July 15, 1999
Another Blown Call?
This time, the umpires may have ejected themselves
The umpires' Wednesday proclamation that they will all gradually resign between now and September 4th might be the worst decision in baseball since...well, since Rich Garcia said it didn't matter if Oscar Maier caught the ball, it was a home run. Legal wrangling aside, this is a battle the Men in Black can't win, and that baseball would have to try very hard to lose.
Two factors validate baseball's new get-tough policy with umpires, which is the ostensible cause of the MIB's blustering. First, the declining quality of umpiring, particularly in the postseason, has cheapened the game. The annual controversies embarrass the game every October, at a time when it should be basking in the glory of the annual championship run.
Umpiring problems are not new to either the game itself or the postseason; human error in umpiring is part of the game, for better or for worse. However, the past few years have seen a drastic increase in blown calls and other mistakes (e.g., Garcia getting in the way of a batted ball last October) in the postseason, opening new cans of worms.
While many blame the poor quality of umpiring on the umpires' union's anachronistic system of assigning postseason jobs by seniority, a large part of the problem actually stems from the umpires' lack of accountability to anyone. Umpires are never graded on performance, and are never removed for job-related reasons. Tony Gwynn may endure criticism for his obtruding gut, but you could fit five of those guts into on-again/off-again umpire Eric Gregg's stomach, and still have room for two umpire egos.
Any athlete who arrived for work as out of shape as many umpires would be farmed out or released, and would find himself bouncing from team to team until he ate himself out of the game entirely. Umpires have no such competitive dynamic to keep them in shape, and the only way an overweight umpire can be removed from his job is when he gets the Call, as happened to the late John McSherry.
The second factor justifying MLB's attack on the MIB is the apparent opinion of the umpires' union that baseball works for them, and not the other way around. The proximate cause of this walkout is MLB's decision to suspend Tom Hallion for three days after he bumped Rockie reliever Mike DeJean in an on-field dispute.
Here, chief blowhard Richie Phillips has sorely miscalculated. The players could strike successfully because there is no game without them. Replacement players just wouldn't cut it with the fans, a point driven home in the spring of 1995. However, fans won't bat an eye if MLB has to resort to using replacement umpires; in fact, the September 4th deadline gives the majors the opprtunity to call up minor-league umpires, who arguably can't be any worse than Rich Garcia and some of his partners in postseason crime.
Sandy Alderson's response to the umpires' public display of absurdity--"This is either a threat to be ignored, or an offer to be accepted"--was right on target. MLB had been hoping all along to deal with the umpiring problem before next season. The umpires' miscalculation has both accelerated the process and given the majors public relations cover to slash and burn their newest foes.