Umpires get punished, too, but you never hear about it

August 20, 1991|By Murray Chass | Murray Chass,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- An American League umpire was fined recently, but neither the public nor the general baseball population knows who, how much and for what. An umpire once was fined for wearing an unauthorized uniform, but no one knew it. One umpire in each league is on probation for one year, until December, but that action by the commissioner, as well as the umpires' identities, have never been disclosed.

When players and managers are fined or suspended, on the other hand, the action becomes public knowledge. It's not always the league offices that announce the disciplinary measures, but the information spreads rapidly.

Commissioner Fay Vincent placed Lenny Dykstra, the Philadelphia Phillies center fielder, on probation for one year as a result of his participation in illegal poker games in Mississippi. That action was made public because Dykstra had testified at a trial of the man who ran the poker games.

Vincent's action last year against two umpires also involved gambling, but their names never surfaced publicly in a case against a bookmaker who also was a drug dealer, so Vincent had no reason to announce his action.

The identity of the umpires remains undisclosed, but a lawyer involved with baseball said that federal law enforcement authorities learned of them when their telephone numbers were picked up on a tap of the bookie's telephone. The umpires reportedly were placing relatively small bets on sports events, though not on baseball games.

Why weren't they identified and their probationary status disclosed? Why don't the league presidents announce fines levied against umpires for cursing a manager or a player, for making other inappropriate comments or for misinterpreting a rule where the call is costly to one of the teams?

"I don't think it's a good idea," Vincent said. "The umpires have to be the extension of baseball authority on the field. Their position would be undercut if every time they were disciplined it became public. It would become more difficult for them to function. Umpires are different from players. They're the authority figures. No public benefit is served if their mistakes or errors of judgment are disclosed."

Eugene Orza, associate general counsel of the Players Association, disagrees. He believes it's time to stop treating umpires as "this sacrosanct community of monks."

The consequence of keeping disciplinary action quiet, the lawyer said, "is to suggest to the public that umpires are not mortal and, in turn, it leads some of them to the same kinds of abuse as we see in other areas of society."

"For years, it was argued that the public should never know about police discipline because if they found out, they'd lose respect for the police," he said. "That has turned out not to be so. Instead, it breeds the abuse you've seen in Los Angeles."

With umpires, Orza said, lack of disclosure of their mistakes and disciplinary action against them breeds arrogance. "It gives rise to the belief that umpires never make mistakes and are perfect," he said.

Although umpires adamantly deny it, players view them as having become arrogant and confrontational, unlike previous generations of umpires, who would walk away from an argument rather than pursue one. According to Orza, umpires say to players such things as, "I never want to hear a word out of you again as long as you're in the majors" and "I guess I showed him" and "You ain't seen nothing yet."

If umpires avoid public punishment, he added, it only emboldens them. "When no one knows about a fine," Orza said, "it dilutes the significance of the fine. What good is discipline if no one knows it?"

The umpires and baseball officials believe disclosure of discipline would subject the umpires to more abuse than they endure now. "That's not going to add to their ability to control a game," Bobby Brown, American League president, said.

On the other hand, perhaps if managers and players learned that umpires were penalized from time to time, it would temper some of their comments. For example, Lou Piniella, the Cincinnati Reds manager, recently accused an umpire of being biased against the Reds. If Piniella thought that an umpire's behavior was scrutinized to the point that he could be publicly reprimanded for poor or questionable actions, he might think twice, even with his trigger temper, before making such accusations. He at least might think the game was being played under more equitable rules.

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