Thursday, March 6, 1997
Vigilante umpires
are way off base


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

File the latest uprising from the umpires union under the heading Empty Threats. Despite their legitimate grievances and understandable frustration, baseball's arbiters are not about to start ejecting players arbitrarily.

The vast majority of major-league umps are too professional to adopt the petty program of retribution prescribed Tuesday by union chief Richie Phillips. Those few who cannot rise above the Roberto Alomar fiasco will inspire ridicule and invite suspension.

Baseball will not be held hostage by the game's most expendable uniformed personnel. End of story.

Unable to obtain disciplinary concessions from the Major League Baseball Players Association, Phillips has resorted to his standard sabre-rattling.

''Umpires will no longer bend over backwards to keep players in the game ...'' he said. ''Players who engage in aberrant behavior can expect an immediate ejection and little conversation.''

Phillips never found a fight he couldn't escalate. He is the same guy who threatened a wildcat strike during the playoffs last year, knowing he was contractually incapable of pulling it off. He is nine parts noise and one part reason. He is, at the risk of redundancy, an attorney.

''I think they're trying to get somebody's ear,'' said Randy Marsh, the National League umpire from Kentucky. ''I just hope it doesn't get to (what Phillips prescribes). But definitely that potential is there. If that has to happen, it could cause a real ugly situation.''

Key is integrity

Whatever their frustrations with baseball's disciplinary procedures, and their understandable outrage over the Alomar episode, the umpires would be foolish to forsake baseball's moral high ground.

Their most persuasive tools are tolerance and integrity. Their belligerence is unbecoming, and serves to erode public sympathy. However righteous, frontier justice is wrongheaded.

Baseball's disciplinary code is clearly flawed, and horribly outdated. Suspensions are often manipulated so as to be served when most convenient to the club. Fines carry no clout, for their limits have not been adjusted for inflation, much less the explosion of salaries in the free-agent era. A fine that once would have represented a week's take home pay is now a few days' per diem. These conditions - umpires Jerry Crawford and Don Denkinger said in a prepared statement - were ''leading to total anarchy.''

The evidence, however, does not support such hysteria. The popular contention that the players are becoming more contentious is not borne out by the numbers. National League umpires ejected 101 players, managers and coaches last season, which was only five more ejections than were made in 1987, when the league had two fewer teams.

''I really don't think the situation has deteriorated,'' Marsh said. ''Unfortunately when there are a few situations, that's what you see on SportsCenter. I think umpires are more prepared to umpire in the big leagues when they get here.

''There are some personality conflicts in this game, just like every job. But I think day in and day out, this game has provided such a good living for all of us, there's no reason we can't do our job.''

A lot of latitude

Sure, things could be better. The Alomar case pointed up the impotence of baseball's executive branch - Where have you gone, Bowie Kuhn? - and the moral bankruptcy of the players association. Neither side can seem to deal with a problem except as a bargaining chip.

The umpires, who began the Alomar episode as victims, have consequently felt compelled to respond like vigilantes. In their desperation to be heard, they risk being seen as vengeful cranks.

Technically, the umpire's latitude is almost limitless. Section 9.01 (c) of the Official Baseball Rules says, ''Each umpire has authority to disqualify any player, coach, manager or substitute for objecting to decisions, or for unsportsmanlike conduct or language, and to eject such disqualified person from the playing field.''

In practice, umpires have always permitted a certain amount of protest as part of the game. They have not confused their ''authority'' for their importance. They should not start now.