It's an easy call: Umpires are getting punched out

JOHN EISENBERG

April 08, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

"Play hardball!"

That is what the lords of baseball are doing with the locked-out umpires as the major-league season opens today.

The umps will be walking picket lines instead of calling balls and strikes. It's a shame. They're asking for more money, and they deserve it. What umpires make, in the context of the game's current finances, amounts to wages earned flipping fast-food burgers.

But the lords, in this case the league presidents, are playing hardball. They're haggling over nickels. It's cheap and small and ugly. The umps deserve better treatment.

Of course, it's in vogue to dump on umps. Players and managers routinely accuse them of being egocentric, autocratic, defensive. It's just whining, rarely true, but regardless, we know now that the umps have an excuse to be mean. They are second-class citizens.

Unlike many labor impasses, this is easy to understand. It is all about money. The lords want to choose the umps for playoff games. The umps have grudgingly relented -- demanding more money in return. It isn't much money. The lords said it was too much.

What a joke. A rookie umpire makes $41,000. That is absolutely disgraceful. An esteemed ump who has been in the game two decades makes $105,000 -- not bad, but still meager considering the umps' contribution to a game through which billions are flowing.

The lords are offering a big percentage raise -- the rookie would now make $57,000 -- but that's the usual smoke screen. Three pennies is a significant raise if your salary is a dime. The problem is that the entire scale is too low, particularly for the younger umps.

A rookie ump has the same job as a 20-year veteran. He works as many games, catches as many morning flights, survives too many days on the same smidgen of sleep, works just as often behind the plate, catches the same amount of grief -- and makes two-fifths the salary.

Maybe such a disparity exists because older ballplayers make much more than rookies. But it isn't the same. Most rookies play every fifth day. A rookie ump plays every day. The George Bell of umpires is just as important as the Juan Bell of umpires. Their salaries should reflect that.

OK, yes, experience should be rewarded. Older umps do deserve more. But inexperience should not be so penalized.

Most young umps are very capable. It's almost mandatory. The umps' criteria for making it to the majors are far tougher than that for players. There are few jobs. Years of training in the minors is required. The chances of a lousy ump making the majors is slim. Only a few get run off.

People in baseball don't know how good they have it. Baseball has the best officiating among the three major sports. It is a joke in the NFL; blown calls, instant replays, yuck. NBA refs have an impossible task; their game has outgrown the court. Blown calls are comparatively rare in baseball.

As for those who say fans don't pay to see umpires -- not fair. Umps do add to the entertainment. Imagine the game without idiosyncratic ball-and-strike signals, or, say, strong calls on close plays at second base. Umps are part of the show.

Sure, it is true there are a few sour, touchy umps, and yes, Terry Cooney should have taken off his mask and warned Roger Clemens before tossing him. But there are far more complaints about umps than there are legitimate reasons to complain.

Players and managers who complain are just another example of athletes not living in reality. Umps do not care who wins, and almost never determine who wins. They are no different from anyone else. They just want to do a good job and not get fired.

You want to see umpiring worth complaining about -- let's see these scab umps work the first month of the season.

The lords go on and on about the integrity of their game when Pete Rose is cashing Pick Six tickets, but think nothing about throwing some amateur umps on the field when someone grabs for their wallets.

They can get away with it, of course, which is the limit of most moral stances in sports.

Anyway, the point is that umps deserve the raise, and more. Their salaries should be doubled with baseball's money pie growing exponentially. (Isn't it odd how teams cry about losing money, but don't bring up the $10 million they're paying in collusion damages?)

What the two sides are arguing about amounts to cab fare in today's game. The lords should recognize this and not push the umps out onto the street. They're acting almost as callowly as Rickey Henderson. They aren't doing what's best for the game.

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