Self-interested game spits in the public's face

Rupert Cornwell reports from Washington on the affair that threatens baseball's play-offs

To the ecstasy of Baltimoreans and the misery of Clevelanders, the Orioles dispatched the Indians 10-4 in Tuesday's opening American League play-off game. But the talk of baseball is not Bobby Bonilla's grand slam homer which clinched the victory. It is the less exalted matter of spit, or more precisely the expectoration which Bonilla's team-mate Roberto Alomar delivered on Friday in the face of an umpire. Five days later, it threatens to disfigure his sport.

Spitting has a long history in baseball. The spitball is part of the sports legend, outlawed in 1920 but even now surreptitiously and occasionally practised. Players would spit tobacco, too (before that was banned in this anti-tobacco age), and many spit into the ground to relax during an at-bat. What you do not do is spit at the umpire. That alone would have made the Alomar affair remarkable, even without his gratuitously offensive postscript that John Hirschbeck had become "real bitter" since the death of his seven-year-old son from a rare genetic disease three years ago. When he heard about that remark, the umpire had to be physically restrained from attacking Alomar. Who can blame him?

Players and umpires squaring up is nothing new. More than any sport, baseball tolerates a measure of dissent. The ritual hardly varies: as in the Alomar case, a dubious third strike is called, a beefy batter protests to a big-bellied home-plate umpire, eyeball to eyeball they glare at each other, and the F-word starts to fly. Blows and spit do not. At that point, either the manager intervenes and hauls the batter off to the dug-out, or the player and/or manager are ejected from the game. The worst that usually happens is suspension for a game or two.

This time, the American League (in which the Orioles play) gave him a routine suspension of five games. The player appealed, and the matter was put off to an unspecified date. The umpires were outraged and threatened to strike through the play-offs unless Alomar was suspended with immediate effect, ensuring he missed some games which really mattered. On Tuesday a compromise was reached: the umpires would work that day and yesterday, while the AL agreed to advance its appeal hearing to today.

There matters stand. Given those who control baseball and their greed, selfishness and stupidity (the three guiding principles behind the eight- month players' strike of 1994-95), the rest of the post-season cannot be counted safe. "Scab" umpires may be drafted in, and if Alomar is given the punishment most people (including most Orioles fans) think he merits, then the Players' Union may down tools again. Incredible it may sound, but in baseball anything is possible.

By any yardstick, a five-day suspension is a joke. Alomar is one of the finest baseball players of his generation - a graceful hitter from both sides of the plate, an electrifying base- runner, and a dazzling defensive second baseman. For these skills the Baltimore Orioles pay him $6m (pounds 4m) a year. Missing five out of 162 regular season games would be barely noticed by either club or player (other than the loss of $180,000 in wages, a pittance for Alomar but more than the annual salary of a Major League umpire). To have meaning, a suspension would have to last at least a fortnight, and embrace at least some of the post-season.

That may yet be decided today. But almost anywhere else, in almost any other sport, punishment would be severe and automatic. For Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer or the journeyman Third Division full-back alike, a red card means suspension - even if the next game is the World Cup final. But baseball has long since dispensed with the concept of discipline. Since the owners sacked Commissioner Paul Vincent in 1992, the sport has been without an ultimate independent authority able to grasp the ethical and PR disaster the game's rulers were inflicting upon it with their handling of the Alomar incident. But baseball is run by self-interested factions of owners, unions, players' agents and lawyers. And now they are souring, if not wrecking, the post-season.

But does baseball care? No, it just spits in your face.

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