Umpires should make the right call and eject Phillips

On Baseball

September 05, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Umpires union chief Richie Phillips is going to cling tenaciously to his job, even in the face of one of the greatest blunders in the history of sports labor relations.

He just plain blew it. He got desperate when it appeared that the owners were going to take a hard-line stand in pending labor negotiations and organized a desperate gambit that had no chance to succeed.

He's got to go the way of the 22 umpires that he -- and Major Phillips

League Baseball -- put out of work. The union needs to reorganize or, at the very least, hire a new director who knows when to fight and, maybe more importantly, when not to fight.

To that end, the group of veteran umpires who opposed the re-hiring of Phillips earlier this year is expected to announce tomorrow or Tuesday a plan to decertify the Major League Professional Umpires Association and form a new union.

"Decertification is definitely a thought right now," said veteran umpire John Hirschbeck, who along with Joe Brinkman and Dave Phillips have led the movement to unseat the current union leadership. "We're leaning toward a separate organization."

Richie Phillips can complain all he wants about the split that developed in the union when it became apparent that the owners were not going to fall for the mass resignation strategy. But he should have known what was going to happen. He gets paid well to plan for all contingencies, but he waded into a fight that he should have known he couldn't win.

Did he really believe, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, that Major League Baseball would quake at the prospect of losing dozens of its highest-paid umpires? Apparently, he did, which can only mean that he had lost touch both with his membership and -- some might say -- reality.

He's got to go. The umpires need to bring in someone who can make peace with the owners and get at least some of the displaced umpires reinstated for next year. Phillips is not equipped to do that, because he only knows how to fight and the union doesn't have any fight left it in.

During the unsuccessful attempt several months ago to replace Phillips with a less dictatorial leader, the name brought up by the dissident umpires was influential Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, whose non-confrontational style of negotiation has helped settle past labor disputes between the owners and the players.

Shapiro has made it a personal crusade to change the way agents, business leaders and union officials negotiate. His book, "The Power of Nice," provides guidance to negotiators who want to make progress in negotiations without making enemies.

Right now, he might be the only hope for the 22 umpires who are sitting at home today wondering whether they have thrown away their professional careers. The owners seem intent on keeping them unemployed, but might be willing to assimilate some of them into a new umpiring system next year if the union is willing to accept significant changes in their next collective bargaining agreement.

There's no doubt that the union is in an extremely vulnerable position. The dissident faction led by Brinkman, Hirschbeck and Dave Phillips continues to work to topple the current union leadership and soon may petition the National Labor Relations Board to decertify the MLPUA and form a new union.

Shapiro probably wouldn't sign on as permanent union director, but he likely would be the point man during what promises to be a difficult and challenging change in leadership.

"Our main goal is to get a change in union leadership," said Hirschbeck, who is in town to umpire the series between the Orioles and Indians at Camden Yards. "Our union has been run by a dictator and we want it to be a democracy.

"If you're not one of Richie's inner group, you don't have any say in decisions. You don't really have a vote. You just pay your dues. All we want is for the union to be run democratically."

Tough question

Of course, the big question is this: If the owners eventually bring back some of the displaced umpires -- or are forced to bring them back by an arbitrator -- what happens to the 25 umpires who were hired to replace them?

Commissioner Bud Selig insists that those 25 have been hired as permanent umpires, so they now are under the jurisdiction of the MLPUA. That means they can't just be fired, and they probably can't be fooled into submitting their resignations if Major League Baseball decides to assimilate some of the displaced umpires into the new umpiring rotation.

Sounds like an impossible situation, but baseball could re-assimilate many of the 22 displaced umpires by going to five-man umpiring crews. The addition of an extra umpire to each crew would increase scheduling flexibility and reduce stress on the umpires during the lengthy regular season.

Still quarreling in Anaheim

The brawl that erupted during Tuesday night's game between the Indians and Angels sparked more internal turmoil in Anaheim.

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