THE UMPIRES STRIKE RACK

Once baseball's invisible men, umpires are bringing attention to themselves these days with their feisty attitudes
April 02, 1984

They say that an umpire is doing his job when he's invisible. "The greatest compliment I could be paid," says former National League umpire Tom Gorman, "was when somebody asked, 'Who umped that game?' "

But in 1983, the 100th anniversary of the profession, umpires were very visible—and often in a most unflattering light. Umps don't really care for instant replays, but here they are:

•On May 15 Ken Kaiser ejected Baltimore's Eddie Murray for trying to show him up, but when his manager, Joe Altobelli, objected to the ejection, Kaiser charged after Altobelli and had to be intercepted by his crew chief, Larry Barnett. Orioles general manager Hank Peters filed a protest with the American League office, stating, "It appears a personality conflict has developed, which caused me to question how objective a person can be.... He just lost control of himself and felt he was more important than the game."

•On June 28 Atlanta manager Joe Torre followed umpire Joe West toward West's dressing room to protest West's ejection of pinch hitter Bob Watson, who had thrown his bat following a third-strike call that ended the game. West turned around to confront Torre, pushed him and then raised his arm as if to ward him off. The National League fined Torre $200 but also fined West $300 and handed out the first suspension of a league umpire (three days, with pay) in 44 years. West didn't have a specific crew assignment this spring and faced the prospect of spending 1984 as a floater.

•On July 11, following a heated argument with Kansas City's Willie Wilson, umpire Joe Brinkman told the press, "I could write him up [in a report to the league office], but I'm not going to because he'll be going [thrown out] every night when I see him, anyhow...whenever he looks at me cross-eyed or just looks at me. If he apologizes, I'll run him. I just don't care if the man ever plays a baseball game when I'm on the field ever, ever again." Fortunately, Brinkman did not carry through his extraordinary threat the rest of the series. But he soon was embroiled in a greater controversy with Kansas City.

•On July 24, in the infamous Pine Tar Game between the New York Yankees and Kansas City, Brinkman's crew disallowed George Brett's apparent game-winning home run in the ninth inning because the sticky substance was too high up Brett's bat. "I have a bad feeling all of this is because of me," said Wilson. In fact, Brinkman's crew hadn't been out to "get" anybody; American League president Lee MacPhail overturned their decision because they didn't know the relevant rules. Tim McClelland, the plate umpire in the game, defended the crew's work by stating, "If somebody wants to make a farce of the rules, we'll just have to be men and take it."

For the umps, losing their dignity became an all-too-frequent event last season. They refused to work the Mayor's Trophy Game, a charity contest between the Mets and Yankees that benefits sand-lot baseball in New York, for reasons related to their 1979 strike. Also, Dale Ford sued Yankee manager Billy Martin for calling him a "stone liar." And then there was Satch Davidson, who on July 29 responded to a protest by San Diego pitcher John Montefusco by ripping off his mask, racing to the mound and angrily berating him.

So much for the old notion of invisibility. Umpires today are more arrogant and confrontational than ever before. They're supposed to be above it all, but they seem to be dishing out the dirt with the rest of the boys. Or, as Detroit manager Sparky Anderson puts it, "You get their dandruff up and they'll get up."

Temperaments aside, today's umpires are more skilled, more athletic, more intelligent, more consistent and more diligent than their predecessors. And goodness knows their lot isn't easy. Even with their much-deserved strides in pay [salaries start at $26,000-per-year and reach $70,000 after 20 years] and working conditions [two weeks vacation in season], umpires are still underpaid and overworked. Surely, nobody else would put up with the crap they put up with. "You try keeping your temper when some manager is calling you a [10-letter word] 62 times," says Bill Haller, a once-revered ump who's now an American League assistant supervisor.

It takes a hard man to endure that, and these are hard men. Their continued ostracism of the umpires who came up during the 79 strike borders on the absurd, and shows no signs of softening. Once again this spring the five remaining members of the Class of '79 weren't allowed to join the union.

"People don't realize that during the strike umpires weren't facing just the loss of a job but the loss of a profession," says Richie Phillips, who heads their union. "Where else can an umpire go? They have a right to feel special. They have a higher opinion of themselves than ever before, and they want the respect they feel is coming to them."

But respect must be earned, and at times last season it was given grudgingly at best. Torre on West: "He goes out of his way to look for trouble. He always does. It's a shame, because he's a pretty good umpire." Milwaukee coach Dave Garcia on Steve Palermo: "He's an excellent umpire, probably the best in the league, but he's a very arrogant kid." Seattle pitcher Jim Beattie on Kaiser: "He's a good all-around umpire, but he likes to challenge people. He'd be better off if he weren't so stiff on the field."

This isn't isolated criticism, either. People throughout baseball are concerned about the umps' increasingly aggressive demeanor. In 1982 National League president Chub Feeney issued a midseason bulletin stating he had received more complaints that year than in any since he took office in 1970. The complaints, he said, were about "careless calls, bad plate work, bad attitude and being too quick on the trigger to throw managers and players out of the game." Obviously, Feeney felt that his umps weren't paying enough attention to the National League's nine rules of deportment (see box, page 74). Today, that same feeling seems to exist everywhere.

To baseball men, the umpire problem is a product of the umps' strike in 1979. Says one American League manager, "The attitude of umpires has changed greatly in the last three to six years, and especially so since the strike. The young guys have become more arrogant. They seem to know there aren't enough of them to go around and that their jobs are secure, so they're arrogant [10-letter word, plural]."

California manager John McNamara says, "None of them can take as much heat as they used to. It's difficult to walk away from an umpire these days. They follow you. That's not the way it used to be. You could present your case, walk away, and that was it. Now they come after you, looking to run you." According to Whitey Herzog, the Cardinals' manager, "The umps' attitude isn't as good as it was before the strike. And some have been bitter because they didn't feel they were backed up enough during the strike by the players."

John Schuerholz, general manager of the Royals, is sympathetic to umpires, but he also senses a change: "They seem to have more of a forceful presence than in the past. I know they're in a no-win situation, but they don't have to be ogres. There are good cops and bad cops, and most of them are good. But every once in a while the umpires get angry and defensive, and it's been my experience that when someone gets that way—in any walk of life—that person is insecure and uncertain, for whatever reason."

"They seem to take things more personally," says Seattle manager Del Crandall, "and think they're under personal attack when that's not what is intended. It's different than the way it used to be." Mariner coach Vada Pinson says simply, "Some of them seem to have a chip on their shoulder."

California's Rod Carew would certainly agree with that. In a game against Pinson's Mariners last year Carew got into an argument with plate umpire Greg Kosc over a strike call, and it ended with the usual result.

In his version of what happened, Carew asked, "Where was the pitch?"

"At the knee," said Kosc.

"Knees my ass," said Carew. "What did you say?" Kosc demanded.

"You heard what I said," Carew answered. It went back and forth this way several times before Kosc gave Carew the heave-ho.

McNamara said later that Kosc had merely misunderstood what Carew had said. Kosc said he hadn't misunderstood anything.

This was a noteworthy incident because Carew has an excellent reputation for politeness among umpires; they've ejected him only "four or five" times, he says, in his 17 major league seasons. On this evening, though, Carew unloaded. "I've never had an umpire try to get me to repeat something so he can throw me out of the game," Carew charged. "But Kosc has always been that way. A big mouth.... I don't know what they're doing, umpiring in the big leagues. They think they can get away with murder."

Criticism of umpires is as old as the profession, of course. Dick Butler, the American League supervisor of umpires, has in his files an owner's letter that was sent to league president Will Harridge more than 50 years ago. Says Butler, "He accuses the umpires of being domineering, lazy and arrogant. One word he used was 'Bolshevik.' " The complaints are the same today, although Bolshevik has been replaced by "union activist."

Judging umpires is such a subjective task that inevitably some arbiters deemed among the top five by one team are banished to the bottom five by another. Also, for every manager who complains about the umpires, three managers have nothing but praise for them.

"I think we're fortunate in baseball to have as many competent umpires as we have," says Pirates manager Chuck Tanner. "I used to pray they'd settle the strike, get the umpires back. You know, when you have something good going and lose it, you get to know quickly what you're missing."

Most everybody wants an umpire to be "firm and fair," but that can be a very fine line. If an umpire tries to bend over backward to accommodate everyone, he's viewed as being weak and will lose control of the game. "I've got a guy in the American League," says Haller, "whose judgment is as good as anyone's. But he never throws anybody out of a game, so I can't give him high marks. If you're not running people, it means you're not making the tough calls, you're not calling balks or fan interference or obstruction." The crusty Al Barlick, who should be in the Hall of Fame along with some other neglected umpires, particularly Nestor Chylak, takes a hard line on softness, saying, "If we were meant to be diplomats, we'd be out there in top hats, tails and striped pants."

There are great umps and there are bad umps. Fortunately this year the American League has lost two of its lowest-rated officials to retirement—George Maloney and Russ Goetz (nicknamed Rough Guess). Unfortunately, the National League has lost Ed Vargo and could conceivably lose Doug Harvey at the end of next season to the normal retirement age of 55. Both have been considered among the best.

But let's hope Harvey stays around to teach better manners to some of the younger umps. West, for instance. He was 23 years old when he reached the majors in September 1976, but his deportment doesn't match his technical skill. "The supervisors in every league I've ever worked have discussed my temperament with me," he says. "And I've talked to Haller and Harvey about it. They think I'll grow out of that, and I do, too. Last year I had fewer ejections [one fewer, actually] than ever before. I try to be a perfectionist, and I expect other people to do their job as well as I do mine."

If, as Gorman suggests, the best umps are invisible, say hello to Jim McKean of the American League. The American League's Butler, who has overseen league umps since 1969, says of McKean, "He has the best attitude of any umpire I've ever had." McKean, 38, is a cheerful fellow, a former quarterback in the Canadian Football League, now in his 12th year in the majors. "If it seems that we're willing to take less, it may be because we're getting more," he contends. "We may have changed, but I think the players have changed, too. They don't have quite as much respect for umpires as they used to. I think I can say that as mad as I've wanted to get, I've never lost control of a situation. I'm a good policeman."

It's hard to say John McSherry isn't noticed in the National League because at 6'2½", 300 pounds he makes your average sumo wrestler look like Freddie Patek. But he's also vastly underrated. "He would be in our top five," says league supervisor Blake Cullen, "but we have to knock him down for appearance. He's like a big, friendly cop on the beat."

"We make mistakes," says officer McSherry. "But when we make a mistake, it's like the mistake a cop makes out on the street in the middle of the night. You can't know what it's like until you're out there."

True enough, but it certainly wouldn't hurt the umpires in both leagues to check out those nine rules of deportment once in a while. Every home plate needs to be brushed off occasionally.

PHOTOMany baseball people complain that Barnett and his fellow "cops" have strayed into foul territory.
THREE PHOTOSWhile Vargo tried to keep peace, the temperamental West and Montreal's Bill Virdon had it out in May. West made sure he got in the last word. PHOTO"If it seems that we're willing to take less," says McKean, "it may be because we're getting more." PHOTOKosc, in animated conversation here, is a "big mouth," Carew says. PHOTOMcSherry's bottom line, simply, is this: "You can't know what it's like until you're out there."

GOOD BEHAVIOR IS NEVER OUT

All umps would be safe from critics if they followed the National League's nine rules of deportment

1—Cooperate with the other umpires working with you. Help each other. Don't hesitate to ask for assistance from each other if you are blocked on a play. The main objective is to have all decisions ultimately correct.

2—Keep all personalities out of your work. You must be able to forgive and forget. Every game is a new game.

3—Avoid sarcasm. Don't insist on the last word. If, after an argument, a player is walking away—let him go!

4—Never charge a player, or follow him if he is moving away—and no pointing your finger or violent gestures during an argument.

5—As concerns umpiring, there is a very old adage and a wise one—"Hear only the things you should hear—be deaf to the others."

6—Keep your temper. A decision on an action taken in anger is never sound.

7—Watch your language! For an umpire to act or use, toward a player, coach or manager, language which, if used toward an umpire, would result in the player, coach or manager being disciplined—will not be condoned.

8—If the manager or captain has a legitimate point to argue under the rules, it is your duty to listen to him. An umpire can do this with dignity and no loss of respect. Be understanding—remember, the players are engaged in a heated contest. You are impartial judges and should maintain a calm dignity becoming the authority you have.

9—Review your work after every game. Only by self-examination will you improve.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)