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Hirschbeck and Alomar Now Friends

May 15, 2000

CLEVELAND (AP) _ Thirteen-year-old Michael Hirschbeck quickly slipped on his Cleveland Indians’ bat boy uniform and went looking for his friend, Roberto Alomar.

``He came up and gave me a hug,″ Alomar said.

Four years ago, when Alomar was with the Baltimore Orioles, he spat in the face of Michael’s father, umpire John Hirschbeck, in a fit of rage at being called out on strikes.

Now, a hug symbolizes the bonds shared by two men who have not only put an ugly moment behind them but become friends, while fighting a deadly brain disease that afflicts young Michael.

``It’s a good baseball story, isn’t it?″ said John Hirschbeck, who worked home plate Saturday at Jacobs Field as his son served as the Indians’ honorary bat boy.

``We always hear about the negative things, and it’s really turned into something special. Who would have ever thought that we’d be standing here after what happened in 1996?″

During a late-September game that year, the infielder and the umpire became forever linked by a confrontation near home plate at Toronto’s Skydome.

Enraged for being called out on strikes by Hirschbeck, Alomar got into an argument and spit in the umpire’s face, earning a five-game suspension and a place in baseball infamy.

Alomar made matters worse afterward by saying he thought Hirschbeck was under stress because his 8-year-old son, John Drew, had died of a rare brain disease in 1993 known as adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD).

Michael Hirschbeck, too, has ALD, and 1,000 other people each year in the U.S. will become afflicted with the degenerative genetic disease that causes inflammation in the brain.

But now Alomar and his brother, Sandy, the Indians’ catcher, are helping the Hirschbecks raise money for a foundation they started to find a cure for ALD.

``Maybe God put us in this world to help somebody beat this disease,″ Roberto said.

The Alomars donated autographed jerseys last season for a charity auction Hirschbeck hosts in conjunction with a golf tournament near his home in Poland, Ohio, about 80 miles southeast of Cleveland.

Framed together, the Alomar jerseys fetched $6,600 _ the highest-priced item sold.

This year, Roberto is buying 25 jerseys that the Indians will wear during an upcoming game. He’ll have each player sign his jersey and will donate all of them for Hirschbeck’s fund-raising auction in July.

``You couldn’t hit a bigger home run than that,″ said Hirschbeck, whose events have raised nearly $250,000 for ALD research the past two years.

The Alomar-Hirschbeck reconciliation began last year, aided by a mutual friend, Jack Efta, who runs the umpire’s room at Jacobs Field.

Hirschbeck had done all he could to avoid Alomar, who signed with the Indians following the ’98 season. He would even position himself to the shortstop side of the second-base bag in order to keep his contact with Alomar to a minimum.

But before a game last season, Hirschbeck said, he became curious about Alomar and questioned Efta, his longtime friend.

``What kind of guy is Alomar?‴ Hirschbeck asked Efta. ``He said, ’He’s one of the two nicest people I’ve met. And you’re the other one.‴

Shocked, Hirschbeck decided to make a move. He approached Alomar that night, and after talking things out, the two decided to let go of the past. They now consider each other friends.

``If that’s the worst thing Robbie ever does in his life, he’ll lead a real good life,″ Hirschbeck said. ``People make mistakes. You forgive, you forget and you move on.″

Alomar, who donated $50,000 to Hirschbeck’s foundation when he made his initial apology, wants to do the same. But he knows there will always be someone who will mention the incident, and he’s still booed in some cities.

``I want people to know that I care about people, especially kids,″ he said. ``That’s what it’s all about. We’re not here to hold grudges, we’re here to help people. Hopefully, someday a miracle will happen and we can find a cure for John’s son. That would be the happiest day of my life, because I had helped somebody.″

Michael Hirschbeck had a checkup at the University of Minnesota Hospital last week, and an MRI showed no increased inflammation in his brain.

``He reads and writes on a first-grade level,″ his father said. ``They don’t know if that will ever change.″

During the trip to Minnesota, Michael was the Twins’ bat boy for two games _ against the Indians. The Hirschbecks have become close to Twins manager Tom Kelly.

``Sandy and some of the other guys were giving him a hard time because they know he’s a big Indians fan,″ Hirschbeck said.

The Twins rallied to win both games. But on Saturday, Michael got to run on the field with the Indians in the 12th inning when Cleveland came back to beat the Royals.

``I think he’s good luck,″ Roberto Alomar said. ``He was happy and that was the main thing.″

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