Thursday, August 05, 1999

Umps have only Phillips to blame




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Richie Phillips has struck out swinging, but he still wants to argue. He should be thrown out of the game, but the umpires can't seem to reach a consensus.

        Which, when you think about it, was Phillips' big problem in the first place: too many umpires with minds of their own.

        The baseball arbiters union has been smashed for lack of solidarity. Phillips ordered a suicide mission — a power play based on mass resignations — and some of the rank and file had the good sense to reason why. The strategy was crazy. Most of the umps aren't.

        Rarely has a labor leader misjudged his constituents more catastrophically. Twenty-seven of the 68 major-league umpires refused to resign (effective Sept.2) or quickly rescinded their letters. Ultimately all of the umpires caved. If the strike zone suddenly seems a little lower, it is because the men in blue are now on their knees.

        Phillips filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday, trying to reverse the 22 resignations baseball chose to accept. On first blush, his legal arguments appear flimsy. If the NLRB should find in favor of the umps, it could be only on the grounds of incompetent counsel.

He shot first ...
        You don't have to be Eugene V. Debs to know you shouldn't submit a letter of resignation unless you're serious about quitting. You don't make a threat if you aren't willing to follow through. You never start a fight you can't finish.

        Remember the scene in Patton where the stubborn donkeys are blocking the tank column from crossing a bridge? The umpires' position was similarly untenable. Since they lack the clout to shut down the sport, their choice is to stay out of the way or get tossed aside.

        Typically, Phillips has chosen confrontation. Invariably, his tactics have infuriated baseball's hierarchy. Tired of being trounced by the players in labor disputes, the owners find fulfillment in waging whatever wars they can win. They regard the umpires not as dangerous adversaries, but as bugs to be squashed.

        “Once it was clear that we broke apart, any further actions (by baseball) were just to inflict casualties,” Phillips told the Philadelphia Daily News. “They want to take prisoners and they want to execute them. They've already won. They've won the war. A union that always seemingly stood together has had its weaknesses exposed.”

        The strength of the umpires is their character and consistency, their professionalism under pressure, their tolerance, their tact. But as Phillips has improved their working conditions, their salaries and their benefits, he has undermined their image. The umpires are now widely perceived — in some cases, deservedly — as needlessly combative and increasingly unaccountable.

... asked questions later
        Too many of today's umps are as irascible as Joe West and too few as mellow as Randy Marsh. Too many of them are significantly out of shape and were long before the death of John McSherry. Too many mediocre umpires call too many postseason games because of a rotation system that rewards seniority above skill. Too many inferior umpires became as secure as tenured professors.

        Had the umpires not resigned en masse, baseball probably would havepurged some of them at the end of the season. The union's contract expires Dec.31, and some members suspect management was prepared to force resignations by threatening benefits packages. Phillips' strategy was designed, at least in part, as a pre-emptive strike.

        The idea was to force baseball to find replacements at the most critical time of the season. But because their collective bargaining agreement forbids strikes, the umpires were obliged to submit their resignations individually. This made them more vulnerable, more uneasy and more wobbly in their conviction.

        That Richie Phillips could have misread the mood of his constituents is remarkable. That he still has a job is incredible.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE