It has been a grim week for athletic labor. The silliest strike in memory-by soccer players-came to an end, in part because of a larger strike-by fans. Major league umpires still are striking-out. And the NF of L is showing how owners usually turn something fair into a sham.
For more than a decade, much of America has been ignoring pro soccer. And the brief strike did bring the sport as much attention as most games. A few more weeks without at least the quasi-gifted players, though, and the North American Soccer League might well have been fatally wounded.
Meanwhile, baseball is killing its umpires. If ever an issue grabbed a commissioner as being in the best interest of his sport, it would be to raise the standard of living for umps. But Booie Kuhn has taken his usual firm stand-squarely behind the owners.
Baseball has shown that a quality umpire is its most expendable asset. And most fans could not care less about who makes the decisions each game-as long as every one of those calls benefits their favorite team. Oakland drew just 653 the other night not because the Bay Area has a deep affection for Marty Springstead.
The players are grumbling, but perhaps as much because they have lost their edge with these new faces behind the masks as on grounds of moral indignation.
Like most fans, most players regard a good umpire as one who favors them most frequently. Or at least has been around long enough for patterns to become evident to the serious player.
The strike zone, like beauty, is said to be in the eye of the beholder-and pitchers and hitters with minds often are able to observe the habits of umps over the years and use them to advantage.
All of a sudden there is no edge.
Some other players growling about incompetence might sense an imminent end to the strike and hope the picketing arbiters will recall their kind words during a tense game. Or they might be genuinely sympathetic.
The latter is the only hope the umpires have for anything more than a few crumbs to be tossed their way. For the umps to win, some games must stop. The winner in strikes is not the most virtuous team but the one with the most power. And the players are the umps' only heavy-hitting ally.
They need Marvin Miller and all they have is Richie Phillips, a .112 hitter.
Still, there was one fresh wave of wisdom from two of the new umps Wednesday night in Yankee Stadium. They worked as a team-and allowed justice to prevail for the Orioles.
Their Doug DeCinces had bunted some Tommy John junk off his leg and the ump behind the plate ruled him out for touching the ball in fair territory. DeCinces and Manager Earl Weaver convinced the plate ump to send the call to arbitration, to see what the first-base ump saw.
Regular umps would rather swallow their chest protectors than ask for help. This one did. And then he did something even more startling. He reversed his decision, when his first-base colleage correctly argued the ball hit DeCinces in the batter's box.
Baseball can exist without its striking umps.They are a luxury-what bernaise sauce is to a dinner and oboes to an orchestra. Or power steering to a car. And a sport that can thrive with bench jockeys earning six-figure salaries can afford to give its least appreciated employes what they deserve.
Move now to the executive suite of the NFL team. As owner, you have the chance to get one of the best defensive linemen in the league for a second-round draft choice. Or at least you have the chance to TRY for a Too Tall Jones or John Dutton.
How is that possible?
Well, Jones and Dutton are free agents, which means they may switch teams if their present employers, the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Colts, respectively, agree to take draft-choice compensation rather than match the best outside offer.
Now another team can make a splendid offer to a splendid player and surrender relatively nothing. This is possible by promising a long-term contract with most of the money in the early years.
A Jones could be offered, say, $150,000 the first two years and then the minimum $32,000 the next four years. The average salary-under the compensation guidelines-would call for only the exchange of a second-round draft choice-if Dallas refuses to match the offer.
Of course as the Bears' Jim Finks insists, the player must accept an offer such as this before he brings it back to his team. And the fashionable trend now in sports is for a player to get as much money as possible as quickly as possible. Why wait for a rainy day with so many tax shelter umbrellas available?
So the decision seems obvious. Even without calling Ken Beatrice you know enough to dazzle a Dutton or Jones with wonderful numbers, especially when they can be arranged either to force relatively small compensation or throw two teams for a financial loss.
Incredibly, nobody made an offer to either player, or at least one worthy of attention. Nobody bid for two of the best players in probably the most critical area of pro football.
And nobody bid for 136 of the other 142 free agents.
"Owners are constantly looking for loopholes, like this one," said Ed Garvey, NFL Players Association executive director. "Except now they're looking to seal 'em off, to keep salaries as low as possible.
"They're building up pressure (among the players) and very soon the lid will go off. It's only a matter of when."