Make no mistake, major league umpires are where they are because of union counsel Richie Phillips.
His ill-conceived strategy has split the union along a bitter fault line, pitting partner against partner, wife against wife, while leading to the dismissal of 22 umpires, effective Sept. 2, the date their resignations were to have been implemented.
It's this simple:
Given management's distaste for his confrontational style during a long history of labor disputes and its desire to establish greater accountability and control through centralization of the umpires under the commissioner's office, Phillips had to know that submitting mass resignations was like feeding sirloin to a pit bull.
The question is:
Did baseball have to respond quite so voraciously, hiring 25 minor league umpires as full-time replacements and accepting the resignations of 13 National and nine American League umpires--crossing both seniority and ability lines in the process?
The question, further, is:
If Phillips' strategy was truly designed to get management to the bargaining table--their agreement expires Dec. 31--then couldn't baseball have accepted it for what it was, expressed annoyance, but responded more compassionately?
After all, at some point baseball will have to negotiate a new working agreement with some type of umpires' union, whether it is headed by Phillips or not, and at this particular point, baseball was in position to be magnanimous--and still is.
After all, management has Phillips on the ropes, his union divided and most legal and public opinion on its side, providing fans care at all if a group often perceived as arrogant, as bigger than the game, chooses to resign en masse.
The point is:
Instead of inviting a new round of legal battles, of suits and countersuits, baseball was in position to withhold the haymaker that is 22 dismissals in favor of a feint, a jab and a negotiated armistice. Couldn't that have been the course? Shouldn't that have been the course?
History pervades the situation--as it does the relationship between players and management--and baseball never seems to learn from history.
In this case, baseball officials said, Phillips had gone right for the throat again and they weren't going to negotiate in response to a threat. Nor could they risk coming up to Sept. 2 without an umpiring staff.
"There were at least eight days between the time Richie submitted the resignations and baseball began to hire replacements," a source said. "It was not as if we jumped immediately and accepted them all as some sort of windfall."
Forty-two umpires, an illustration of the failed strategy, rescinded their resignations last Tuesday.
Several others had done so earlier and were saved from the ax.
How did 57 umpires agree to the tactic to start with?
"We assumed too much," said one, referring to the meeting July 14 at which Phillips recommended it. "We were all stupid to not have asked more questions, but Richie never indicated he intended to submit the resignations the next day.
"We assumed he would use it only as a threat or that there would be more discussions about it between himself and our board. We assumed that the resignations could always be rescinded if they were submitted. He didn't tell us that baseball was under no legal obligation to accept a rescinding. In my case, I found out about that from my own lawyer a few days later."
Phillips has helped lift the umpires' salaries, pensions and per diem payments to levels where none of that is a major negotiating issue anymore.
Umpires, in general, are more concerned with what they perceive to be management's deteriorating respect and the ongoing absence of a code of conduct promised in the aftermath of the Roberto Alomar-John Hirschbeck spitting incident two years ago. They have specific concerns with the strike-zone issue, the fact that home teams were asked to monitor ball and strike calls this year and that amateur umpires are used as supervisors in the minor leagues.
There also is no question but that National League umpires strongly oppose the centralization that management deems critical to establishing greater accountability. Umpires now are virtually immune to demotion and termination.
"They still don't want to hear anything about accountability," a baseball source said. "They still don't get it. There's a culture of distrust that clearly comes from their leadership."
Phillips contends that the umpires' bargaining contract is with the two leagues and has generally rejected overtures from Sandy Alderson, who is Commissioner Bud Selig's executive vice president for baseball operations and the man who would supervise the umpires if centralized.
Alderson had notified Jerry Crawford, a National League umpire and president of the union, that he would have a bargaining proposal ready by July 1. He later called Crawford and said the proposal wasn't finished but that he was hopeful of presenting it by mid-July or early August.