BOSTON — Respect for authority, or lack of the same, is at the heart of the latest crisis in major league baseball.
The umpires officiating the league playoffs threatened to disrupt the games if player Roberto Alomar isn't properly disciplined for spitting on an umpire.
Nose-to-nose confrontations are as old as the diamond the game is played on. But the behavior of Baltimore Orioles star second baseman - and the league's response - raises one of the great conundrums of professional sports today: how to discipline millionaire athletes who play a major role in selling tickets and drawing advertisers.
Critics say the issue might be confined to the business or sports pages if these well-heeled sports figures weren't also role models for American youths.
In the episode Friday, Alomar spit on umpire John Hirschbeck during a dispute over a third-strike call. He was ejected from the game, but, in a further escalation of troubles, Alomar told reporters Hirschbeck had become bitter since the death of a son three years ago.
In the past year or so, other prominent sports figures have gotten physical with game officials. In pro basketball, for example, Bulls' Dennis Rodman head-butted a referee and the generally composed Lakers' Magic Johnson pushed another.
"When you put it all together with what's happened in the NBA, you may be tempted to say there is an epidemic [of bad behavior] among athletes," says Bill Littlefield, host of the public radio sports program, "Only a Game." But in the case of baseball, it shows that management "doesn't have a grip on its players. Other sports have an honest-to-goodness commissioner to keep players in line." Team owners have yet to name a permanent baseball commissioner.
While the perception may be that player-official conflict is escalating, the number of such incidents in baseball is no greater now than it was 40 years ago, says Ed Lawrence, director of the major league's umpire-development program in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Alomar spat is drawing attention because the umpires threatened to boycott the playoffs, he says. "Before the union, this wouldn't have happened. In the old days, if an umpire said something, he'd be fired."
Efforts will continue today to resolve the dispute so that it does not disrupt the playoffs. The umpires backed away from a boycott, but one crew delayed the Texas-New York game Tuesday for 10 minutes until a site was set for Alomar's appeal of his five-game suspension.
Alomar has yet to serve any of the suspension because of appeal procedures. In fact, he hit a home run late last week, after the spitting incident, to secure Baltimore's playoff berth.
There is a built-in undercurrent of friction between the players association, which works to protect the due-process rights of its members, and the umpires, who like to see justice served quickly and punishment meted out when it counts - not delayed until the following season.
Major-league officials want to stand behind their men in blue, but they also want to put the best players forward. At the moment, Alomar is one of baseball's brightest stars, with an estimated $4.3 million contract. (Umpires make between $75,000 and $225,000.) This season he batted .328 and hit 22 home runs. He is generally known as a solid citizen, not a hot-headed prima donna, which makes his behavior perplexingly out of character. He publicly apologized Monday for expectorating on Hirschbeck.
*Staff writer Scott Baldauf contributed to this report.