'Little guys' wonder at the big bucks

March 01, 1994|By Frank Dolson | Frank Dolson,Philadelphia Inquirer

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Mike Felt reads the baseball news in the sports pages and wonders at the absurdity, the colossal unfairness, of it all. He reads about this year's arbitration "losers," about Bob Tewksbury, who asked for $4.5 million and had to settle for $3.5 million . . . about Terry Mulholland, who wanted $4.05 million and will have to pitch for $3.35 million . . . about Jack McDowell, who asked for $6.5 million and will have to make do with $5.3 million.

All Mike Felt wanted was to keep his job as a $26,000-a-year supervisor in baseball's umpire-development program. Instead, two weeks before Christmas, he was laid off, the victim of an economy move that demonstrates just how misguided baseball's leadership is in these chaotic, commissioner-less days.

Felt, 34, and two of the six other supervisors were chopped on a strict seniority basis when acting commissioner Bud Selig and baseball's other top-level decision-makers saw fit to cut almost $600,000 from the program's $4 million budget. The incredibly shortsighted move provided the latest evidence of what is happening now that baseball is being run by owners who confuse the best interests of the sport with the best interests of their profit-and-loss statements.

With all the criticism of umpires in recent years, you would think Major League Baseball would be pouring more money into the development program, not less. Phillies President Bill Giles recalls being on a strategic planning committee former commissioner Fay Vincent had two years ago, one that decided "to enlarge the program rather than cut it back."

You have to wonder if the men who did the cutting stopped to think about the impact it would have on the umpire-development program and on the lives of those suddenly thrown out of work. And if not, why not?

They should be made to visit Mike Felt's home here. The Felts and their 9-month-old son live in a lovely little place off busy Highway 19. There are lots of trees and a nearby swimming pool. Unfortunately, there's also a big "For Sale" sign in front. Mike's five-week severance pay was hardly enough to keep up the payments.

"It's like one phone call has wiped out almost 15 years of work," Felt said. "I worked my butt off for nine years umpiring" from the rookie league to Triple A, "then more than five years at this. One phone call and kaput!"

The call came from the executive director of the program, Ed Lawrence, for whom it was a most painful duty. "I hate losing good people," Lawrence said.

Felt, he indicated, was one of the best, a man who believed in the program and worked hard to make it better. "I brought him here almost six years ago," Lawrence said. "He just started a family. Now he's looking for a job."

The job, despite its modest pay, "was everything I ever wanted," Felt said. "When one of the guys I've helped does go to the major leagues, then part of me goes, too. That's my reward. . .

"I knew I wasn't going to make a lot of money. I cared about the profession. Hopefully, I was going to make enough money to have an enjoyable life. We're not asking for $5 million a year. We're just asking for something to live on, to have a family, to have a chance to buy a house.

"It's hard to read the paper when a guy's signing a contract for five and six and seven million dollars that's hitting .250, and then all of a sudden there are people like us that aren't asking for that kind of money, that just want to help the game."

Baseball has become a business where loyalty no longer seems to matter, where players argue with management over whether they're worth four or five million a year while a guy making $26,000 after 15 years in the game gets fired for economic reasons.

Like so many things in baseball these days, it doesn't make sense.

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