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Alomar, Gillick full of personality, quirks
You know you're getting older as a baseball writer — not old! — when people you covered on an everyday basis enter the Hall of Fame.
I covered two of this year's three inductees — Pat Gillick and Roberto Alomar — as a general sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun in the late 1990s.
At the time, Gillick seemed to prefer Craig Biggio, another potential Hall of Famer who was on the open market. But Alomar's agent, Jaime Torres, said that Orioles owner Peter Angelos wanted Alomar, "and that's who counts."
However it went down, the signing of Alomar worked out quite well for the Orioles, who made the playoffs in 1996 and '97. Both Alomar and Gillick left after the '98 season — the first of 13 straight (and soon to be 14 straight) losing campaigns for Baltimore.
Some quick, personal reflections on Alomar, Gillick and Gillick's predecessor with the Orioles, Roland Hemond, who on Saturday was honored as the second recipient of the Hall's Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. (I never covered Bert Blyleven — this year's other Hall inductee — on an everyday basis.)
ALOMAR: A SENSITIVE ARTIST
When he was on, he was the best player I ever saw.
Alomar could dominate a game as a hitter, defender or base runner — and sometimes all three on the same day. He was an absolute artist, freakishly instinctive, a joy to behold.
His home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 AL Championship Series — while not as dramatic as Kirk Gibson's homer off Eck in the '88 World Series or Joe Carter's World Series clincher for the Jays in '93 — was an indelible moment, as clutch as it gets.
Alomar also was quite temperamental and could slip into funks that lasted days and even weeks if something was bothering him. But let's make this clear: The spitting incident in September 1996 — yes, Alomar actually spit on umpire John Hirschbeck — was an isolated incident. And not enough people are aware that Alomar atoned for his mistake with his later actions.
On Oct. 27, 1999, I wrote a front-page story for the Sun headlined, "Score One for Friendship," about the relationship that evolved between Alomar and Hirschbeck. The article is one of my favorites — I had been hard on Alomar after the incident, and writing the story sort of brought everything full circle for me, too.
As you can see from the date, the article appeared more than three years after the incident — it took that long for Alomar and Hirschbeck to make amends. My favorite anecdote was not about spit but holy water.
Hirschbeck and his wife, Denise, had lost one son, John Drew, 8, to a degenerative nerve disease known as adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). They had another son, Michael, who suffered from the same disease.
One night in September 1999, Hirschbeck's family met with Alomar at Camden Yards during a rain delay; the Hirschbecks live in Poland, Ohio, and Alomar, after joining the Indians, had become one of Michael's favorite players.
That night, Alomar approached Hirschbeck, a fellow Catholic, and said he wanted to send over some holy water for the umpire's children.
As I wrote in the article, "From spit to holy water, Alomar's transformation was complete."
I had two favorite quotes from the story.
The first was from Indians' umpires-room attendant Jack Efta, a friend of both men who helped bring them together after Alomar signed with the Indians before the '99 season.
Efta told Hirschbeck, "A good person can have a bad day."
The second quote came directly from Hirschbeck, and it closed the story.
"I don't see why he should be booed. If he and I can forgive and forget, why not everyone else?"
GILLICK: CIA OPERATIVE OR GM?
Gillick's record as a GM, of course, is unparalleled. But his personal touch is the reason he is so revered by his former employees and so admired by the rest of us.
Gillick is an emotional, caring person. Every time we speak, he asks about my children — every time. He has a quirky side: His friends joke that he is, after all, left-handed. But his mind is brilliant, his memory uncanny.
I remember getting a phone call from Gillick once at the East Side Marriott in New York. It was after he had left the Orioles. He was calling to give me a hard time about something or another. But I wondered: How the heck did he figure out I was there?
Most baseball writers are obsessed with collecting Marriott points; Gillick knew that much. But there are at least a dozen Marriott properties in Manhattan, and he found me on the first try. It was typical Gillick; he knows everything.
Covering Gillick was like covering the CIA. You never knew what he was plotting. I discovered this even before he joined the Orioles, when he was still with the Blue Jays.
After the 1993 season, the Orioles parted with reliever Gregg Olson, who had a torn ligament in his right elbow. That January, Olson went to see Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., to be evaluated for interested clubs.
And who did Olson find sitting next to him on the flight segment from Atlanta to Birmingham?
I don't recall how I found this out. I don't think I even reported it then. But the Blue Jays and Orioles were pretty heated rivals at the time, and here was Gillick, sidling up to Olson and trying to recruit him away.
I asked Gillick recently how he got the exact seat next to Olson.
He said that he called the airline, introduced himself as Olson and wanted to confirm his seat from Atlanta to Birmingham. The attendant told him, "3A," or whatever. Then Gillick called back and purchased his own seat, saying, "Put me in 3B."
"I kind of had him trapped," Gillick said, chuckling. "He was on the window. I was on the aisle."
The Blue Jays made Olson an offer, but Olson signed with the Braves.
"It was such a small plane," said Olson, who is now a scout with the Padres. "It was pretty bizarre seeing him there. I was shocked to see someone of his stature."
Gillick told me that in his early days as a scout, he would hide in the bushes in the Dominican Republic, trying to remain unseen by rival clubs as he scouted players.
That was how he operated — not occasionally, but all the time.
HEMOND: THE NUTTY PROFESSOR
He is, simply, one of the most beloved men in the sport. I am never happy to criticize people in print, even though it occasionally is part of my job. But ripping Hemond, the Orioles' GM from 1988 to ‘95, was the worst. I loved the guy.
If Gillick is quirky, then Hemond is quirky times 10, forever disheveled, his mind going a million miles a minute. I was a beat writer for the late Baltimore Evening Sun when Hemond took over. Tim Kurkjian, now with ESPN, covered the Orioles for the Morning Sun. Richard Justice, now with the Houston Chronicle, was with the Washington Post. We called Hemond, "Professor Irwin Corey," after the madcap comedian.
Hemond had been Bill Veeck's GM with the White Sox, famously pulling up to a table at the 1975 winter meetings and posting a sign, "Open for business." He loved the action, loved making deals, but good luck getting any information out of him. Hemond was almost comically secretive.
One year at the winter meetings, when David Justice was a prospect with the Braves, he accidentally blurted out, "David!" when speaking to Richard Justice, the writer for the Post.
Richard couldn't resist.
"Roland, are you trying to trade for David Justice?"
Hemond turned about 45 shades of red.
In the days before smart phones, Hemond would carry a little black book, stuffed with little pieces of papers containing all of his phone numbers. True to form, he frequently would misplace the book. A few years back, at the winter meetings in Dallas, I noticed a frayed, odd-looking book sitting on a ledge in the lobby. I opened it up, knew exactly what it was and had it returned to my man Roland.
Hemond, like Gillick, is terrific with people, a mensch if there ever was one. But, to me, the most special thing about Hemond is his passion for the game, his zest for life. I remember how excited he would get after a big win — and there weren't many for the Orioles in those days.
"You've got to enjoy the moment," he would tell me.
Hemond always enjoyed the moment. I can only imagine how much know he enjoyed being honored Saturday.
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