Umpires spurred by fear of lockout

McKean: Union's threat of Sept. 2 resignation is bid `to force the issue'

July 16, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association picked a strange time to declare labor war -- the day after an emotionally charged All-Star celebration cast baseball in an enormously positive light -- but veteran umpire Jim McKean defended Wednesday's decision by the union to take the offensive in its strained relationship with baseball ownership.

The umpires announced that they would resign on Sept. 2 if their labor situation is not settled, a huge public relations gamble that could cost them any chance of garnering sympathy from the fans.

McKean, in Baltimore to work the Orioles-Montreal Expos series, said yesterday that the umpires felt that they had to take pre-emptive action to avoid being locked out after their collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 31.

"We're trying to force the issue," he said. "We don't want to go into the winter and then get locked out. We're trying to get our contract done."

If that was the intent, the announcement by union chief Richie Phillips did not get the desired reaction from Major League Baseball officials. MLB vice president Sandy Alderson's response almost sounded as if the umpires had saved management officials the trouble of playing hardball with them in the off-season.

"That sounds like either a threat to be ignored," Alderson quipped, "or an offer to be accepted."

The umpires are portraying Alderson's cavalier reaction as a prime illustration of a perceived lack of support from management that dates back to the light disciplinary action levied on former Oriole Roberto Alomar for spitting in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck in 1996.

"That reaction typifies the smugness, the arrogance that has led us to where we are, and it exemplifies the lack of appreciation for the umpires," Phillips said yesterday.

McKean discounted rumors of a split in the umpires union, though only 57 of the 68 full-time umpires joined in Wednesday's resignation resolution. There was an attempt in March by a group of umpires to recruit Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro to replace Phillips, but McKean said that it was "a dead issue" and indicated that the umpires are solidly behind their present leadership.

The owners have issues, too, and they were preparing to tackle them during the off-season. Management wants to take the supervision of the umpires away from the two league presidents and place all of them under the direction of the commissioner's office. The owners also want more authority to enforce physical requirements and set performance standards.

Though ownership's labor strategy had yet to be revealed, it was widely believed that management would take a very hard line during the upcoming negotiations in an attempt to alter the balance of power in the collective bargaining relationship and wrest major concessions from the union.

If that's true, the umpires may have handed ownership a golden opportunity to replace them without incurring the risk of the kind of labor litigation that helped the Major League Baseball Players Association counter management's hard-line strategy during the 1994-95 players strike.

Now, should they be so inclined, the owners could simply give the umpires their severance package and bring in replacements from the college and minor league ranks.

Alderson didn't exactly dismiss that notion when he wondered aloud Wednesday whether it might be the most cost-effective way to solve the umpire problem.

"There is always concern that something like that could happen," McKean said, "but we're a proud group. We feel we do a pretty good job. We think that it will be hard to immediately replace us. I'm not saying that we couldn't be replaced in the long run, but I think that the players still want us to umpire."

Pub Date: 7/16/99

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