EARLIER this month, most of Major League Baseball's umpires submitted their resignations effective Sept. 2 -- that is with about a month to go in the regular season. The leader of the umps' union, Richie Phillips, said that if his members' grievances weren't attended to, they would "take their $15 1/2 million [in severance money] and sit back and watch the game dissolve."
To no one's great surprise -- except, apparently, a number of about-to-be-former umpires -- baseball's high command didn't seem at all alarmed. "This is either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted," said one of the game's executives as the major leagues went about hiring replacements. Some of the umpires soon sought to rescind their resignations, and a few called for a new union chief. Last week the union went to court seeking the right for its resigned members to stay on the job if they wish to do so. By the following day, however, all the resigning umpires had sought to un-resign. A number of them, however, are likely to be out of a job.
All of which is of about as much interest to the average fan as, well, the names of the umpiring crew for tonight's game. For the obvious truth is that people don't pay to see the umpires -- and they especially don't pay to see players and managers whom they traveled miles to watch ejected in the second inning for what often appear to be arbitrary and capricious reasons by increasingly thin-skinned arbiters.
The umps have come a long way in terms of pay and working conditions in the past decade, and also in the power their union wields. At the same time, slow-motion replays and television's relentless focus on the pitching game and the calls on balls and strikes have put them under a degree of scrutiny never known before.
Baseball, at this point, is moving to regain some of its power over the officiating -- to have more authority to deal with umpires it thinks aren't doing a good job and maybe to get everybody using a standardized strike zone. To most fans -- used to calling 'em as they see 'em -- this seems a reasonable enough program. The umpires are going to have to do some accommodating.