Baseball umpiring is the most demanding of all the sports professions. Umps lead lives of constant travel, pressure and alienation, and they are asked to make a judgment on every pitch and every play. They are as essential to the game as policemen are to a town or city. Umpires deserve to be treated with the utmost respect, and—here's a radical suggestion—they deserve to be paid at least the major league players' minimum salary.
That said, there is something very wrong with the job umpires are doing in baseball. It's not their competence that's being called into question here. Some players and managers think that umpires are getting better, some think they're getting worse. But almost everybody in baseball agrees that umpires have gotten much more temperamental, confrontational and belligerent in the last few years. Old-school umpires believed that they were doing a good job when nobody noticed them. There was great dignity in the way Tom Gorman or Nestor Chylak Jr. or Augie Donatelli, who died last Thursday, would turn his back on an argument and walk away or dust off the plate. Nowadays, umpires go out of their way to be noticed:
•On May 21 in Baltimore, umpire Drew Coble reversed baseball tradition by running over to the Oriole dugout to silence manager Frank Robinson in the second inning of a game with the Twins. What did Robinson do to rile Coble? He merely signaled with his hand that a pitch to Joe Orsulak was high.
•On May 22 in Seattle, Gary Sheffield of the Brewers took a called third strike from umpire Don Denkinger in the fifth inning, and on his way back to the dugout he flipped the protective shield for his foot toward the on-deck circle. Denkinger didn't even notice, but second base umpire John Shulock did, and he needlessly threw Sheffield out of the game.
•On May 7 in Boston, Mariners manager Jim Lefebvre was ejected by home plate umpire Dale Ford for yelling, "Bear down"—possibly to Ford, but possibly not—when he didn't like a called strike on one of his players.
•On April 29 in San Diego, Joe West became enraged when the Padres did not turn off the lights quickly enough. West had ordered that the lights be turned on in the top of the seventh, with the Pirates batting, but because they were vapor lights, which require time to warm up, they didn't actually go on until Pittsburgh had finished hitting. So West directed that they be turned off so that the Padres would not have an unfair advantage. When the stadium superintendent could not be found, West ended up yelling at San Diego p.r. man Mike Swanson over the phone. Says one Padres coach, "I don't know why it is, but it seems we always have a fight with Joe West whenever he's doing our games."
Because they fear reprisals, managers, coaches and players demand anonymity when talking about umpires. Says one American League skipper, "I think basically the umpiring is good. But I also think the umpires hold grudges. What bothers managers the most is the attitude of the umpires. They seem to go out of their way to get into arguments."
Jerry Dale is a former major league ump who was released in 1985 because of a knee injury. Now an adjunct professor of business and social science at Maryville (Tenn.) College and an African safari guide (no joke), Dale is concerned with the change in umpires' demeanor. "When an umpire stay's calm," he says, "he will elicit the same type of response from a player or manager. If the umpire gets mad, he's only pouring gasoline on the flames. Bad language is one thing—an umpire shouldn't tolerate that. But I was always taught that you were doing a good job if the fans didn't notice you. They're not paying $10 to see the star thrown out of the game."
The overbearing behavior starts at the top with Richie Phillips, the head of the umpires' union. Over the years, Phillips has won the umps some overdue advances in wages and benefits, but he has also encouraged an us-versus-them attitude that has filtered down to the field.
As it happens, the umpires have a friend in commissioner Fay Vincent, as they had in Bart Giamatti and Peter Ueberroth before him. Vincent recently won approval for a $500 a month raise for minor league umpires. It's a pipe dream, perhaps, but what if baseball gave umpires the financial security and working conditions they deserve in exchange for increased accountability (it is virtually impossible to fire bad umps), improved fitness (there are some woefully out-of-shape umps) and a new, or rather the old, attitude? Umpires should answer to one central authority instead of to the two league presidents. Now they are reluctant to discipline or criticize umpires for fear of running afoul of Phillips.
And while we're at it, why not eliminate the rotation system by which umpires are chosen for postseason and All-Star games? The public and the teams playing in those games deserve the best, and a merit system might give the umpires an incentive to improve. And there is room for improvement.