Thirty-nine of major league baseball's 71 umpires have endorsed a movement to oust Richie Phillips from his position as head of the group's union, according to sources involved in the discussions.
The plan to remove Phillips from power is expected to gain momentum in the wake of Wednesday's agreement that cost 22 umpires their jobs. That deal was the result of a labor strategy in which umpires submitted letters of resignation, hoping to force baseball's owners back to the bargaining table.
The strategy collapsed when it became clear baseball would accept the resignations. Some umpires declined to sign the letters and others quickly rescinded their resignations. In the end, the strategy cost 22 umpires -- including some of the game's most respected umps -- their jobs.
As part of the agreement, the union agreed to withdraw a lawsuit against the owners and a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board in exchange for a package of salary and benefits for the departing umpires.
The owners agreed to allow an arbitrator to hear the dispute, but labor experts give the umpires only a slim hope of winning a process that takes several months. Owners also agreed to pay $1.42 million in postseason bonuses to the 71 umpires on the major league staff as of Friday.
Several umpires were highly critical of Phillips during the process, and Major League Baseball moved ahead yesterday with 25 new full-time umpires replacing the 22 whose employment formally ended at 6 a.m.
"I think it's time for Richie to do the right thing and step aside," American League umpire Dale Scott said. "It's time for him to do what's best for the umpires."
American League umpire Joe Brinkman predicted that owners would lock out umpires next spring unless Phillips is replaced.
"If nothing changes, I don't see us going back to work next season until June or July," Brinkman said. "If Richie is gone, then that will change considerably."
Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, a well-respected agent for several players, is advising the anti-Phillips group about a complex process that could include forming a new umpires' union.
Thirty percent of eligible union members must sign a petition before the NLRB will call an organization election. Depending on whether the 22 fired umpires count, there are either 71 or 93 umpires, meaning 22 or 28 umpires are needed on a petition. Sources indicate that 39 umpires already favor ousting Phillips.
"That's a legal matter," Brinkman said. "I wouldn't be opposed to it at all. The whole thing is to get the family of umpires together again with good representation. I wouldn't fight another fellow umpire from voting, but they might be better off not voting."
Phillips still has support among some umpires, especially in the National League. His support among American League umpires is almost nonexistent, according to sources.
Phillips also fought off a challenge to his leadership last winter. Some umpires who led the fight against him then are leading the fight now. Meanwhile, the new umpires went to work yesterday, and all games went on as scheduled.
"It's difficult," said Phil Cuzzi, one of 13 new National League umpires. He had worked as a replacement for vacationing umpires in the past, but when he worked the Phillies-Giants game yesterday, it was his debut as a full-time ump.
"We have a young guy [Jim Wolf] coming up from Triple A," Cuzzi said. "He's never worked a game in the big leagues before. It's just hard that he would have to look to me as an experienced guy. I'm not."
As for the 22 departing umpires, many spent a final emotional night at ballparks on Wednesday.
Veteran National League umpires Frank Pulli began the evening at Busch Stadium in St. Louis by pretending to eject Cardinals third base coach Rene Lachemann one final time. He ended by seeing that Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire had opened his glove to hand Pulli the final game ball.
Pulli declined to speak with reporters, but Lachemann said: "If he's one of the 22 worst umpires in this league, I'm a kamikaze pilot. It's a big mistake that they fired him."
At Dodger Stadium, Bill Hohn, Terry Tata and Tom Hallion worked their final games. "My head was so far out of that game because of everything I was thinking," Hallion said.
Hohn said: "I've got one half of my life dedicated in baseball. I'm 44 years old. I can't go sell my services anywhere else. I mean, my college education was the minor leagues."