SI Vault
Stephen Cannella
July 26, 1999
They're Out? The umpires' hardball threat to resign may well backfire on them
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July 26, 1999


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The Standings

Orioles? Athletics? Maybe what O's and A's really stand for is Oldsters and Ageds. Of the 10 active major leaguers who have been professionals the longest, three play for Baltimore and three play for Oakland. Here's the golden oldie countdown.





1. Wade Boggs, Devil Rays




Just 15hits shy of 3,000. five-time batting champ on course (.306) to bat .300 for 15th season

2. Rickey Henderson, Mets




Alltime steals leader (1,324) still running (27steals) and hitting (.319) like old days

3. Harold Baines, Orioles




At 40, Baines en route to best season ever at the plate with .349 average, 21 homers and 66 RBIs

4. Tim Raines, A's




With .215 average, he may not last long enough to play with son Tim Jr., an Orioles farmhand

5. Willie McGee, Cardinals




First season he's been caught stealing more often (four times) than he has been successful (three steals)

6. Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles




Healthy back has allowed him to hit with gusto again; batting.313 with 12 homers, yet only six walks

7. Chili Davis, Yankees




If he matches his 52 RBIs of first half, will reach 100 for just second time in 19 big league seasons

8. Tony Phillips, A's




Despite hitting just .235, leads punchless A s in runs (63), steals (eight) and at bats (345)

9. Jesse Orosco, Orioles




Nine games shy of Dennis Eckersley's record for appearances: scorched lately—7.32 ERA in 19⅔ innings

10. Doug Jones, A's




Nine years in minors, now closing in on 300 big league saves (294, including three in '99)

They're Out?
The umpires' hardball threat to resign may well backfire on them

What's foul is fair these days in the bizarro world of major league umpires. Consider the obviously foul ball hit by Brian Jordan of the Braves that was ruled a home run last Saturday at Yankee Stadium. But that play wasn't the umpires' most shocking call of the week. That distinction belonged to the one made by 57 of the 68 umpires when, in response to what they thought were imminent mass firings, they launched a counterattack against Major League Baseball. They quit, effective Sept 2.

The announcement came after a July 14 meeting in Philadelphia. The success of the umpires' gambit will turn on one question: Can baseball get by without them? Many Major League Baseball officials would gladly try, with league officials welcoming a chance to restock the roster of umps and revamp the terms under which they work-even if it means having college and other amateur umpires work the 1999 World Series.

Commissioner Bud Selig wants fundamental changes in the umpiring system, beginning with executive vice president of baseball operations Sandy Alderson's assuming operational control from the two league presidents. The umpires, who earn a base salary of between $75,000 and $225,000 for the regular season and whose five-year contract with Baseball expires on Dec. 31, have handed owners the opportunity to start over, not only by centralizing umpire supervision but also by installing an evaluation system that more easily allows for demotions and firings and by enforcing a strike zone that more closely resembles the one in the rule book. All are measures the men in blue have resisted. Major League Baseball can begin implementing these changes for $15 million. That's how much it contractually owes in severance pay to 47 umpires with at least 10 years of service. The umpires would not be due that money if they were fired.

"It's an incredible mistake on the umpires' part," says one owner. "The money doesn't bother me. It's $500,000 per team. It's money that was due them anyway."

Says Richie Phillips, a Philadelphia-based litigation attorney and general counsel to the umpires' union for 21 years, "I believe [the umpires] are now in a better position than they would have been in if they had allowed the season to lapse, allowed the CBA to expire and allowed Baseball to take away $15 million by saying, 'We are eliminating all of you.' That was their plan, to take 45 of the 68 back after doing all of that." A high-level Baseball executive denies the existence of such a plan, saying that Phillips "has been telling lies" to the umpires to unify them.

Phillips claims Major League Baseball has been "deliberately provoking" the umpires. He cites the exclusion of major league umpires from two exhibition games between the Cuban national team and the Orioles because the umps and Baseball couldn't agree on compensation (Cuban and college umpires worked those games); the hiring of former replacement and amateur umpires to supervise minor league umps; a spring-training edict to umpires to call the high strike per the rules; and the assignment of club officials to review home plate umpires' ball-and-strike calls.

On June 30 the board of directors of the umpires' union unanimously authorized a strike vote. The idea evaporated, however, when the umpires realized their labor agreement bars them from striking. Thus, the resignation plan was hatched. The umpires also voted to form a corporation, Umpires, Inc. When the resignations take effect on Sept. 2, each umpire begins a 2½-year contract with Umpires, Inc. The contract includes a non-compete clause that would prevent an umpire who might have reconsidered his resignation from returning to the major leagues.

Phillips says minor league umpires (to whose yet-unrecognized union he is also general counsel) have pledged not to work as replacements. On Monday, however, the minor league umpires declined to set a strike date, deferring that decision until after a conference call scheduled for Tuesday. If the minor league umps do strike, Baseball intends to fill the openings with amateur league umpires.

The next move is up to Selig. He could refuse to accept the resignations and open what figure to be unpleasant negotiations, or he could accept the resignations and hire replacements—an option Phillips is betting will prove unattractive enough to make his side a winner. Says Phillips, "The umpires depend on one thing: They are the only 68 umpires in the world that have 1,000 years of [combined] experience at the major league level, and there is no alternative workforce that can possibly replace them." Fair or foul?
Tom Verducci and Lester Munson

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