We are all Roberto Alomar

We have met the jerks, and they are us

Published October 15, 1996 11:25AM (EDT)

after Pete Rose and Tonya Harding and O.J. Simpson, you'd think Americans
would have learned a lesson or two about sports heroes and the people who
make them. But what lesson did we take from the sorry story of Roberto

Two weeks ago, the brilliant hitter for the Baltimore Orioles turned into a major jerk after he was called out on strikes by home-plate umpire John
Hirschbeck. He screamed, he bumped the umpire and then spit in Hirschbeck's face. Ejected from the game, morose in the clubhouse, Alomar became an even bigger jerk by describing the umpire as having become "bitter" after his eight-year-old son died of a rare brain disease.

It was, in sum, quite a remarkable performance even by the standards of
today's professional athletes, all too many of whom have proved to be thugs, wife-beaters and drug addicts.

Making matters worse was the slap on the wrist Alomar received from league officials and the Oriole management -- a brief suspension at the beginning of next season, rather than an immediate one which would have taken him off the field during part of the playoffs, as the umpires had demanded. The affair became a major topic of conversation on talk radio; editorial writers lamented; ordinary people talked about the bad example both the crime and the punishment offered to America's youth. During last week's vice-presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer pointed to Alomar when he asked whether "something's gone terribly wrong with the American soul, that we've become too mean, too selfish." It was the only time that Al Gore waxed passionate. "I think (Alomar) should have been severely disciplined, suspended perhaps, immediately. I don't understand why that action was not taken."

But blaming Alomar and the crass response of baseball officials misses a larger
point. Baltimore's fans were not noticeably offended by Mr. Alomar's
behavior; some even displayed signs of support at subsequent games. If we want to know about incivility on the playing fields, the "American soul" and what's wrong with our fallen sports heroes, perhaps we'd do better to look around the bleachers at ourselves.

Baseball used to be America's number-one pastime. It is a game of rules, a ritual of close calls. Sentimentally, we say that we like the game for being slow, gloriously slow, and sweet as a summer day. In fact, we baseball fans have become a restless people, over-stimulated and capable of excitement only when a pitcher aims a ball at a batter and both teams race for the mound, fists flying, for a moment of mayhem.

Because of Alomar's spectacular hitting and fielding, the Baltimore
Orioles made it to the American League playoffs, where he was roundly booed by ultimately victorious Yankees' fans. But his was barely the story of the week. The hero turned out to be a 12-year-old kid named Jeff Maier, who reached over the fence and snagged a fly ball, preventing the Oriole's fielder from possibly catching it and leading the umpire to erroneously rule it a home run. Maier's action turned the game around. It was also a violation of the rules. But who, except Oriole crybabies, cared?

The kid is a hero. Fans in Yankee Stadium chanted his praise: MVP! The
kid who broke the rules was called "the angel in the outfield" by one New
York tabloid. He ended up on the morning talk shows and the front page of virtually every newspaper in the land. Thus the Alomar affair faded from the sports page and from talk radio.

Still we tell ourselves that Mr. Alomar is the jerk. And we tell ourselves that League officials and team owners are moral cowards. We wring our hands and lament the decline of role models and civility in American life, even as we cheer a 12-year-old kid who broke the rules.

We who sit in the bleachers do not ask embarrassing questions about our own role in the story. Roberto Alomar is us.

© Pacific News Service

Quotes of the day

Ripped pampers?

"We're seeing this real trend of daddies and babies all through the romance genre right now. This is the sort of nesting version of the romance fantasy."

-- Kay Mussell, professor of literature and American studies at American University." (From "Forget Macho: Today's Heroes Love Kids and Rustle Up Dinner," in
Tuesday Wall Street Journal)

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

MORE FROM Richard Rodriguez

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