy.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer