Court gets umps' call

Suit against baseball asks for no action until Sept. on resignations

July 27, 1999|By Murray Chass | Murray Chass,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- With its resignation strategy encountering opposition from within and a stonewalling response from without, the umpires' union went to court yesterday.

The Major League Umpires Association filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia alleging that the commissioner's office had improperly usurped the authority of the National and American League offices and had created "internal political turmoil" in baseball.

The union also asserted that the commissioner's office and the American League had tried to coerce umpires into ousting Richie Phillips, the union's chief negotiator.

Perhaps most interestingly from a strategic standpoint, the lawsuit asks the court to give the umpires a way out of their mass resignation.

With Major League Baseball indicating that it will soon accept the resignations of all the umpires who have not rescinded them, the union asked the court to declare that the umpires have until the effective date of Sept. 2 "to decide whether to actually abandon their positions."

If the court were to grant that request, the umpires would have until that date to decide if they really wanted to resign. If their resignations were to be accepted now, they would have to leave their positions Sept. 2.

Forty-two umpires, 33 from the National League and nine from the American, have held to the letters of resignation that were submitted to the league offices July 15, a move aimed at pressuring Major League Baseball to open negotiations on a new labor contract. Baseball officials have not responded to the letters but have hired new umpires to replace those who are resigning.

The AL hired 12 new umpires last week, effective Sept. 1, and the NL hired eight. A Major League Baseball official said yesterday that the NL was hiring four or five more umpires.

Commissioner Bud Selig said he had not seen the lawsuit but would have no comment on it even after receiving it.

The core of the union's suit, which was filed against the leagues and not the commissioner's office, deals with a plan to have all the umpires report directly to the commissioner's office, altering the current structure under which they report to the leagues.

The union alleges that Major League Baseball had wanted to impose the plan this season but backed off when officials realized they would have to negotiate it with the union because a labor contract is in effect.

Baseball officials, the lawsuit said, "professed publicly to have halted the implementation of the plan, but surreptitiously began its implementation."

The lawsuit alleged, for instance, that Roberto DuPuy, baseball's executive vice president for administration, sent a memorandum Feb. 8 to the league presidents saying that umpiring matters should be decided in consultation with Sandy Alderson, executive vice president for baseball operations in the commissioner's office.

The lawsuit offers no specifics but does raise publicly for the first time the behind-the-scenes fight over centralization of the umpires.

"The Leagues and the League Presidents," the suit says, "have privately opposed the Commissioner's Office's attempts to assume responsibility for umpires which has created internal confusion and upheaval regarding the umpires and the agreement."

The internal turmoil, the suit went on, has resulted in baseball's failure to initiate negotiations for an agreement to replace the one that expires Dec. 31. The suit also refers to assorted other grievances umpires have raised this year, including a dispute that began when Alderson directed umpires to change the strike zone from that used in recent seasons.

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