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HERO, HEARTTHROB, GOAT, TARGET ... LET'S START OVER Add to ...

sbrunt@globeandmail.com

He was a rock star.

To understand that, you have to be of a certain age, you have to remember when the Toronto Blue Jays were right there with the Maple Leafs at the beating sports heart of the city, you have to know how it felt to win back-to-back World Series and force the great southern neighbour to stand up and take notice.

It would help to have spent some time at Roberto Alomar's side during one wild autumn at the peak of his fame, when, while making mandatory public appearances to publicize his as-told-to biography, a screaming mob of young women forced the closure of a shopping mall where he was offering up autographs.

It didn't last long, but for a few brief shining moments, Alomar's celebrity in Toronto transcended the game he played so very well, and transcended that of any other local athlete. He was a heartthrob and hero and teen idol, and also the best position player to wear the Blue Jays uniform. All of that is near unimaginable now.

Whether his on-field achievements are enough to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot will be determined tomorrow, when this year's class is unveiled.

One factor that works against Alomar is the way his career wound down, quickly and prematurely, including one desultory season and a bit spent under the game's brightest spotlight playing for the New York Mets.

But any baseball fan who watched him at second base game in and game out during his Toronto prime could make the case that his skill set - remarkable defensive range, hitting for average and for power, superior base-running, an impeccable, instinctive understanding of the game - qualifies him as a worthy candidate for Cooperstown, no matter what that has come to mean given the air of high moral dudgeon that now surrounds the voting.

If and when Alomar does get in, he would be the first true Blue Jays player in the Hall (not a product of their farm system, but a happy byproduct of the biggest and best trade in franchise history), and the only one until pitcher Roy Halladay hangs it up, assuming any late-career heroics with the Philadelphia Phillies don't overly cloud his playing identity.

But having fallen out of love with Alomar and with baseball, will Toronto embrace him now? Or will what would have once been viewed as a watershed moment in the city's sports history pass almost without notice?

Robbie-mania and Blue Jay-mania ended at just about the same time. When he left the team for the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent in 1996 (with then general manager Gord Ash justifying the decision not to ante up by suggesting Alomar lacked necessary leadership qualities), the scent of the 1994-95 players' strike still lingered in the air.

The Jays had gone into the great labour war as defending world champions. By the time it ended, uncertainty surrounding the team's ownership was the first hint of painful new realities to come, and no one was particularly sympathetic to the plight of "greedy" ballplayers, especially those who had apparently rejected the city that had so fondly embraced them.

That fall, back in Toronto with the Orioles, Alomar spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck in the wake of a home-plate argument, and the transformation from baby face to heel was complete: Alomar would apologize, Hirschbeck would forgive him, and the two would build a strong relationship from that unlikely beginning, but here it had all gone sour, and sour it would remain.

In more recent times, Alomar's fleeting moments in the public eye in Toronto - geared to the Jays' apparently endless and somewhat desperate marketing of their glorious past - were like awkward meetings with an old flame.

Truth is, he was always an odd duck, holed away in what was then the SkyDome Hotel, his only home in the city. But he liked it here because it was where he felt appreciated while fulfilling his baseball destiny, and we liked him here - the screaming girls a whole lot - because for a few moments what now seems like a very long time ago, the Blue Jays were the best and he was the best.

All of which suggests that the time is ripe, and the time is right, for reconciliation.

 

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