Sometimes, as we all know, bad news can be a blessing in disguise. This week's boast by major league umpires, that they will all resign on Sept. 2, almost falls into this category. However, it misses in one crucial respect.
Where is the disguise?
The umpire's delusional threat is simply an unmitigated blessing for everybody in baseball -- except the umpires themselves.
Go on, make our day. No, make our year. Please, quit. All of you. Then we can start baseball's new century off as clean as a new penny. The only thing better than every umpire resigning on Sept. 2 would be if they'd all resign tomorrow. Then, they'd have less time to change their minds.
On Wednesday in Philadelphia, 57 of the 68 umps met at the feet of their spiritual guru -- union boss Richie Phillips -- and had what was described as a raucous meeting. Did they spit on pictures of Robby Alomar? Burn Bud Selig in effigy? Stick pins in a Sandy Alderson doll? Sing songs with ump Tom Hallion's name substituted for "Joe Hill"?
Somebody wipe the tears of joy off the commissioner's face. "This is either a threat to be ignored, or an offer to be accepted," said Alderson, the executive vice president of baseball operations whose job, basically, has been to goad the emotional, confrontational Phillips into an act of professional lunacy. He seems to have succeeded.
According to Phillips, the umpires' current contract, which expires after this season, calls for resigning umps to collect a total of $15 million in severance pay. (Most senior arbiters would get $400,000.) Umps already make $75,000 to $225,000 a year. That's in the same ballpark as a Supreme Court justice and the president of the United States.
"It might be our cheapest solution," Alderson said of the severance pay offer. Just a week ago when he was in Camden Yards, Alderson talked at length about the umpire situation and never ever imagined that such an option was possible.
"Unless I am mistaken, I don't think these tactics have convinced a single person to be supportive," Alderson said. "That would include the fans, the media and baseball itself."
"If that's what they think of the game and of the enormous contributions of the umpires," retorted Phillips, "then the umpires would be better off to take their $15 1/2 million and sit back and watch the game dissolve."
Dissolve in laughter would be more like it.
Current umpires, as a group, are far too arrogant, confrontational and thin-skinned. Everybody knows it. Except the umpires. Modern umps, as a group, also call far too tight a strike zone, especially at a time when the game needs to give some relief to its mediocre pitchers. Everybody knows it. Except them.
Perhaps worse, some umps are so inconsistent behind the plate that it has become a regular part of the sport to ridicule them. After Larry Barnett missed a pitch by a foot recently, Orioles announcer Jim Palmer said, "I retired 16 years ago and Barnett wasn't a very good umpire back then."
There's a "book" on everybody in baseball. The book on the umpires is that they're too fat, too arrogant, too old, too incompetent, too ready to strike and too beholden to Phillips, whose leadership style -- right out of "On the Waterfront" -- brought them such long-needed gains in the 1980s.
The late physicist Richard Feynman wrote that, in science, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you're the easiest person to fool." The umps are so sadly deluded because, over two decades, they have gradually fooled themselves about their own level of value, talent and rectitude.
During the 1970s, many of us covering baseball called attention to the umpires' low pay, long hours and high risk of divorce and alcoholism. Why were there no in-season vacations to keep some sanity in the lives of these men who never had a home game? Why were benefits so paltry? Was the game looking for a fixing scandal? For years, Phillips made sense. I ate crabs with ump Ken Kaiser long ago, when he could still laugh at himself.
How can these people, good people, have changed so much?
Because they hobnob with famous athletes and get lawyer-like salaries, because they are sometimes recognized and occasionally praised, and, perhaps most intoxicating, because both friends and strangers listen to their war stories and insider opinions with rapt attention, a terrible fate befalls them. They begin to think they are important and indispensable people.
Just four years ago, the umpires were locked out and missed the first 86 games of the regular season. Leaving aside the particulars of that labor dispute, one point from that season sticks with me far more than any other: I had forgotten the umpires were gone half a season! Just slipped my mind.
The game didn't miss them much, did it? Instead, it was refreshing not to see umpires cursing players or instigating arguments or calling pitches with a chip on their shoulders. The replacements, from college and even high school leagues, did a fine job. The worst of the subs didn't seem as lost as the worst of the regular umps. And if they were, you could replace them.
Umpires, like sportswriters, have talent and deserve some respect. But they are lucky to have the game for a workplace, not the other way around. If they get too full of themselves, they can be replaced more easily than they think. And, if this week's silly ultimatum is any measure, they should be, too.