Right up until the moment he was forced to admit defeat, Richie Phillips apparently believed that Major League Baseball was on the verge of opening negotiations aimed at keeping its veteran umpires on the job.
"There's lots of talk," a veteran umpire told a reporter last Friday. "Things are going to get worked out."
How did he know?
"We're being briefed regularly," the umpire said.
Another umpire was assured on Sunday that things would get worked out. Throughout baseball, many umpires greeted questions about their futures with smiles and winks.
In the end, they miscalculated badly and had to admit as much on Monday when Phillips, head of the Major League Baseball Umpires Association, asked a federal judge to force baseball to allow 42 umpires to rescind their resignation letters. When the judge declined to issue a temporary restraining order on Tuesday, the umpires reversed course and announced they were collectively withdrawing their resignations.
That strategy came too late for nine American League umpires who were told their resignations had been accepted. At least one other American League umpire apparently is negotiating a severance package.
Meanwhile, as many as 13 of the 33 National League umpires who changed their minds won't get their jobs back, according to sources. Those umpires could be notified today.
"This was not the wrong strategy," NL umpire Randy Marsh said. "I wish we weren't put in the situation where we had to do it. It's kind of like taking a hammer to hit someone as opposed to tapping them on the shoulder. Our association fell apart when the American League guys went the other way, and it totally devastated our negotiations."
Phillips had encouraged umpires to sign resignation letters two weeks ago. Those resignations would take effect Sept. 2, and Phillips believed baseball would choose to negotiate a new labor agreement instead of paying millions of dollars in severance pay. Umpires resigned because their labor agreement, which expires Dec. 31, forbids them from striking, and they believed they were going to be locked out next spring.
But instead of cowering, baseball held firm. Vice President of Operations Sandy Alderson called the mass resignations "either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted."
Alderson was the first and last baseball executive to comment on the situation. Baseball executives then watched as the umpires self-destructed, making it clear they were prepared to accept the resignations.
First, it was an umpire or two asking that their resignations be rescinded. Other umpires came forward to say they had never resigned to begin with. Finally, late last week, the flood gates opened.
By Monday, 26 of 68 big league umpires had made it clear they wanted to stay on the job. Baseball hired 25 replacement umpires for the other spots, and suddenly Phillips had no leverage. At the moment, the 35 American League umpires will include 12 new hires from the minor leagues, 11 umpires who never quit and 12 umpires who were allowed to rescind their resignations.
In the National League, there was significantly more unity. Only three umpires rescinded their resignations or never resigned, leaving 33 umps who resigned and stuck to their guns. Because 13 replacement umpires have already been hired, 13 of the 33 veterans probably will lose their jobs.
Some questions remain unanswered: How will the veteran umpires accept the replacements? National League umpires have spoken bitterly about the prospect of working with the replacements or the umpires who abandoned the resignation policy.
Some umpires wonder if Phillips will remain in power when the labor agreement expires Dec. 31. Baseball wants more control over umpires, especially the right to promote the best umpires and dismiss the worst ones. Baseball also wants a more consistent strike zone and umpires who hustle more and are less confrontational.
Even before the mass resignations, baseball officials were discussing how to weed out some umpires and make other changes.
"Obviously, it didn't turn out to be the right move because we had defectors," said veteran AL umpire Richie Garcia, whose resignation was accepted. "If the guys don't stick together, I don't care what kind of time you've got, it's not going to work. I'm 100 percent behind Richie Phillips. He got us here. He got us everything we have. He's been loyal to us for 22 years. It's a shame the guys aren't loyal toward him."