The umps' bad call

Baseball: Planned walkout signals too many of these officials have put themselves in front of the game.

August 17, 1999

LIKE SO MANY others in contemporary professional sport, Major League Baseball's umpires first reached for what they deserved, then over-reached so much that they now appear arrogant and greedy.

What's satisfying about their union's apparently self-defeating mass resignation is that, this time, it appears some who over-reached will get their comeuppance. This may help restore order to a game which often seems to have lost its bearings.

Twenty-five years ago, many umpires made less than $20,000 a season. Benefits and working conditions were poor. Today, the umpires make $75,000 to $225,000 a season and have generous expense allowances.

Unfortunately, many egos seem to have ballooned along with the salaries -- and their performance has become sloppy.

Widely viewed as thin-skinned and confrontational, umpires regularly pick fights with players and coaches and issue ejections at the drop of a hat -- even as the game suffers from a rash of their own blown calls, often in the most conspicuous of circumstances.

Most damaging to the game, umpires now enforce a strike zone about half the size of the one called for in the rule book. This has helped fuel an offensive explosion that makes games too long and is wreaking havoc with record books and historical standards.

For years the umpires have been accountable to no one. No matter how many calls they blow, no umpire is put on waivers or sent back to the minor leagues.

This year, baseball launched an overdue effort to improve umpiring. When the umpires union responded by threatening to disrupt the pennant races and playoffs (as it has several times in recent seasons) by resigning en masse Sept. 2, the league (and most fans) was only too happy to accept their offer.

This is a sad end for some who have devoted many years to baseball, but the game needs umpires who are accountable and who enforce the rules.

Baseball's claim on our attention, more than any other game's, is linked to the integrity of its standards. In recent weeks, fans have celebrated as Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Mark McGwire have surpassed milestones for hits and home runs that secure their place among baseball's all-time greats. But such accomplishments are only worth cheering if they are difficult -- and rare.

In an age when offensive records and milestones seem to be tumbling like dominoes arrayed for a Guinness Book of World Records stunt, the game needs to reinforce its standards.

Showing errant umpires the door is a good a way to start.

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