Umps vote to leave field

Major-league umpires agree in union meeting to resign on Sept. 2

Owners: `Cheapest solution'

Suspension of umpire serves as final blow to tenuous relationship

July 15, 1999|By Bill Madden | Bill Madden,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

NEW YORK -- Umpires union chief Richie Phillips has decided not to wait for the inevitable labor confrontation with baseball owners and instead has launched a pre-emptive "strike," in which at least 57 of his members will resign as of Sept 2.

The threatened umpires' walkout comes on the heels of a series of increasingly acrimonious confrontations with the owners, the latest being National League president Leonard Coleman levying an unprecedented three-day suspension of umpire Tom Hallion for bumping Rockies catcher Jeff Reed two weeks ago. The umpires are especially upset over baseball's avowed intention of removing them from the jurisdiction of the two leagues and putting them under the umbrella of the commissioner's office.

Under the urging of Phillips, the union decided to forgo a walkout and form a corporation, thus forcing Major League Baseball to either negotiate a contract with the new corporation or face going through the final month of the season and the playoffs and World Series with substitute umpires.

Each of the umpires presented signed resignation letters addressed to their league presidents, Gene Budig of the American League and Coleman of the National League. Phillips said he expected the remaining 11 umpires who weren't present because of personal obligations to sign similar letters, which cannot be rescinded.

The owners are seeking to regain greater control over the umpires, who in previous labor agreements have become nearly autonomous in that it is almost impossible to fire or demote them. This spring, the umpires, and Phillips in particular, were upset over a directive from the owners to redefine the strike zone. Then the players union further infuriated them by releasing to the public a survey in which the players rated the umpires.

Later, there was Coleman scolding umpire Frank Pulli for using replay to decide whether a ball hit in a game between the Cardinals and Marlins was a home run or a double.

More recently, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada decried the conditioning of some umpires after 255-pound Greg Kosc succumbed to heat at Yankee Stadium. "These guys are supposed to do a professional job for nine innings, and they're not in shape," Posada said.

Things seemed to come to a head when Hallion was suspended for three games without pay for his actions during an argument with Reed and Rockies pitching coach Milt May. The suspension was due to begin tomorrow, but it is being appealed.

"We decided the union would not urge a strike in light of the collective bargaining agreement and in the interest of the fans so the season would go on in uninterrupted fashion," Phillips said.

However, Phillips went on to say that by resigning, the umpires would be owed nearly $15 million in severance according to the terms of their contract, including as much as $400,000 each for senior umpires. He then added: "Baseball is in chaos."

But Sandy Alderson, vice president of baseball operations whom the owners have designated to preside over the umpires, did not seem at all shaken by Phillips' threat. Sources have told the Daily News that operations to line up replacement umpires from the college and sandlot ranks in the event of a walkout by the regular umpires have been under way for more than two months.

"This is either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted," Alderson said from Tucson, Ariz., yesterday. "It might be the cheapest solution. I don't think these tactics have convinced a single person to be supportive, and I include the fans, the media and baseball itself."

Nevertheless, Phillips is plowing forward, possibly because there has been an insurrection in his own ranks. It also has been learned by the Daily News that a group of umpires approached noted player agent Ron Shapiro, also Cal Ripken's agent, recently about representing them. Shapiro, according to sources, turned them down, but it was learned yesterday's meeting was anything but a unanimous show of support for Phillips.

Asked if baseball could try to negotiate a new contract to keep the umpires working past Sept. 2, Phillips said, "That's an alternative."

In yet another development, Phillips said 220 of the 228 minor-league umpires voted to form a union with him as their lawyer.

"The minor-league umpires are considering a work stoppage at this time," he said.

Assuming the umps go through with their threat, this will be their fourth labor confrontation to disrupt a season. In 1995, the owners locked them out and they missed the first 86 games of the season. In 1979, they went on strike for the first seven weeks, and they also struck the first seven games of the 1985 playoffs.

On all those occasions, the game went on.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times contributed to this article.

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