Looking to take the first step in a labor dispute with owners, almost all major league umpires said today they will resign Sept. 2 and not work the final 4 1/2 weeks of the season.
The move was announced following a sometimes raucous meeting of the Major League Umpires Association at a hotel here.
Owners, tired of repeated fights with umpires, seemed almost pleased by the decision. Commissioner Bud Selig declined to comment and said Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner's office, would speak for him.
"This is either a threat to be ignored, or an offer to be accepted," Alderson said.
Umpires have been angry since National League President Len Coleman suspended umpire Tom Hallion on July 2 for three days for bumping a player, the first such action that baseball officials can remember.
"The tension is much greater than it's ever been," said Richie Phillips, head of the umpires' union. "Baseball is in a state of chaos."
The umpires have a contract that runs through this season and pays them $75,000 to $225,000 annually. The deal bars strikes, so the resignations are an attempt to get around that, Phillips said.
There are 68 major league umpires, and 57 attended the meeting. The other 11 were expected to announce their resignations.
Phillips said the contract calls for resigning umpires to collect a total of $15 million in severance pay. Most senior umpires would get $400,000 severance pay, and baseball would have until early January to pay.
"It might be our cheapest solution," Alderson said. "Unless I'm mistaken, I don't think these tactics have convinced a single person to be supportive. That would include the fans, the media and baseball itself."
Phillips said umpires at the meeting originally voted to strike immediately, then changed their votes and decided to resign instead.
"The purpose of this meeting was to address quarrels with baseball," Phillips said. "We wanted to come here to address those grievances."
In 1995, umpires were locked out and missed the first 86 games of the regular season. They also struck and missed the first seven weeks of the 1979 season and the first seven games of the 1984 playoffs.
Tension has been high since September 1996, when then-Baltimore Oriole Roberto Alomar was suspended for only five games for spitting in umpire John Hirschbeck's face. When umpires attempted to strike during the postseason, owners obtained an injunction in federal court.
"We decided that the union would not urge a strike in light of the collective bargaining agreement and in the interest of the fans so the season could go on in an uninterrupted fashion," Phillips said.
Phillips has tried to organize minor league umpires in recent months to try to keep them from becoming full-time replacements. Minor leaguers often are called up to fill in during vacations and interleague play.
If replacements are needed, owners could hire college and high school umpires, as they did in previous work stoppages.