Umpire Darling's lawsuit against Piniella is nothing but legal stunt

BASEBALL

August 11, 1991|By PETER SCHMUCK

The lawsuit that umpire Gary Darling has filed against Cincinnati Reds manager Lou Piniella is just the latest round in hostile takeover attempt that began in the 1970s.

Lawyers are taking over the game. Every aspect of it.

Umpires union director Richie Phillips is behind all this, of course. Who else would try to pull off such a heavy-handed legal stunt? Suing a manager for complaining about an umpire? The case ought to be laughed out of court and Phillips -- finally -- ought to be laughed out of the public eye.

Darling is suing for $5 million in damages because his reputation was "severely damaged" when Piniella claimed he was biased against the Cincinnati Reds.

Poppycock. Good taste prevents the use of a more descriptive noun.

If you had a nickel for every time a manager claimed an umpire favored the opposition, you could give Darling and Phillips the $5 million to build a home for the judgment-impaired.

Baseball rules already cover this kind of thing. Former Orioles manager Frank Robinson was disciplined for publicly lambasting umpire last year. Piniella should get the same kind of treatment. But in a country where the legal system already is so overburdened, it's sad to see it misused this way.

Darling's reputation was so severely damaged by Piniella's comments that some people actually have heard of him now. He'll be able to go on the talk-show circuit without even adopting an alternative lifestyle.

Though there is a legal precedent for presuming damage when there is defamation in an occupational setting, it's difficult to grasp how Darling could be injured to the tune of $5 million. He is in no danger of losing his job because of Piniella's comments and -- at his present salary -- he is in no danger of earning $5 million over the next 60 years.

Of course, the psychological counseling he'll need to work through this conflict with Piniella (an obvious father figure) could run into some money. And he'll have to talk regularly with Phillips, which could cause severe anxiety syndrome. That has to be worth something.

There is a precedent to be set here, and it is a silly one.

The next time a manager claims that a pitcher is scuffing the ball, look out. That has to be an actionable defamation if this is.

What if an umpire's poor call costs a team a trip to the World Series? Video replays aren't admissible on a baseball field, but they might be in court, where the team in question could charge negligence and sue for the lost millions in postseason prize money.

The lawyers are coming. The lawyers are coming.

How about a tough hop off an uneven infield (contributory negligence on the part of the stadium operator) or a tough roster move (unjustifiable termination) or an inside pitch (assault with a deadly fastball)? Ridiculous enough for you?

, Then you're not an attorney.

*

The day after: Fallout from the Piniella/Darling controversy was detected the very next night at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, where San Francisco Giants manager Roger Craig claimed that a pivotal ball-strike call in the ninth inning proved that umpire Dutch Rennert had been intimidated by Piniella's comments.

Giants reliever Mickey Brantley walked in the winning run on a very close pitch to Reds outfielder Paul O'Neill, sparking the second managerial outburst in as many nights.

If you ever saw a manager intimidate an umpire, you saw it tonight," Craig said. "The last pitch was down the middle of the plate and he didn't have the guts to call it. It's a downright shame. I hope the league president and commissioner saw it."

G; No doubt, Craig will be getting a subpoena any day now.

*

The next sound you hear will be the ax falling on California Angels manager Doug Rader, whose team has gone from first place (July 3) to last in one frustrating month.

Rader is signed through the 1992 season, but it seems apparent that the Angels soon will replace him with the likes of Buck Rodgers or Whitey Herzog, both longtime favorites of owner Gene Autry.

Not that the club's collapse is Rader's fault, but the Angels front office is restless, and somebody is going to have to pay for another disappointing season. Rader is vulnerable because he asked for -- and was granted -- more say in how this year's team was constructed. He looked like a genius until the Angels went 9-21 to go from top to bottom in the American League West.

His fiery temper used to get him in trouble when he was the manager of the Texas Rangers, so Rader became a kinder, gentler manager. Now he's getting criticized for being too soft with the players, though many of them insist he is not to blame.

*

Joke of the week: Reports that attorney Steven L. Miles has expressed interest in purchasing the Baltimore Orioles have led to speculation that there will be a new team motto next year: "If we don't win, you don't pay."

*

The Milwaukee Brewers made every attempt to improve their offensive productivity last winter, but the move that was least heralded probably was the most successful.

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