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
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 2
1/2-year contract with Umpires, Inc. The contract includes a
noncompete 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
Brewers Trade Talk
DOUBLED UP AT SECOND
Just when the Brewers, desperate to acquire pitching help, have
an extra second baseman for trade bait, no team with available
arms needs to fill that position. The Braves, with the steady
Bret Boone at second, are willing to give up lefty prospect
Bruce Chen, but they crave a first baseman with power. The
Orioles, with young Jerry Hairston and veteran Delino DeShields
at second, are shopping righthander Scott Erickson but need a
young starter. The Royals hope to unload righty Kevin Appier but
have Carlos Febles at second. The Blue Jays, the Rockies, the
Yankees--all have arms to swap, but none is in the market for a
Thus Fernando Vina, an All-Star last year, and Ron Belliard, an
All-Rookie team candidate this season, wait and wonder: Which one
of them will depart Milwaukee and when? "You have to trade from
your strength, and our number one strength is second base," says
manager Phil Garner. "We've talked to several teams about
Fernando, but it hasn't happened."
The Brewers were close to sending Vina, 30, to the Braves or the
Cardinals in the off-season, but an injured left quadriceps that
twice landed him on the DL this year has hurt his market value.
While Vina mends (his return is expected around July 31, the
trading deadline), Belliard, 24, who was ticketed for Triple A
Louisville, flourishes. In 56 games through Sunday, he was
batting .325 with five home runs and 26 RBIs. He doesn't have the
range or quickness of Vina, but Belliard reaches most balls and
turns a smooth double play. He is, by all accounts, Milwaukee's
second baseman of the future.
Vina, in his fifth year with the Brewers and hitting .266 before
he went on the DL the second time, in early June, understands
the situation. "I can't be bitter toward Ron," he says. When
Belliard was a September call-up last season, Vina took him out
to dinner several times, gave him a couch to sleep on and was
quick to advise him on defensive positioning. Says Belliard,
"He's been great to me. Maybe we can both find a way to play
Maybe not. Vina never officially demanded a trade, but he made
it clear to Garner and general manager Sal Bando that, although
he expects to return to the starting lineup as soon as he's
healthy, a trade to a contender would appeal to him. "I don't
think it's blowing smoke when I say I've proven myself as one of
the best second basemen around," Vina says. "There are
definitely teams I can help."
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
The interleague portion of the major league schedule ended on
Tuesday, so what will probably be the most enjoyable part of the
Marlins' season is over. At week's end Florida was 10-6 against
the American League in 1999 and had the majors' best record
(30-17) in three years of interleague play. Still, the Marlins,
22 1/2 games behind Atlanta in the National League East, had the
worst overall record in the big leagues this season, a 34-58
mark befitting a team with the game's second-lowest payroll and
only 10 players who began 1999 with more than a year of major
league service. So it's little pleasures such as interleague
dominance that keep manager John Boles from despair.
"You look for positive things, like the fact that we're
improving and that we might have three or four guys on the
All-Rookie team," says Boles. "The thing you cling to is that
there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel."
The question is, just how long is that tunnel? As the July 9
deal that sent closer Matt Mantei to the Diamondbacks for
pitching prospect Brad Penny and 24-year-old reliever Vladimir
Nunez showed, the Marlins are good at stockpiling young talent
but are still far from being a contender again. Though the
rebuilding project that followed the tearing down of the 1997
world champions is still in its early stages, there are those
"positive things" that Boles speaks of.
At the top of the list is the acrobatic Alex Gonzalez, 22, who
last week became the first National League shortstop to make the
All-Star team as a rookie. Through Sunday he was hitting .287
with nine home runs. "That's one position we don't concern
ourselves with," says Boles. "We know we have a shortstop for
the next 10 years."
Thanks primarily to Gonzalez and three other
rookies--outfielders Preston Wilson (tops among rookies with 17
homers) and Bruce Aven (.327, 49 RBIs) and first baseman Kevin
Millar (a major league-leading .471 average with runners in
scoring position)--the Marlins are vastly improved from Opening
Day. After a 6-22 start they had gone 28-36 through Sunday.
The Marlins, however, have fallen prey to one of the hazards of
a youth movement: Some players who start hot quickly flame out.
First baseman Derrek Lee and outfielder Todd Dunwoody, two
prospects who were expected to blossom in their second full
seasons, are back in Triple A after struggling at the plate.
Second-year outfielder Mark Kotsay is still with the big club
but was hitting .251 with just six homers.
There was more uncertainty ahead: As the trade deadline drew
near, rumors continued to fly about deals involving Florida
righthanders Livan Hernandez and Alex Fernandez, who's making $7
million this year--$4.5 million more than any other Marlin.
General manager Dave Dombrowski says owner John Henry, who
bought the club in January, has approved budgets for the 2001
and '02 seasons that will increase Florida's payroll and allow
him to pursue free agents. Until then, Dombrowski says, he has
to be open-minded about any trade that he feels would improve
the team. "We like a lot of our players," he says, "but when you
have the worst record in the league, you can't think
REDS CALLED ON THE CARPET
In 14 years with the Reds, shortstop Barry Larkin has always
been a team player. Through the Reds' lean years, when asked to
bat in the uncomfortable leadoff or cleanup spots, he did so
without complaint. Finally, his patience seems to be wearing thin.
Larkin's contract expires after the 2000 season, and he has told
the club that if the Cinergy Field artificial surface is not
replaced with grass, the Reds could lose him. "I definitely feel
the effects of playing on turf for years and years," says
Larkin. "It's important for me to play in Cincinnati, but it's
more important to play as many years as I can."
Larkin made his concerns clear to John Allen, the team's
managing executive. Allen was somewhat taken aback. The Reds are
scheduled to move into a new stadium with a grass field in
2003--when Larkin is 38.
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN The umpires say they are set to walk on Sept. 2, but will baseball find them irreplaceable?
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE An All-Star as a rookie, Gonzalez is a fixture in the Marlins' future.
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.
FIRST PRO MAJOR LEAGUE GAMES
PLAYER, TEAM SEASON DEBUT AS A PRO
1. Wade Boggs, Devil Rays 1976 1982 3,074
Just 15 hits shy of 3,000, five-time batting champ on course
(.306) to bat .300 for 15th season
2. Rickey Henderson, Mets 1976 1979 3,061
Alltime steals leader (1,324) still running (27 steals) and
hitting (.319) like old days
3. Harold Baines, Orioles 1977 1980 2,975
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 1977 1979 2,798
With .215 average, he may not last long enough to play with son
Tim Jr., an Orioles farmhand
5. Willie McGee, Cardinals 1977 1982 2,646
First season he's been caught stealing more often (four times)
than he has been successful (three steals)
6. Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles 1978 1981 3,206
Healthy back has allowed him to hit with gusto again; batting
.313 with 12 homers, yet only six walks
7. Chili Davis, Yankees 1978 1981 2,878
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 1978 1982 2,748
Despite hitting just .235, leads punchless A's in runs (63),
steals (eight) and at bats (345)
9. Jesse Orosco, Orioles 1978 1979 1,181
Nine games shy of Dennis Eckersley's record for appearances;
scorched lately--7.32 ERA in 19 2/3 innings
10. Doug Jones, A's 1978 1982 1,039
Nine years in minors, now closing in on 300 big league saves
(294, including three in '99)
in the BOX
July 18, 1999
Astros 2, Indians 0
Potential playoff opponents take note: It turns out that the
Indians, who through Sunday led the majors with a .295 team
batting average, are human. Of course, the way he pitched this
game, Houston lefthander Mike Hampton would have made Murderers'
Row look feeble. He held Cleveland to four hits in handing the
Indians just their second shutout this year and provided a
blueprint for other staffs that will be charged with stopping
the Tribe in October.
The plan? First, start a lefthander: At week's end Cleveland had
hit .278 against southpaws, compared to .301 against
righthanders. Second, keep the ball low: Two of the Indians'
four hits were infield singles, and Hampton allowed only five
balls hit to the outfield. He got 15 outs on ground balls.
Cleveland, like all power teams, looks far less fearsome when
it's beating the ball into the dirt.
the HOT corner
Alan Trammell says he may resign as the Tigers' hitting coach
after this season if the team's offense doesn't pick up. The
disappointing seasons of first baseman Tony Clark (.245, 11 home
runs, 43 RBIs through Sunday) and rightfielder Bobby Higginson
(.241, nine homers, 37 RBIs) have contributed to Detroit's .258
team average, which is second worst in the American League to
the Athletics' .243. "The bottom line is we're graded on
results--wins and losses," Trammell says of a Tigers team that
was 37-55. "If you grade our team and myself, our grade isn't
White Sox shortstop Mike Caruso, seemingly cured of the yips
after an error-rich rookie year (35, most in the majors at any
position last season), has reverted to '98 form. Caruso, who
committed just five miscues in the first 52 games this season,
had 11 in his next 24 starts. Manager Jerry Manuel is giving
rookie infielder Craig Wilson (.267, three errors in 47 games)
an extended look at short....
If Paul Byrd has run out of gas, the Phillies' playoff hopes may
have ended as well. Byrd, a 28-year-old righty who emerged from
obscurity to go 10-3 in his first 14 starts and earn an All-Star
berth, was just 1-3 with a 6.82 ERA in his last five starts.
That stretch brought his season total to a whopping 127 2/3
innings--the 13th highest total in the National League. "I
definitely think about what my arm has gone through," he says....
Don't believe the Ed Sprague to Cleveland rumors. Indians
general manager John Hart, in need of starting pitching more
than another bat, says he'll probably wait until third baseman
Travis Fryman (partially torn posterior collateral ligament)
returns from the DL in September, eschewing Sprague, the
Pirates' third baseman, who at 32 is having a career year (.307,
18 homers, 59 RBIs). "I'm not going to give up a quality
prospect for a guy we'll use for two months," says Hart....
Before his two-run blast against the Angels last Saturday,
Dodgers rightfielder Raul Mondesi had gone a career-long 113 at
bats without hitting a home run....
The Braves and the Pirates approached Devil Rays G.M. Chuck
LaMar about acquiring veteran catcher Joe Oliver, who is batting
.298 for Triple A Durham (N.C.), but Tampa Bay refused to let
him go. Infuriated, the 34-year-old Oliver is considering
After the A's turned down a package of righthander Brett Tomko
and outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, Reds G.M. Jim Bowden officially
took his team out of the running for lefthander Kenny Rogers.