Right call for umpires: Throw out Phillips

July 24, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Larry Barnett pulled up his socks and said his umpiring crew would not comment. Greg Kosc sat nearby in the umpires' room at Camden Yards, nodding in silence.

Barnett reportedly is one of five umpires who withdrew his resignation in defiance of union chief Richie Phillips. Kosc reportedly agreed to quit, changed his mind, then changed it back again.

Two men on the same crew, two men on different sides of a fight that Phillips created, maybe even craved. Barnett apparently will keep his job after Sept. 2. Kosc probably will not.

One day after hiring 10 minor-league replacements, Major League Baseball yesterday told 13 major-league umps who rescinded their resignations that they can continue to work, Bloomberg News said.

The cracks only figure to widen now.

Pick a side, that's what Major League Baseball is saying. Stay with Phillips and lose your livelihoods. Or break with him and keep your annual salaries of between $75,000 and $225,000.

Barnett, the senior umpire in the majors, wants to stay employed to protect a disability claim, union president Jerry Crawford said this week. But the other three members of his crew in the Orioles-Angels series apparently plan to resign.

MLB doesn't care. MLB shouldn't care.

Phillips is a thorn that must be removed.

Most of the umpires are good people. Most are even good umps. But it's difficult to sympathize with their plight, even now with Barnett grimacing over their predicament, even with so many in danger of losing their jobs.

It would indeed be a black mark on the game if most umpires resigned on Sept. 2, and college and amateur umps worked the pennant races and postseason.

But at least new umps would be accountable. At least they would enforce a consistent strike zone. At least they might understand that the best umpires go unnoticed, and that baiting players is unacceptable.

The current umpires reflect their leader, just as players reflect their manager. And Phillips, the firebrand who gained so much for the union, lost perspective long ago.

The truth is, MLB should have confronted Phillips back in 1996, when the umpires threatened to sit out the postseason in violation of the no-strike clause in their contracts.

The postseason would have been compromised if the umpires carried out their protest of Roberto Alomar's inadequate punishment for spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck. But MLB could have achieved the same goals it is pursuing now:

Breaking Phillips' union.

Putting the umpires under central authority.

Setting uniform standards, and enforcing them.

It didn't happen that way, of course -- Phillips instead embarrassed MLB, forcing delays in several postseason games. Nothing gained, nothing resolved. And over the next three seasons, the problems only deepened.

Sorry, but it's not too much to ask the umpires to be evaluated for their performance, to enforce the strike zone stated in the rule book, to follow the directives of their employer.

But every time MLB broached such topics, Phillips and Co. reacted as if they were victims of human-rights violations.

The pettiness between the two sides reached new lows this season, with MLB and the umpires failing to reach agreement on compensation for the Orioles' Cuba exhibitions, and clubs assigning team officials to review the ball-and-strike calls of home-plate umpires.

Phillips figured he could leverage MLB by persuading 57 of the 68 umpires to resign just before the climax of the season. Little did he know that most of the game's observers believe that a new set of umps couldn't do any worse.

Imagine if the union was headed by Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, an idea that some umpires endorse. Shapiro is a conciliator, not an agitator. He kept Cal Ripken in Baltimore and Kirby Puckett in Minnesota. He sure as heck would not allow umpires he represents to give away their jobs.

Phillips argues that he had no choice, that MLB would have fired the umpires when their contract expired. This way, he will protect $15 million in severance for 47 umpires with at least 10 years of service. But at a cost of $500,000 a team, MLB apparently sees it as well worth the price.

No one is bigger than the game, not the wealthiest owners, not the highest-paid players, and certainly not rebels without a clue disguised as men in blue.

Solidarity is a noble pursuit, but the umpires are losing the battle, and losing the war. If they believe in their profession -- if they care so much about the integrity of the game -- they'll abandon the man who is leading them to their doom.

Unions are supposed to protect jobs. Richie Phillips is losing them.

Pub Date: 7/24/99

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