Baseball's family feud produces no winners

August 05, 1999|By George F. Will

SAN DIEGO -- This apple -- not at all green, but somewhat sour -- did not fall far from the tree. Jerry Crawford, president of the Major League Umpires Association, their union, has been a National League umpire since 1977, two years after his father, Shag Crawford, ended his 20-year umpiring career.

Mr. Crawford, unlike about two dozen colleagues, will keep his job, partly because it would be unseemly for Major League Baseball to accept the rescinded resignation of the union's head, but primarily because he is good. Baseball America, bible of the church of baseball, ranks him the National League's best.

Soaking up some sun with lunch before heading for the ball yard here recently, Mr. Crawford practiced what unions preach -- solidarity, something his union has lacked in its current debacle.

Vowing not to "grease the slide" beneath any umpire, he said, essentially: There are no bad umpires, the strike zone is uniformly enforced as defined in the rule book, and because umpires are thoroughly vetted before getting to the big leagues, demotions from the big leagues would be unjust.

Mr. Crawford's first two propositions are redundantly refuted daily. His third sounds strange in the fiercely competitive 1990s, and is downright weird in the severely meritocratic world of professional athletics.

His obduracy in defense of all 67 other umpires may accord with the ethics of unionism, but is symptomatic of the mentality that has produced the meltdown of relations between umpires and a game that, they are learning, can dispense with many of them.

Baseball team owners are choosing which resignations, voluntarily submitted and then futilely rescinded by most of the umpires, to accept. That they have this choice proves the ruinousness of the strategy devised by their union's lawyer, Richie Phillips.

Unlikely deal

He assured them that if they resigned effective Sept. 2 -- their contract forbids a strike -- baseball would quickly negotiate a successor to their contract, which expires Dec. 31, or they could form a corporation selling umpiring services and baseball would have to deal with it. But the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cannot dictate oil supplies, and umpiring certainly is not a commodity a cartel can control.

Until now the umpires' union has benefited them. Salaries, based on seniority, range from $75,000 to $225,000, (the top was $33,500 when Mr. Crawford's father retired in 1975) plus a $20,000 bonus for all, plus up to $30,000 for post-season service, plus first-class travel, plus $240 per diem and 31 days off during the season.

But today's conflict, like so many nowadays, is primarily about status, respect, recognition. As, and perhaps partly because, players have become spectacularly remunerated, some umpires have become lazy, out of condition, truculent, confrontational and arrogant. Recently, a crew refused to work both ends of a day-night doubleheader in Denver, thereby forcing baseball owners to bring in two minor-league umpires.

The umpires' most persistent provocation is their refusal to adhere to baseball's most fundamental rule, which defines the strike zone as extending vertically from the hollow beneath the kneecap to the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants.

What strike zone?

No umpire, not one, consistently calls strikes above the belt and a few -- the sort who refer to "my strike zone" -- have virtually turned the strike zone on its side, calling pitches strikes that are well off the plate. The absurd result is that hitters and pitchers must adjust their games to that day's home plate umpire.

The disappearance of the upper third of the strike zone is one reason pitchers are being hammered so hard that home runs are becoming boring.

It also is a reason for the tedious length of games. The average game now lasts almost three hours.

In the 1930s, when the Yankees' ninth-inning explosions were called "five o'clock lightning," games started at 3 p.m.

Umpires are baseball's judiciary, and like the nation's judges they are finding that the more noticeable they are, the less respect they enjoy. As Section 9.01(a) of the good book (the rule book) says, austerely, "The umpires shall be responsible for the conduct of the game," a responsibility not inferior to any in this republic.

Unfortunately, umpiring, like judging, has come to illustrate the irresponsibility that infects any profession insulated from accountability.

Baseball's family feud with umpires is especially unfortunate because baseball has the affections and traditions as well as the tensions characteristic of families.

It is pleasing that among the replacement umpires being promoted from Triple-A ball are two more sons of former big-league umpires.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/05/99

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