With their mass resignations about to be accepted by Major League Baseball, umpires yesterday changed their minds and sued for the right to remain on the job.
In a 14-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, the Major League Umpires Association asks that umpires be given until Sept. 2 to withdraw the resignations. The suit asks that U.S. District Judge Edmund V. Ludwig declare that owners have engaged "in numerous and serious unfair labor practices" and to declare that mass resignations are a legal strike.
The complaint also charges that baseball planned to withhold termination pay and that some umpires had been offered up to $2 million in future earnings to join a rival union.
Two weeks ago, 56 of 66 umpires had tendered letters of resignation effective Sept. 2. Union head Richie Phillips said umpires were quitting because they were going to be locked out and perhaps fired when the labor agreement expires Dec. 31. By quitting, the umpires, who were bound by a no-strike agreement in the labor contract, would be eligible for up to $400,000 each in termination pay.
However, the movement began to crumble when an array of umpires refused to sign the letters or attempted to rescind those letters. At least 14 umpires who did quit have asked that their resignations be withdrawn.
By last Friday, 23 of 32 American League umpires said they would stay on the job. Thirty-three of 36 National League umpires stuck to their resignations. However, a source said several National League umpires appeared ready to back off their resignations as well.
Baseball moved quickly to replace the umpires by hiring an estimated 24 replacements who had been working as vacation fill-ins. And baseball officials said umpires would be allowed to rescind their resignations only until all the vacancies are filled.
The suit also claims that baseball officials are spreading "false and misleading statements to umpires about deadlines to accept resignations, deadlines to offer rescissions of resignations and deadlines to reject rescissions of resignations."
The case was assigned to Ludwig, who ordered umpires back to work three years ago when they threatened to strike after Roberto Alomar was suspended for just five games for spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck.
"We're partially divided right now and hopefully we can all come together at some point," National League umpire Bruce Froemming told the Associated Press. "But as far as what happened in Philly today, I have not talked to anybody and am as confused as anybody."
In an odd part of the complaint, the union accused owners of wrongfully agreeing to give veteran Larry Barnett more termination pay than the labor contract requires. Barnett, baseball's senior umpire, agreed to retire after this season for $550,000 -- $150,000 more than the American League was required to give him.
The suit said the American League had also been negotiating retirement packages for four other umpires: Dale Ford, Ted Hendry, Ken Kaiser and Durwood Merrill.
Umpires have been upset by a variety of recent actions, including an order from Sandy Alderson, baseball's newly hired vice president of operations, to change the strike zone last spring. Umpires also were upset that National League umpire Tom Hallion was suspended for bumping a player.
Meanwhile, baseball would like to shift supervision of umpires from the individual leagues to Alderson. Baseball would like to have more control over umpires, especially the right to promote the best umpires and terminate the worst ones.