The 1998 baseball season might be the best ever, but the
millions of fans tuning in the World Series this week should be
warned that the same cannot be said of the umpiring. Some of the
umps who'll work the Fall Classic are good at their jobs, and
some aren't so good, but they all have one thing in common: It
is their turn.
For the most part, veteran umpires get to the World Series the
same way you get served at the deli or Larry King chooses a new
wife. Someone says, "Who's next?" and up steps an ump, mask in
hand, ready to call one of the most important ball games of the
year. By the time this year's Series is over, all but 19 of the
64 full-time umps in the big leagues will have worked one of the
season's premier events--either the All-Star Game or one of the
three rounds of playoffs. "Most umpires are nice guys," says New
York Yankees manager Joe Torre. "There are just certain ones
that I think shouldn't be in postseason play."
In short, some umps stink. Not all of them, of course, but
enough to leave players and fans wondering, for example, when
the strike zone was turned sideways. Did the umps get a memo
informing them that the zone would henceforth be eight inches
high and three feet wide? "I guess it just evolved that way,"
says National League director of umpires Paul Runge. "A few
years ago, we were told to raise the strike zone, and everyone
started yelling and screaming that we were calling too many high
strikes." But at least a hitter can reach a fastball at his
belly button. The strike the umps have created since then--half
a foot outside--is the greatest gift to pitchers since the rosin
bag. Batters, like fans, can only stand by and watch as the ball
lands in the catcher's mitt, which is in another zip code. "It's
frustrating," says Yankees rightfielder Paul O'Neill, "and the
wider they go, the wider pitchers are going to throw."
Another cause for frustration is the umpires' belief that the
strike zone is theirs to interpret, as if it were an
Impressionist painting. It's O.K., they say, if a particular
ump's zone is eccentric, as long as it's the same for both
teams. "What bothers me is this idea of my strike zone, like
it's a personal choice," says one team executive. "It's not your
strike zone. There's only one strike zone, and it's in the rule
Last week, in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series,
home plate umpire Ted Hendry triggered a wave of second-guessing
when he failed to call the Cleveland Indians' Travis Fryman out
for interference. Fryman had run outside the base path on his
way to first and was hit by a throw from the Yankees' first
baseman Tino Martinez, who had fielded Fryman's bunt, to second
baseman Chuck Knoblauch covering the bag. While it was a
debatable call, a case could be made that Fryman beat the throw,
nullifying the charge of interference. What was harder to
explain was Hendry's strike zone, which seemed to include three
of the five boroughs of New York City. Unlike the noncall on
Fryman, Hendry's warped view of the zone distorted every inning.
Cleveland batters struck out nine times, eight on called third
strikes. Indians first baseman Jim Thome, a distinguished judge
of the strike zone, laughed when Hendry punched him out for the
third time. "He was calling terrible pitches on both sides,"
said Tribe shortstop Omar Vizquel. "It was a joke." The Yankees
fanned 11 times, four of them looking. "You couldn't have
reached some of those pitches with bamboo poles," Torre said.
Hendry is hardly the only offender. In Game 5 of last year's
National League Championship Series, Florida Marlins rookie
Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Atlanta Braves, a mark that
deserves an asterisk the size of 305-pound plate umpire Eric
Gregg, or at least the size of Gregg's ludicrous strike zone.
"That was brutal," said then Braves first baseman Fred McGriff,
who took a pitch down the middle--of the opposite batter's
box--for a called third strike that ended the game. "Some of
those pitches were eight to 10 inches outside. It changed the
Why are guys like Gregg allowed to play god every fall? Why was
the 58-year-old Hendry, generally considered a below-average and
over-the-hill ump, behind the plate in the ALCS? You can start
by thanking their union, which has more juice than a Tropicana
In its latest contract, a five-year deal that took effect in
1995, the umpires' association made sure that its members would
share in plum assignments. The contract stipulates that no
umpire can work more than one special event (All-Star Game,
Division Series, LCS or World Series) per year, with one
exception: An ump can be assigned to both a Division Series and
the World Series. Nobody, no matter how highly regarded, can
work two World Series in a row. The objective: spread the
wealth. In addition to their salaries, which range from $75,000
to $225,000 with a $7,500 bonus for crew chiefs, umpires get
$12,500 for a Division Series, $15,000 for an LCS and $17,500
for a World Series.
This system ensures postseason work for three quarters of all
major league umps. It also makes it impossible for the best
officials to work all the most important games, a unique
situation in major pro sports. The NBA's 58 referees are
regularly graded by the league--and ranked from 1 to 58--with
the best 32 working the playoffs and only the top 11 eligible to
officiate the NBA Finals. The NHL and the NFL also constantly
evaluate their officials and use a merit system to determine
which ones qualify for the postseason. Only in baseball is a Ted
Hendry rewarded while superior arbiters sit at home.
Umpires' union chief Richie Phillips doesn't see a problem. In
his mind every ump is a great ump. "We have a pool of 64
marvelous umpires," says Phillips. "Very little distinguishes
one from another in ability. There are tens of thousands of
umpires, and only 64 of them get to the major leagues. They do
that by going through a torturous process at the minor league
level. They are selected for their superior talent, and once you
nurture that talent with major league experience, it puts these
people in a somewhat lofty zone."
Some of his critics--and he has many--say that Phillips has made
his union more powerful than the mighty Major League Baseball
Players Association. Donald Fehr, after all, can't save the job
of an aging player who can no longer get around on a fastball.
Phillips & Co., on the other hand, can keep a card-carrying
call-blower on the job longer than Strom Thurmond. "We get
evaluated every day," says one player, "and if we're not doing
the job, we're gone. With umpires who aren't good at their jobs,
there's nothing anyone can do."
Indeed, while all umps are supervised, evaluated and sometimes
fined by the leagues--"Umpires are accountable," insists American
League director of umpires Marty Springstead-- and while merit,
not seniority, is now the main factor in the promotion of crew
chiefs, umps enjoy almost as much job security as Supreme Court
justices. While the NFL turns over nearly 10% of its officials
each year, attrition has claimed only four big league umpires
According to departing Baltimore Orioles G.M. Pat Gillick, "The
umpires have been on the agenda at every general managers'
meeting in the last 25 years." Gillick and other G.M.'s are
pinning their hopes on commissioner Bud Selig's newly appointed
executive vice president for baseball operations, former Oakland
A's general manager Sandy Alderson, who is said to be eager to
address the game's umping troubles. For starters, insiders say,
Alderson will try to shift jurisdiction over the umpires from
the leagues to the commissioner's office and lobby to have the
game train its own umps, rather than leaving the task to
profit-making academies run by longtime arbiters such as Joe
Brinkman and Harry Wendlestedt.
Many insiders think baseball missed a chance to break the umps'
union two years ago when Phillips threatened a strike over
Roberto Alomar's spitting at ump John Hirschbeck. Selig's office
is almost certain to take a harder line with the union in the
next collective bargaining talks and push for a system that
rewards merit and gives incompetents the thumb. "You've got to
play a little hardball," says Gillick. "If the lower-rated guys
continue to screw up, they have got to be gone. Do it like a big
company does--offer early retirement. Give them a couple years'
salary and get 'em out of there."
To some, the umps' aptitude is less disturbing than their
attitude. Nobody held a grudge against Jim McKean, who may have
blown a call on a fly ball to Cleveland's Kenny Lofton in Game 4
of the ALCS and later found himself out of position on a stolen
base attempt and was hit by catcher Sandy Alomar's throw. Far
more grating was what happened in the first inning of Game 2 of
the Cleveland-Boston Division Series on Sept. 30. After Indians
starting pitcher Dwight Gooden questioned a couple of ball
calls, Brinkman told Gooden to shut up and pitch. The pitcher
raised his hands as if to ask for peace. "I said, 'Let's get
back to the game,'" Gooden would recall. Cleveland manager Mike
Hargrove went to the mound and waited for Brinkman, who promptly
ejected him, poking Hargrove in the chest. A few hitters later,
after Brinkman blew a call on a play at the plate, he tossed
Gooden for telling him to "get into the f---ing game." It was a
fine afternoon for all those fans who had bought tickets to see
Joe Brinkman in action.
"The umps have an air about them," says one National Leaguer,
perhaps thinking of Pepe Le Pew. "They get paid no matter what
kind of job they do, and there are quite a few arrogant ones."
Still, Phillips claims that umps are less confrontational than
they used to be. "To control the game, they have to control
volatile tempers," the union boss says. "I don't believe Joe
Brinkman baited Dwight Gooden. I think Dwight Gooden wasn't
happy with a call and he violently disagreed. Players have a
right to disagree; they don't have a right to curse at the
umpire about it."
Springstead believes that postseason baseball has grown so
pressure-packed that many umpires would rather skip the extra
paycheck and go fishing. "This is going to sound crazy, but a lot
of guys don't want to put their careers on the line," he says.
Phillips and Runge scoff at such a thought. "I love Marty, but
that is absurd," Phillips says. "There's not an umpire at this
level who doesn't relish the opportunity to umpire in the
postseason." Adds Runge, "I don't think there's one guy in the
National League who feels that way."
But one veteran umpire, requesting anonymity, agrees with
Springstead. "It's not worth it to be here" in the postseason,
says the ump, one of the most respected in the big leagues.
"Most of us feel that way. I felt a little different when I was
younger and liked all the cameras and the little bit of money,
but it's just not worth it. If you do your job, nobody says
anything. Mess up just once and they never let you forget it."
That, unfortunately, is the life of an umpire. You travel the
U.S. and Canada and meet famous people--some of whom want to rip
your head off. But you work only seven months a year, three
hours a night, and you make good money. If there is one thing
fans like less than whining players, it's whining umps. So
please, Mr. Umpire, put the mask on, get back behind the catcher
and remember one thing: The black is part of the plate, but
Queens and Brooklyn aren't.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON COVER Kill the UMPS! Missed calls and skewed strike zones are marring the postseason. Here's why [Home plate umpire Tim Welke during game 5 of ALCS in Cleveland on October 11, 1998]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Punch-out artist A noncall by Hendry was the talk of the playoffs, but it was his strike zone that left the Yanks and Indians dumbfounded. [Ted Hendry calling strike on Scott Brosius, as Sandy Alomar holds baseball]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO BACKLASH After base runner Fryman screened Knoblauch--legally, Hendry ruled--the Yankees lost their cool and the game. [Travis Fryman running towards second base between baseball and Chuck Knoblauch]
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SQUIRE/ALLSPORT MISSTEP In Game 4 of the ALCS, McKean made a questionable call on a fly ball, then made like Fryman by blocking a throw. [Jim McKean blocking baseball thrown to Omar Vizquel, as Yankee player slides into base]
Of the major pro sports, baseball does the least to ensure that
the top-rated officials work critical postseason games.
"Play hardball," says Baltimore's Gillick. "If lower-rated
[umpires] continue to screw up, they have got to be gone."