Owners make bad call on umps

April 13, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Major League Baseball may not be shouting "kill the umpires," but it sure is trying to bury them. The umpires are being treated with total disdain in another incongruous example of the stupidity of the game's humpty-dumpty club owners and its irresponsible leadership.

The umpires may call strikes for a living, but this is something entirely different, not of their doing. It's a lockout by the owners.

The umpires, to evidence their concern for baseball's chaotic conditions, volunteered to continue working when their contract expired Dec. 31. However, Harry Wendelstedt, the senior umpire in both leagues, quoted the owners' attorney Robert Kheel as rejecting the idea and saying, "Let the umpires negotiate hungry."

Imagine such a gross display of disrespectful treatment toward the men who police the game and demonstrate far more courage and integrity than either the team owners or the players. Those same owners and acting commissioner Bud Selig represent a collection of stiffs who should put themselves on waivers.

Wendelstedt, preparing today to walk an informational picket line in his uniform at an exhibition game in West Palm Beach, Fla., said the umpires association is asking for a total salary increase far less than what the Atlanta Braves are paying a utility infielder.

It's a sad and regrettable commentary. The owners in their lockout and subsequent bush-league tactics have insulted the umpires, numbering 64 in all, by insisting they want them to accept the same pay scale that was agreed upon in the 1991 negotiation.

Wendelstedt, a graduate of Kenwood High School and the University of Maryland, spent two years in the Marine Corps, four seasons in the minors and advanced to the National League in 1966 when he was only 28 years old.

He has been there ever since, working in four All-Star Games, four World Series and creating an exemplary reputation. Four times he was elected president of the Major League Umpires Association.

Wendelstedt and his contemporaries, headed by their union chief, Richie Phillips, are asking for raises that would amount to a total of $3.2 million, which equates to less than $150,000 per team.

Rookie umpires earn $60,000 and advance gradually up a salary ladder that tops out at $175,000 for Wendelstedt and others with more than 25 years of experience.

"The major-league owners, through Kheel, have treated us in a manner that tells you all you need to know about how baseball is operating in the present era," said Wendelstedt.

"These are some of the same owners who are so lacking in their understanding of the game that they fire scouts and cut back on minor-league operations. They want to cut off the lifeline. It's the scouts who find the talent and the minor-league clubs that then develop that same talent."

Baseball has recruited umpires from the college and high school level to work the exhibitions in Florida and Arizona while the legitimate umpires are locked out. Furthermore, the replacement umpires are getting paid to work exhibition games and also receive a per diem during training camp.

The regular major-league umpires don't receive any such compensation for exhibitions since it's considered part of their contractual obligation to be there and work the practice games.

"Baseball owners are sending a clear message by the way they have refused to deal with us on an equitable basis that they don't appreciate quality officiating," commented Wendelstedt.

"With the players on strike for over seven months, our attitude was 'everybody has had enough'. We didn't want to create additional problems, which is why we offered to umpire while the next contract was discussed. But, no, Kheel said they wanted us to go hungry."

Wendelstedt believes there's no fairness associated with anything the owners are doing in their dealings with the umpires.

"They don't want to consider raises, even though with the new postseason playoff arrangement there will be from 21 to 41 more games. They won't talk pension or death benefits for our widows either."

It's difficult to maintain respect for owners when they intentionally set out to abuse and bruise America's game with their pin-head thinking. They truly deserve one another.

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