Barring a last-second intervention by a federal judge or the National Labor Relations Board, 22 umpires will lose their jobs tonight in one of the final acts of a labor strategy originally designed to force baseball owners to the bargaining table.
Several umpires spent what may have been their next-to-last day in baseball in a courtroom hoping a judge would issue an injunction preventing the American and National leagues from accepting the letters of resignation submitted in mid-July.
U.S. District Judge J. Curtis Joyner put off a decision on the injunction yesterday after meeting with attorneys for both sides for more than seven hours in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the NLRB may issue a decision today on a separate request for an injunction by umpires. In their briefs, umpires accused owners of engaging in unfair labor practices.
"I hope to have something tomorrow," said Daniel Silverman, the NLRB's New York agency regional director.
If the umpires fail to persuade either Joyner or the NLRB to issue an injunction, some of the best-known umpires will be leaving ballparks for the last time after tonight's games.
Perhaps the best known is Richie Garcia, a veteran American League umpire widely respected by players and his colleagues alike. Garcia skipped his assignment in Detroit yesterday to attend the scheduled hearing, but could be back at Tiger Stadium tonight for his possible final game.
He was joined in the courtroom by Eric Gregg, Joe West, Mark Johnson and other umpires on the verge of losing their jobs. Ed Hickox spent the afternoon in court, but left for Baltimore in time to work last night's Orioles-Devil Rays game.
However, with the hearing scheduled to being at 1:30 p.m., Joyner summoned lawyers for each side to his chambers. He met with the attorneys for more than seven hours, and apparently will hold the hearing today.
"Today was devoted to the judge asking both sides to consider some issues," management lawyer Rob Manfred said as the sides left court. "We'll consider them overnight and come back in the morning."
Union lawyer Susan Davis and Richie Phillips, head of the umpires' union, declined to comment.
The Major League Umpires Association claimed in the injunction that the 22 umpires are being terminated against their will, adding that "permanent unemployment . . . is a virtual certainty" without a court order.
"The leagues' refusal to retain the 22 umpires -- fully a third of the umpire work force -- threatens to complete the destruction of the union's effectiveness as a collective bargaining agent," Phillips said in papers filed with the suit.
However, attorneys for Major League Baseball argued that the umpires aren't being fired, since they'd all submitted letters of resignation. Baseball said the matter is covered by binding arbitration or the NLRB.
"Although the union attempts to cast its request for injunctive relief as a single reluctant plea for judicial intervention by only the most immediate of circumstances, this in fact is the third application the union has made," the brief submitted by the leagues said.
The union sued baseball in Philadelphia last month, then withdrew the case after Judge Edmund V. Ludwig refused to issue a temporary restraining order. Umpires then filed the unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB. Umpires submitted mass resignations on July 14, hoping to spark owners to the bargaining table. With the labor agreement set to expire after the season, umpires said they were convinced that owners were going to lock them out next spring. They resigned because the current labor agreement forbids them from striking.
But the strategy failed when 27 umpires either refused to sign the letters of resignation or quickly withdrew their resignations. Baseball hired 25 new umpires from the minors, and by the time the remainder of the umpires attempted to rescind their resignations, baseball had decided to accept 22 of the resignations.
Umpires later told the NLRB that they never intended to quit, but submitted the letters as a "a symbolic gesture" to force owners back to the bargaining table.