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Baseball Strikes Out Again

The game of baseball, which has suffered from a long, mostly self-inflicted run of bad public relations, missed a chance to redeem itself this week. The Baltimore Orioles - the last, best hope of the game - were handed an opportunity to single-handedly restore faith in baseball and didn't even realize it.

Upset by a bad call, Orioles' second baseman Roberto Alomar spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck last Friday, then added injury to insult after the game by suggesting that the umpire had become unfair and bitter after the death of his son.

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For the Orioles, it was a public-relations nightmare, which they handled with a surprising lack of imagination. The American League suspended Mr. Alomar for five days. He appealed the suspension, automatically deferring a decision until next season and guaranteeing he would play in the post-season. The umpires closed ranks and threatened to strike, and the whole miasma ended up in court.

The Orioles? They appropriately condemned the act, but they missed an opportunity to turn an ugly episode into a public relations coup. All they had to do was announce that Alomar's behavior was unacceptable - and bench him.

Just imagine the fan reaction if on the eve of the playoffs, while lawyers huddled and threats were hurled, the Orioles held a press conference to announce that the legal battle was moot - Roberto Alomar would not play.

"Will this hurt our chances in the playoffs?" I imagine Orioles general manager Pat Gillick asking rhetorically. "That's not the point. What Alomar has done is an embarrassment to our fans, to the city of Baltimore, and to baseball. Until his suspension is served and Alomar's apology is accepted by Mr. Hirschbeck, he will not wear an Orioles uniform." The overwhelming majority of fans, I'm certain, would embrace and support such a move.

Ironically, if any team could have have been expected to take such action, it would be the Orioles, a team that has marketed a simpler, purer version of baseball. Baltimore was the only team that refused to field replacement players during last year's players strike. In an era where free agency changes the face of teams from year to year, the Orioles have given baseball the blue-collar work ethic and loyalty of Cal Ripken.

The simple, obvious act of benching a star player for (to put it mildly) bad behavior might have gone a long way toward restoring the faith of many Americans in the game. At least one team, it would be noted, is run by grown-ups who still believe in the game. By doing what any Little League coach would have done reflexively, the Orioles would have become America's team overnight.

It was a chance, if you'll forgive the image, to spit in the face of the greed and cynicism that have seized professional sports. Instead, the Orioles issued a statement from Alomar, obviously the work of lawyers and media relations staffers, gilded with a $50,000 check to fight ALD, the disease that Mr. Hirschbeck's son was diagnosed with.

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How typical. And pathetic. It was a rote gesture that convinced absolutely no one of Alomar's sincerity. The impression it created was of a rich, spoiled athlete once again trying to buy his way out of trouble.

The Orioles had a chance to do the right thing. It would have been great for baseball and, in the long run, good for business. A simple, honorable gesture might have redeemed a deplorable act and generated tremendous good will, win or lose. It didn't happen. Sadly, there's no evidence it was even considered.

Did the Orioles strike out? They never even stepped up to the plate.

*Robert Pondiscio is public affairs director for Time Magazine.

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