Umpire Strike or Lockout Likely in 2000

All signs point to a nasty labor dispute before the 2000 season. Don’t panic; the games will go on. This fight is between the owners and the umpires. The issue is accountability – and though I’ve sided with the players in all of their labor disputes, this time the owners are 100% correct.

The central figure in this fight is Richie Phillips, who has run the Major League Umpires’ Association since 1978. The umpires have prospered under Phillips’ leadership: their annual salaries have risen from $17,500 to $95,000 for first-year umps, and from $39,000 to $250,000 or more for the most senior arbiters. Umpires now receive paid vacations during the season.

The best umpires deserve every dime. Unfortunately, Phillips insists that they’re all the best. As he recently observed, “Umpires don’t have a stat line. That’s why they all think they’re the best. And it’s a good thing they feel that way.”

But there’s a difference between self-confidence and self-delusion. Because umps don’t have a stat line, gross incompetence goes unpunished. Some umps are too fat, or too lazy, to cover their position. Others think the strike zone starts four inches below the top of the rulebook zone and extends six inches past the outside corner. No one needs statistics to conclude that the likes of Ken Kaiser and Eric Gregg don’t belong in the majors.

Richie Phillips disagrees. In fact, he doesn’t think anyone is qualified to evaluate his umpires. After the 1998 season, the MLBPA polled players, coaches and managers, asking them to rank the umpires in each league from best to worst in eight categories. When informed of the results (summarized below), Phillips sneered, "I don't give any credence at all to ratings of officials because ratings are always subjective."

Judge for yourself. The eight categories included physical condition, physical and mental toughness, accuracy on the bases, accuracy behind the plate, consistency, temperament, respect for players and overall capacity. In the AL, Tim McClelland, Jim Joyce and Mike Reilly ranked no lower than fifth in any of the categories, while Ken Kaiser finished dead last in five of the eight and no higher than 27th in the other three. John Hirschbeck, the other protagonist in the Roberto Alomar spitting incident, was rated fourth overall but 24th for temperament.

Some umpires don’t even hide their disregard for the rule book. Last year umpire Durwood Merrill wrote a book, charmingly entitled You’re Out and You’re Ugly, Too!. In it, he explained: “When an umpire establishes his strike zone, everybody in the league had better get ready to deal with it. You have to understand that no two strike zones are the same.” Unsurprisingly, Merrill was named the AL’s least accurate and least consistent ball-and-strike umpire.

Richie Phillips rejects all attempts to hold umpires like Merrill accountable. When MLB asked all clubs to chart pitches and file a report on each umpire’s strike zone, Phillips snarled that this was “just another case of Big Brother watching over us.”

An employer trying to determine the competence of its employees. Imagine that!

In the June 14 episode of HBO’s Real Sports, Phillips went even further. “I equate umpires with federal judges,” said Phillips. “And I don’t believe they should always be subject to the voter, just like federal judges are not subject to the voter.”

Sandy Alderson of MLB responded: “Federal judges can be impeached. I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching.”

Let’s hope Alderson maintains this attitude throughout what promises to be a long, nasty dispute. MLB needs to reassert authority over its umpires. MLB, not the umpires, writes the rule book. MLB, not the umpires, defines the strike zone. And whatever Richie Phillips may think, MLB has not just the right, but the obligation, to players and fans alike, to evaluate umpires. Inept umps, like players who hit .150 or post 7.50 ERAs, should be sent to the minors or released. If it takes a long strike or lockout for MLB to regain this power, so be it.

   American League  National League
 Best:  Tim McClelland  Jerry Crawford
   Jim Joyce  Ed Rapuano
   Richie Garcia  Ed Montague
   John Hirschbeck  Randy Marsh
   Mike Reilly  Frank Pulli
   ...  ...
   Dale Ford  Harry Wendelstedt (retired)
   Joe Brinkman  Bruce Froemming
   Ted Hendry  Joe West
   Durwood Merrill  Eric Gregg
 Worst:  Ken Kaiser  Charlie Williams
Source: 1998 MLBPA poll of players, coaches and managers.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the July 1999 issue of Boston Baseball.

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