Fifteen years ago, Steve Fields was a young man with a steady railroad job. Sometimes, he earned extra cash by umpiring high school games, often on the same Alexandria fields where he'd played and dreamed of the majors.
Then one day, a couple of Washington Senator acquaintances-- Moose Skowron and Ed Brinkman-- told the big, husky guy that he worked a nice game, knew the sport and, maybe, ought to aim a little higher.
Steve Fields did. Now, he wonders if that was a mistake.
This summer, Fields, 41, plans to work those same Alexandria schoolboy games. This time, it won't be a lark. One season after calling strikes on Pete Rose, he'll do it because he needs the $33 a game.
"I've given the game 14 years of my life. Now I'm wiped out," said Fields, fired as a National League umpire this winter. After two months of being unemployed, he has found only one part-time job--driving an oil truck for a friend on snowy days.
Of his future, he says, "I feel like I've been 10,000 places for jobs. All I know is baseball. I ain't got nothing. I'm just that scab ump who got fired."
Fields, approaching middle age, finds himself with no job, no vesting in any pension fund, no hospitalization or life insurance, no education beyond high school and no practical work experience. When he returned to the post office and the railroad yard, hoping to pick up one of the modest careers he'd left behind, they looked at him like he was crazy.
Fields, who was hired as a replacement when major league umpires went on strike in 1979, has his psychic prop. He says he's going to sue the major leagues.
"Baseball used me when they needed me," he said. "Now they're discarding me. They told me I was fired for incompetence, but I think I know the real reason. Baseball's afraid of another umpires' strike this spring, so they decided to throw a bone to the umpires' union to appease them. I'm the bone.
"After what I've been through, I've got to do something. I may get squat, but I'm doin' it for the other seven nonunion umps. They can't exist like this indefinitely. They'll all go crazy."
"I don't think Steve is going to be alone. By the end of the spring, I don't think there will be any scabs left," predicted San Diego pitcher John Curtis. "The union umpires have let the leagues know, 'Get rid of these guys or you'll have problems.' "
"That offends me. It's just not the case," retorted Blake Cullen of the National League office, the man who told Fields of both his hiring and his firing. "Our contract is out with the umpires this spring, and we're negotiating, but I don't believe what happened to Steve has any connection.
"I feel terrible for Steve. He's got a great temperament for the game, like a big cop on the beat. I couldn't sleep the night I learned he'd been hit in the face (by a foul ball) and bled the whole game 'cause nobody would go and help him . . . Sure these (nonunion) guys come up short, 'cause of what they're up against . . . Steve just had the lowest ratings in the league and we had to let him go . . . We had 28 umpires last year and that's too many . . . 26 or 24 works better."
"I don't blame Fields for what he's said about why he thinks he was fired. It's a reasonable position," said Paul Runge, president of the umpires' union. "However, I don't think that all of what we call 'The Class of '79' will be fired just because we want them to be.
" . . . You can't tell me that the leagues didn't put the hammer to those guys' heads. I think it was made clear they either came up and broke our picket line, or else they'd never make the majors. Guys making $8,000 a year are offered two-year contracts in the majors at $18,000. It amazes me there were umps, like Randy Marsh, who refused to come up. Four of those guys are still in the bushes . . . a guy's got to be nuts to go into this profession.
"Maybe our union position would have been better if we'd let 'em cross our lines . . . just treated them as acceptable part-time replacements who'd go back.
"Our position now is we treat 'em as professionals, but, off the field, you can do as you wish. The main point is it's not our fault, or the fault of the Class of '79. It's the league presidents who created this situation. The blame goes to them."
Still, Fields has endured three seasons of hell. In bleak moods, he says, "Maybe I was lucky to be fired and get out of it with my sanity."
Since 1979, Fields has lived out one of the ugliest episodes in baseball history--the ostracism of the union umpires.
"I've only had one civil sentence spoken to me by another umpire. I met up with a new crew in Atlanta and I was in the toilet. The crew chief snuck in, opened the door a crack and whispered, 'You're working second base tonight.'
"All I've heard has been sarcasm and silence. They room in different hotels, take different airplanes. Once, when I was stepping on a plane in Houston, the rest of my crew saw me, turned around and took another flight.
"I wouldn't lower myself to these guys' level. I swallowed so much . . .
"In Cincinnati last season, I was hit in the chin with a foul ball that required seven stitches after the game. But none of the other umps would take my place. They just let me stand there for three hours and bleed. Every inning, I'd go into the Reds' dugout and their trainer would put on butterfly stitches and patches. But every inning, from the sweat and moving your jaw yelling out pitches, it would all bust open and I'd bleed like a stuck pig.
"I had to completely change the way I umpired," said Fields, the oldest ump in the bushes when called up in '79, working the last seven of his 11 seasons in the International League. "Your hands are tied because you get no help. In the minors, I never took crap off anybody. I always tried to have fun. In the majors, you had to hide because once you did anything, both teams would eat you alive.
"They'll do anything to distract you, make you blow a play, make you mad. In Wrigley Field last year, they figured a way to make me work both games of a doubleheader behind the plate. You feel in an uproar all the time."
Ballplayers don't miss these tricks. "No human being should be treated like Steve Fields," said Pittsburgh catcher Steve Nicosia. "In the minors, Fields was the best umpire I ever had . . . always had a smile on his face and some crazy joke. In the majors, you'd say, 'Hi, Steve,' and he didn't do anything, like he didn't even want to acknowledge that he was there."
"I've known Steve Fields since I broke in with Durham in '69," said ex-Phillie Bob Boone. "He's a good guy and a decent ump. What's happened to him sickens me. It's inhumane . . . I'm sure his firing is because he's one of the so-called scabs. It's no coincidence."
To sense Fields' predicament, the tangled choices he's faced, we must trace his history. He's lived out baseball's attitude toward all its arbiters: kill the umpire.
"You tolerate the minors because you dream of the majors," said Fields, who spent five years as a semipro player traveling up to 1,000 miles for big league tryout camps. "In my first year, in the Midwestern League, I made $500 a month. In Cedar Rapids, the other ump and I would share a $4-a-night room by the railroad tracks next to the Ralston Purina factory. No bathroom, no fan . . . so hot at night, you had to keep the window open. The stink and smoke and whistles were unbelievable.
"Even in '78, when I was the highest-paid ump in the minors, I was making $1,600 a month. What kind of salary is that for a 37-year-old man with 11 years experience in his profession?" asked Fields. "That's about $10,000 a year, plus whatever you get in the offseason in winter ball."
Winter ball pits had their own charms. "In Mayaguez in Puerto Rico, Terry Cooney and I got an escort around the island after a game. We opened our dressing room door and two guys with machine guns said, 'Come wih us.' One look at that crowd and we didn't ask where we were going. We just went."
Fields was bypassed repeatedly by the majors, even though younger umps, who were put under his crew-chief wing for tutoring, were called up. "Maybe I was a maverick, had a little too much fun with the game," said Fields.
So, in the spring of '79 in Miami, Fields didn't agonize over the broad moral question of working in place of the striking umpires.
The call came. "What could you do?" asked Fields. "I thought about it, but the answer kept coming up, 'Gotta go.'
"My first game was J.R. Richard against Phil Niekro. The best fast ball and the best knuckle ball in the game. I was so nervous, I couldn't throw the balls back to the mound. Gave 'em to the catcher all night. The next night, Ken Forsch throws a no-hitter.
"It was my dream. Every day, the league office would call and ask, 'How're you doing? Anything you need?' We were in demand."
Few things are more subjective than evaluating an umpire. Ironically, Fields' worst rhubarb, one he believes made him vulnerable, was with Philadelphia Manager Dallas Green, an offseason friend, last season. "Ask Dallas," said Fields. "I'd care what he thinks."
Green said, "Steve's a good man and, when he first came up, performed pretty well. But, each year, I thought he lost some enthusiasm. Maybe he just got tired of fightin' 'em . . ."
Now, most of Fields' fight is gone. When the snow melts, his oil delivery job will evaporate, too. "I feel disgusted," he said, "like I've been used and thrown away."