Under Phillips, umps' game likely over

On Baseball

July 18, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Give umpires union chief Richie Phillips credit. He has never walked away from a good fight or a bad one, for that matter. He'll even joust a windmill to make a point or grab a headline.

Phillips made the front page of every sports section in America last week when he announced his bold plan to take his umpires and go home. They're going to quit Sept. 2 if they don't get a satisfactory labor agreement. Or, more to the point, if they don't get more respect.

Major League Baseball's apparent response: Good riddance.

The owners want more control. They want to be able to pull an umpire out of the rotation if his weight reaches, say, 425 pounds. They want to be able to decide what the strike zone will be without triggering a union grievance. They want to be able to enforce a code of conduct and a minimum level of performance.

Phillips, whether he realizes it yet or not, just gave them everything they want.

The owners will call his bluff and trot a group of minor-league umpires out on the field for the September stretch and -- guess what? -- the major-league umpires will sit home waiting on a phone that isn't going to ring.

They should have hired Ron Shapiro when they had the chance. They should be suing for peace instead of preparing for war. They have made the fatal mistake of overestimating their bargaining position. And that's too bad, because most of them are hard-working professionals who have traveled a long road to reach the top level of the industry, only to risk it all on a dangerous gambit by their grandstanding union leader.

It was the kind of preemptive move that the Major League Baseball Players Association has used with great success during several similar labor disputes, except for one critical difference:

The umpires aren't the players!

The owners won't have to worry about a fan backlash if they hire a few dozen enthusiastic minor-league umps. They won't even have to worry about a political backlash because the replacements won't be scabs -- not when the major-league umpires have voluntarily resigned.

Veteran umpire Jim McKean portrayed the decision as the best of two bad options. The umpires did not want to wait until the winter and risk a lockout at a time when public attention would be elsewhere. That was a very strong possibility, but it may have been a better option than drawing a line in the sand and daring yourself to step over it.

Elite company

Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson has 219 strikeouts in 21 starts, enough to put him in position to challenge the all-time single-season record. He's averaging 10.4 strikeouts per game and should get another 15 starts, which would project to a total of -- drum roll please! -- 375.

That's eight short of the major-league record, held by Hall of Fame inductee Nolan Ryan, and seven short of the National League record, set by Hall of Fame left-hander Sandy Koufax.

Here's a list of the top 10 single-season performances:

383: Ryan, Angels (1973).

382: Koufax, Dodgers (1965).

367: Ryan, Angels (1974).

349: Rube Waddell, A's (1904).

348: Bob Feller, Indians (1947).

341: Ryan, Angels (1977).

329: Johnson, Mariners/Astros (1998).

329: Ryan, Angels (1972).

327: Ryan, Angels (1976).

325: Sam McDowell, Indians (1965).

Flip side

Johnson just earned a more dubious distinction, coming up on the wrong end of four consecutive shutout performances for the first time in 31 years. The last time it happened was in 1968, to New York Mets pitcher Jim McAndrew.

Of course, that was the year of the shutout. There were 335 in that season, which also featured Denny McLain's 31-win performance and Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA. Pitching was so dominant that Major League Baseball lowered the mound by five inches at the end of the season.

Angels on the upswing?

Is it possible the Anaheim Angels are on the verge of a major turnaround? It certainly looks that way, now that shortstop Gary DiSarcina is back and big-hitting outfielders Tim Salmon and Jim Edmonds are swinging the bat again.

Salmon is close to embarking on an injury rehabilitation assignment 2 1/2 months after suffering a badly sprained wrist. He could be back in the lineup in the next 10 days. Edmonds still has some work to do, but he is ahead of schedule in his recovery from shoulder surgery. Even pitcher Jack McDowell, who has been battling injuries for several years, is back on the mound and pitching reasonably well on a minor-league rehab assignment.

"We're not out of it," outfielder Darin Erstad said recently. "We'll have something to say about it by the end of the year."

Cubs' home cooking

The Chicago Cubs have sunk to the bottom of the NL Central standings, but they're still holding out hope that a home-heavy second-half schedule could help catapult them back into contention.

Starting today, they play 44 of their remaining 74 games at Wrigley Field.

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