Umpires wonder about their roles on Opening Day

April 04, 1991|By Jennifer Frey | Jennifer Frey,Knight-Ridder

PHILADELPHIA -- The phone rang a few days ago in Bobby Nelson's house in Havertown, Pa. It was the National League calling, asking if he would be interested in umpiring some major-league games next week. Nelson, a college umpire who called about 40 big-league games during the 1979 umpires' strike, now is waiting for his Opening Day assignment.

Meanwhile, Al Clark, an American League umpire from Newtown, has heard nothing from the AL offices. A 16-season veteran, Clark does not know how he will spend Opening Day on Monday.

He would like to be in a major-league ballpark, with a paycheck, a work schedule and a crew. But with the Major League Umpires Association embroiled in contract negotiations with the two leagues -- and league officials busily contacting men like Nelson to replace him -- Clark is worried that he will find himself outside some ballpark Monday, the victim of a lockout with his wallet empty and a picket sign in his hand.

This week, the situation is even bleaker. On Monday, Clark and his fellow workers went to the mailbox to discover they had not received their April 1 paycheck.

Tuesday, umpires union counsel Richie Phillips retaliated. He filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the American and National leagues with the Philadelphia chapter of the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the leagues had "unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of employment" by withholding the checks for the 60 major league umpires.

"In addition, the employer, through this and other action, has failed to bargain in good faith in violation of the National Labor Relations Act," the union said in the two-sentence statement filed with the board.

Robert Kheel, chief negotiator for the two leagues, said the April 1 checks, which cover the pay period from May 15 to June 15, are being withheld while the leagues are "waiting to see what will happen." He said: "Why should we pay them for a month we don't think they'll be working?"

He also acknowledged that the leagues were making contingency plans in case the dispute was not settled in time for the season openers.

"I'm obviously distressed that the association is wasting its time posturing with legal positions rather than spending it constructively at the bargaining table, where our differences have to be resolved," Kheel said.

But Phillips said that the leagues have been undermining efforts to reach a decision by hiring and assigning "200 scab umpires" while the regular umpires have been ignored.

"I'm sorry that the leagues see fit to play this game. It shows a total lack of respect for us," said Clark, who has been given no scheduling information by the American League. "I don't think that the major league players are going to stand very long for amateurish umpiring."

Phillies outfielder Von Hayes, for one, is in agreement. "That's not good, not good at all," he said. "We're professional players. We'd like to see professional umpires out there."

Money is at the heart of the debate. Under the last contract, which expired Dec. 31, the pay scale started at $40,000 and went up to as much as $105,000 for umpires with 20 years of service. The owners have offered what they have termed "significant" salary increases, but the numbers have not been satisfactory to the union board.

"There are some players, Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden, for example, who make more in a year's salary than all 60 umpires combined," Phillips said. "The umpires feel they make a significant contribution to the game and, in light of the present economic circumstances, should be properly compensated for it."

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