Spat of the year

Ian Griffiths looks back at the spitting image which appalled Americans
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In A City which was hosting crucial Middle East peace talks, the annual meetings of the World Bank, and is the focus for next month's presidential elections, there was plenty to talk about last last week in Washington DC. But one topic of conversation dominated, not just in the capital but across the United States. From power broker to pawnbroker there was heated discussion about one man - Roberto Alomar, second baseman with the Baltimore Orioles.

It was not the home run which Alomar hit in extra innings to clinch victory over the Toronto Blue Jays to secure the Orioles' place in the play-offs for the first time in 13 years which set tongues wagging. Rather it was an incident the night before which saw Alomar clash with the umpire John Hirschbeck and spit in his face. The spitting itself was bad enough but Alomar then compounded his error in a post-match press conference when he accused the umpire of having become bitter since the death, three years ago, of his seven-year-old son from adrenoleukodystophy, the disease depicted in the movie Lorenzo's Oil.

The incident has sparked an outpouring of public scorn against Alomar and has also threatened post-season baseball as it moves through the play- offs to the World Series. The umpires' union refused to officiate unless Alomar's suspension from the first five games of next season took effect immediately.

The officials were angered by the leniency of the suspension and by the tactics which have ensured it is pushed into next season. A last-minute compromise on Tuesday headed off a threatened walk-out which would have seen "scabs" umpire the Orioles' post-season opener against the Cleveland Indians. And on Friday a district court ruled the umpires had to return to work. Even so, the judge was moved to say: "My feelings are with the umpires; they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

The game at Camden Yards ball park, Baltimore, started 17 minutes late but with a full complement of professional umpires. Perhaps stranger than the prospect of reserve umpires was the sight of Alomar being booed by a 47,000-strong home crowd as he appeared on the pitch. Each time he took his position at the plate there was a large segment who hissed their contempt for a man who has shocked the American sporting public.

The most common criticism levelled against Alomar is that from his position of sporting hero he has set a poor example for the adoring youth of the nation. For while baseball is a game which is renowned for its loud disagreements between players and umpires over disputed calls this is an acceptable part of the theatre. Spitting in the umpire's face is not. Dragging the umpire's dead son into the debate was the final straw. "Baseball holds a special place in our country," the district judge said on Friday. "It is a higher calling than pure business."

One Orioles fan was almost in tears on a local radio phone-in programme as he shared his shame about Alomar's behaviour. The Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell summed up the mood of a nation when he wrote: "How can you spit in a man's face, then talk about his dead child in public and try to justify it all by saying he called a ball a strike?"

In a country where there is no envy over Alomar's six-million-dollar- man salary status, there was outrage about his failure to accept the responsibility which Americans believe goes with his exalted status. Not only do they think that a role model has behaved despicably but that the system has conspired to preventpunishment fitting the crime.

"He's been suspended for five games; it should be five seasons," said one irate fan. "He'll lose $165,000 but he's worth $26m. He will not even notice."