October 12th, 2010

Worlds Collide: Roberto Alomar and HIV

When-Worlds-CollideNow that a second woman has accused Roberto Alomar of having HIV, it’s probably time to give this sad story a look-over.  After all, how often do these two worlds of mine — HIV/ID (work) and baseball (lifetime hobby — my wife would say that’s a collosal understatement) actually meet?

For those unfamiliar with the basics:  Alomar was a staggeringly good player, in the majors from 1988-2004, winning 10 Gold Glove Awards and making the All Star team 12 times. He very nearly was elected this year to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility (a very big deal), and all the baseball cognescenti think he’s an eventual shoe-in since he’s one of the best second basemen in history.

That’s the good part.

On the other hand, there was this strange spitting incident. And then, in 2009, an ex-girlfriend filed a $15 million lawsuit saying he lied about his HIV status; Alomar denied the charges (sort of), and was defended by his then girlfriend — who later became his wife. Then last week, the wife sued Alomar with similar allegations.

I can’t get into the “she-said, he-said” part, as I have no information beyond what’s available in the press. But if we start with the premise that Alomar might have HIV, here are some general thoughts:

  • Any reason why someone with HIV couldn’t play baseball?  I can’t think of one.
  • Could there be anything further from Magic Johnson’s 1991 disclosure than these sordid legal proceedings?  As I recall, Johnson’s wife was extraordinarily supportive, at least as relayed to the public. Then he used his HIV diagnosis as a way to encourage people to find out their status, to protect others from getting infected, and to take advantage of treatment — an incredible example of turning something terrifying and stigmatized (especially in the early 1990s) into something good. One of John Bartlett’s favorite comments is that hepatitis C needs a Magic Johnson to make its case.  (No, Evel Knievel, may he R.I.P, does not count.)
  • Related to the above, you can be sure society’s reaction to Magic Johnson’s disclosure would have been different if he’d acquired HIV from injection drug use or sex with men. (Read the section “Time to Move On” here for how this issue has been reported.)  One of the painful things about HIV is the tendency for many to lump cases into those perceived as “innocent” vs “he/she deserved it.”
  • For another stark example of how HIV differs from other serious diseases (even those related to unhealthy choices), Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn has just been diagnosed with salivary gland cancer, likely due to chewing tobacco. The response? Mostly sympathy, very little blame or snark.
  • Last, here’s a great graphic on how major league baseball players compare to the rest of society.  Pretty much says it all.

My view?  I hope Alomar gets elected to the Hall of Fame next year — from the baseball perspective he definitely deserves it.

And if he does have HIV, wouldn’t that be something if he acknowledged it during his acceptance speech in Cooperstown.

5 Responses to “Worlds Collide: Roberto Alomar and HIV”

  1. Ben says:

    Impressive column today. Feel certain that a sportswriter somewhere will read this and reference it for it’s sharp observations. Nicely done. – BS

  2. andy glass says:

    The main point of this article seems to be the final sentence – wouldn’t that be something if he acknowledged having the virus during his acceptance speech in Cooperstown; (yes it would). I found the article disappointing in that it really didnt offer any new info. You left out the glaring obvious, that learning about the virus could explain the sudden decline from being top of the class to an indifferent, uninterested, fringe player during his time in NY. He probably deserves enshrinement based on his time in Toronto & Cleveland, but the NY performance was nothing but embarassing and likely cost him first year election.

  3. Scotto says:

    I’m not sure if John Hirschbeck would agree about Roberto making the HOF…. On the night of Sept. 27 in Toronto, the Baltimore Oriole spat at the home-plate umpire after getting thrown out of a game for arguing a called third strike.

    Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,134797,00.html#ixzz12KgMge1C

  4. Paul Sax says:

    >>You left out the glaring obvious, that learning about the virus could explain the sudden decline from being top of the class to an indifferent, uninterested, fringe player during his time in NY

    Andy, it’s tempting to speculate on things like this, but remember he joined the Mets in 2002 at age 34 — and most baseball players peak in their late 20s. A decline could have happened for any number of reasons, including just getting old.

    And Scotto, that Hirschbeck incident was definitely a glaring black mark on his career. However, the fact that morally unsavoury players such as Ty Cobb are in the Hall of Fame shows that the Hall does accept less than perfection on the “character” issue. But if it’s found that he deliberately misled his girlfriend and wife about his HIV status — which is not yet proven — this will also count against him, and appropriately so.

  5. KZ says:

    His precipitous decline, particularly in a player with such a broad array of skills, invites much speculation as to what happened. However, let’s compare him to Ryne Sandberg:

    Age, OPS+
    31, 139
    32, 114
    33, 150
    34, 89
    35, 80
    36, 81

    Age, OPS+
    31, 138
    32, 146
    33, 108
    34, 83
    35, retired
    36, 96
    37, 83

    Middle infielders tend to decline more quickly, even the great ones.

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

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