Time to Overhaul Baseball's Discipline System

The Roberto Alomar spitting incident exposed many flaws in Major League Baseball’s discipline system. Unfortunately, MLB shows little interest in fixing them.

We all remember what happened the night of September 27. Plate umpire John Hirschbeck ejected Roberto Alomar of the playoff-bound Baltimore Orioles for arguing a called third strike. After ejecting Alomar, Hirschbeck continued the argument, by several accounts spewing obscenities which could start a fight in any bar in America. Alomar spat in Hirschbeck’s face. The TV cameras didn’t catch Hirschbeck’s words, but Alomar’s frontal expectoration dominated the week’s baseball highlights. AL President Gene Budig suspended Alomar for five games. Alomar appealed, delaying the suspension until the start of the 1997 season.

As the ugly publicity was dying down, Richie Phillips, head of the umpires’ union, threw oil on the flames. Thundering, "Players are not entitled to due process," Phillips demanded that the American League order Alomar to serve his suspension during the playoffs, without a hearing. Otherwise, he warned, the umpires would ignore the no-strike clause in their own contract and boycott the playoffs. MLB's lawyers swung into action, as fans thirsty for the first untainted postseason since 1993 instead watched the game return to the courtroom.

Major League Baseball should learn several lessons from this sorry spectacle:

1. A baseball insider must handle discipline. A credible disciplinary system requires a credible judge -- someone with a baseball background. Former league presidents Dr. Bobby Brown and Bill White qualified, but their replacements do not. While Gene Budig’s five-game suspension of Alomar may have been too lenient, the umpires would have been less hostile if the decision had been made by a career baseball man, not a university administrator with only two years’ baseball experience. MLB needs a respected elder statesman to serve as discipline czar: someone like Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson or retired National League umpire Doug Harvey, nicknamed "God" by the players.

2. Players should not be suspended before a hearing. Umpires and fans were furious that after his suspension, Alomar kept playing as though nothing had happened. This flows from a MLB policy which authorizes suspension of a player immediately after the league president reviews the umpire’s report of an incident, but then allows the player to postpone the suspension by filing an appeal. "Appeal" is a misnomer: what MLB calls an “appeal” is really the player’s only chance to tell his side of the story. MLB knows that a court or arbitrator would invalidate any major penalty imposed on a player who hasn’t received a hearing, so it should stop announcing “suspensions” which can’t be enforced.

3. Hearings should be held immediately after an incident. A full-time discipline officer could mete out swift, fair justice. When trouble arises, the discipline officer could travel to the scene, interview all parties, and render a decision within the week. By contrast, the current system subordinates discipline to the convenience of league presidents. Hearings are postponed until a club’s next visit to New York, which can delay the suspension for weeks or months. Further trivializing the process, during this time the player can serve his suspension any time he wishes by dropping his appeal, thereby converting his penalty into a rest for sore muscles.

4. Players must serve suspensions without pay. For the rest of us, being paid not to work is called “vacation.” But owners have been paying suspended players for so long that one arbitrator has ruled that players must be paid during their suspensions. Changing this policy requires the approval of the Players’ Association, but during the recent negotiations, the owners never even raised the issue. The umpires are rightfully outraged that Roberto Alomar will be paid $185,000 by the Orioles during his suspension -- and rightfully angry that MLB expects them to maintain order but refuses to back them up with meaningful sanctions.

5. Discipline the umpires, too. The day after Alomar earned his suspension by spitting at Hirschbeck, the enraged umpire charged into the Orioles' clubhouse, threatening to "kill" Alomar for comments as tasteless as those he had allegedly directed at the second baseman. Hirschbeck's crew chief gave him the day off, and MLB let the matter drop. Or so we think -- player suspensions make the headlines, but MLB refuses to discuss umpires' wrongdoing.

When Richie Phillips proclaims that the umpires are baseball’s policemen, his model seems to be the unaccountable Los Angeles Police Department which produced Mark Fuhrman and the Rodney King beating. MLB must remind the umpires that they must earn the respect they demand. Like the police, umpires can’t ignore the law: umpires should be reminded of the rulebook strike zone, and fired if they refuse to call it. Like the police, umpires can’t taunt or attack others while on the job: Hirschbeck, too, has earned a suspension.

Until MLB cracks down on umpires, too, relations between players and umpires will only worsen, and every player-umpire confrontation risks becoming another Alomar incident.

Copyright © 1997 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the March 1997 issue of Boston Baseball.

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