Time to Overhaul Baseball's Discipline
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
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
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'
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
Originally published in the March 1997 issue of Boston
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