Performance review is toughest call for umpires

On Baseball

April 04, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Major League Baseball is, for the most part, a Darwinian exercise -- those who perform the best make the most money and stay around the longest. This is true of players, managers and club executives.

It should also be true of umpires.

The best should make the most money, have the most job security and umpire the most important events. That would create an incentive to do the best possible job. It's a pretty simple economic concept, but it was lost long ago on the Major League Umpires Association.

Union chief Richie Phillips did a great job of organizing the umpires and improving their working conditions, but he did too good a job of insulating them from true performance evaluation.

That's why an umpire like Ken Kaiser is not afraid to stand motionless on the infield while an important play develops 50 yards away, then eject a manager or player for questioning his effort.

That's why the umpires' union was able to turn up its nose recently at a directive from Major League Baseball to raise the upper level of the strike zone a few inches.

That may be why the Major League Baseball Players Association recently released the results of a survey in which players evaluated the performance of every umpire and ranked them from first to last in each league.

The true motive of the players union isn't clear, but the survey did baseball a service by focusing attention on the performance of some of the best and worst umpires.

Don't misunderstand. The vast majority of major-league umpires are hard-working, capable professionals who take pride in their work and do a fantastic job, but there should be a method by which management can weed out those who do not.

In this case, the only consequence of the unwelcome performance evaluation was some public embarrassment for Kaiser and National League umpire Charlie Williams, who were ranked last in their respective leagues.

Phillips called the survey "absurd" and -- in true Phillips style -- made the unsubstantiated charge that some players had allowed their children to fill out the evaluation forms.

Of course, that would be even more damning, if it is even obvious to children that Kaiser has become the symbol of everything that is wrong with major-league umpiring in the 1990s.

The ugly American

Nobody ever accused New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner of being a model of decorum, but he went a little too far Thursday when he referred to Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu as a "fat toad."

Steinbrenner lost his temper after Irabu failed to cover first base on a ground ball, and delivered a stinging diatribe certain to make major headlines in Japan.

That isn't the kind of international publicity baseball is looking for while the industry is making an unprecedented effort to market itself worldwide.

A Devil Ray in Havana

The case could be made that Tampa Bay Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli took a bigger public relations risk going to Cuba than Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

The Devil Rays play in an area with a large Cuban-American population that might be offended by the club owner's visiting Havana, but Naimoli went, anyway.

"I'm a big proponent of management by walking around," Naimoli said. "I know that some of our fans are sensitive about this, but I thought I should go there and see for myself."

Building a better bullpen

The Arizona Diamondbacks spared no expense to upgrade their starting rotation over the winter, signing free agents Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre and Armando Reynoso. Tuesday, they focused their attention on the bullpen and acquired two veteran relief pitchers.

General manager Joe Garagiola Jr. acquired John Frascatore from the St. Louis Cardinals and Darren Holmes from the Yankees, adding bullpen depth behind former Orioles closer Gregg Olson. Frascatore and Holmes are expected to share setup duties with veteran left-hander Greg Swindell.

The Diamondbacks still don't have the best bullpen in the division -- they don't even have the second-best -- but the additional depth stabilizes a potential problem area for a team that clearly has designs on postseason play.

Bonds to his own defense

San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds may have slipped into the background during the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run derby last year, but he hasn't lost his edge and isn't conceding anything to the two top stars of 1998.

"It's in black and white," he said recently. "In the back of [record books], it tells you where they are and where I am. Put all the numbers up and tell me where I am compared to all the rest of them. That's all that matters. This game isn't about one year."

For those keeping track at home, Bonds ranks well behind McGwire (457) and well ahead of Sosa (273) with 411 career home runs. He ranks well ahead of both of them with three MVP awards and is the only player in major-league history to hit 400 home runs and steal 400 bases.

The Smallpark in Arlington?

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