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Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar shakes hands with first base umpire John Hirschbeck as he takes the field for a game against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards in Baltimore Tuesday, April 22, 1997. Alomar and Hirschbeck were meeting for the first time since the infamous spitting incident last September.(AP Photo/Dave Hammond)DAVE HAMMOND/The Associated Press

If Roberto Alomar isn't elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot today, the blame will fall largely on a solitary incident - that day in September of 1996, when he spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck.

Some voters may believe Alomar should be further punished by waiting a year or two before gaining his inevitable admission into Cooperstown, where he would likely become the first player to do so wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat.

But Hirschbeck would not count himself among that group. The veteran ump believes Alomar should be long-forgiven for the infamous blowup in Toronto.

After all, Hirschbeck not only granted his forgiveness, he now looks back on that ugly moment as the start of a beautiful friendship.

Hirschbeck, though, did not have a vote. It is members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America who elect candidates into the Hall.

"I would hope that every sports writer in the world would be able to forgive, forget and move on from what I think of as a minor incident in the guy's life," Hirschbeck said in an interview. "I really mean that when I say it. It's something that happened. I wish it hadn't happened - he wishes it didn't happen - but in the big picture … if that's the worst Robbie Alomar ever did in his life, then he's led a great life."

There's little doubt, based on his accomplishments, Alomar deserves a ticket into Cooperstown. In his 17-year professional career - including five seasons in Toronto, when he anchored back-to-back World Series teams in 1992 and 1993 - Alomar established himself as arguably the best second basemen of his era.

He batted an even .300 in his career, earned 10 Gold Glove Awards, four Silver Sluggers and made 12 all-star teams.

Unfortunately for Alomar, it is the aftermath of an at-bat in Sept. 27, 1996, that has smeared his Hall of Fame credentials.

Having signed with the Baltimore Orioles after the 1995 season, Alomar was back in Toronto for a game against the Jays and being booed by the local fans. Hirschbeck, who was working the plate, called him out on strikes.

A fierce argument erupted, Alomar was ejected and, as the yelling continued, he spit into Hirschbeck's face.

More than 13 years later, Alomar is still answering for his actions.

"That's not me. Everybody knows who I am. It was one stupid moment that happened to me when I played," he told The Associated Press yesterday.

In the clubhouse after the game, showing contempt rather than contrition, Alomar said Hirschbeck had changed since his eight-year-old son had died three years earlier because of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare genetic disorder that affects the brain.

"He had a problem with his family when his son died - I know that's something real tough in life - but after that he just changed, personality-wise," Alomar said that day. "He just got real bitter."

When Hirschbeck learned of Alomar's comments the next day, he tried to get at him in the Orioles clubhouse before being restrained.

"To this day, I'll say I don't think he meant the comments the way they came out," Hirschbeck said. "But that's how I interpreted them at the time. My son had only died a couple of years before and so it was, obviously, a very touchy thing."

After that, apart from a perfunctory handshake early in the 1997 season, Hirschbeck and Alomar tried to avoid one another. The frosty relationship changed dramatically in 1999, after Alomar joined the Cleveland Indians as a free agent.

Hirschbeck, now 55, lives in Poland, Ohio, about 125 kilometres southeast of Cleveland. Prior to a game at the Indians' home stadium, Jacobs Field, he asked Jack Efta what he thought of Alomar.

Efta is an Indians employee who takes care of the umpires at games in Cleveland, and a friend of Hirschbeck's.

"He looked at me and said, 'John, you know he's one of the two nicest people I've ever met in my life' … and my jaw kind of dropped," Hirschbeck said. "And before I could say anything, he goes, 'And you're the other one.'"

Hirschbeck was working second base that night. When Alomar came out to take up his position, Hirschbeck said a simple hello.

"And it was like opening the door and we just never shut up," Hirschbeck said.

Hirschbeck's older son, Michael - now 23 - has since been diagnosed with ALD. Alomar donated $50,000 (U.S.) to ALD research and become involved with a foundation the Hirschbeck family started to help find a cure for the disease.

"The main thing is I accepted my mistake," Alomar said yesterday. "We are all human, and I went to John and apologized to him. And we're both great friends. Out of something bad, something good happened. We have a great friendship."

Alomar is recently married and living in Tampa. Hirschbeck has a winter home in nearby Sarasota, Fla.

They're planning to get together for dinner this week.

"I'd say that's a long way from that incident in Toronto in 1996," Hirschbeck said.