As his 24-season big league career wound down to what, in all likelihood, was its final inning on Wednesday at Camden Yards, umpire Greg Kosc stood in center field, alone with his thoughts, his arms crossed in front of him as though hugging himself. Or, perhaps, Kosc was just holding in the pain.

After the last pitch, no player on either team came to him to say farewell. Before the game, when lineups were exchanged at home plate, Kosc cried, according to the managers there. Ray Miller offered Kosc the sympathetic platitudes. Good luck. Hope things work out.

No doubt he meant it. Yet that afternoon, the Orioles manager looked over the list of 22 umps who lost their jobs -- pending a long-shot arbitration hearing several months from now -- and shrugged. "I'm surprised to see Richie Garcia and Bob Davidson on the list," he said. "Other than that . . . "

Other than that he, like many players, didn't see much cause for sorrow.

Plenty of those on the list have discredited themselves so badly with their arrogance in recent years that the game will probably be better without them. Anyone who will miss Ken Kaiser and Joe West, or the chips on their shoulders, please raise your hand. Several others were simply past their prime. "Some, maybe, needed to retire," said Miller.

Before Wednesday's game, several players were asked if they knew which umpires might be working their final game. Not one player could answer correctly. Sadly, the umpires earned the widespread indifference their plight has elicited. Through years of confrontation and intransigence on the field and in labor negotiations, they gained in salary, but lost almost every shred of sympathy within the game.

Everybody knew the cause. As disgruntled (but still employed) umpire Joe Brinkman said, "It goes back to the problem that we have an association that isn't run by the members. It's run by Richie Phillips."

In Phillips, the umpires were led by a man who would file a grievance against the sunrise and sue a rainbow over the size of the pot of gold.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in July when Phillips called the membership to order and asked all the umpires to sign letters of resignation. Interestingly, Richie himself didn't sign anything concerning his own status if his strategy turned out to be a disaster.

Once upon a time, big league umpires knew where they came from. They knew their gifts and the limits of their talents. They knew their job wasn't brain surgery. "Out" or "safe." "Ball" or "strike." Know the rule book. Be honest. Never get intimidated. In short, they were in touch with reality.

If you had put a letter of resignation in front of them, saying that they voluntarily wanted to quit a job that paid between $95,000 and $275,000 a year, with several months vacation, too, they'd have stabbed your hand with a dinner fork before they'd have signed it. Oh, and don't forget what else an ump these days gives up -- the $300,000 or $400,000 severance deal, the per diem, the time off in season, the job security worthy of a Supreme Court Justice and the average time-at-the-stadium of five hours a day.

Even then, three days out of four, an ump gets to work the bases where his primary responsibility is not to fall asleep. Guys, get a grip.

"The hardest part is that people are laughing, saying, `Hey, you resign, you lose your job,' " said Rich Garcia.

No, the hardest part is grasping how sane people could get so intoxicated by hot rhetoric, peer pressure and Group Think that they'd sign away the jobs they'd worked all their lives for -- and, worst of all, deeply loved.

Yesterday, my father-in-law, Irving Karelis -- a.k.a. "Sheik," in his playing days in the '40s -- reminded me of the way things used to be before umpires collectively lost their minds and jumped off cliffs like lemmings.

Sheik, who rose to Class AAA in the Boston organization, and the late Dick Stello, a National League umpire for 18 years, were good friends for many years. "Let me tell you how a guy became a big league umpire back in the old days," said the Sheik, beginning his windup.

In the '60s, Stello, a local New England athlete, wanted to become an ump. So, he asked Sheik to introduce him to Neil Mahoney, one of Karelis's old ball-playing buddies who had gone on to run the Red Sox farm system.

"Mahoney can recommend me for an umpiring job," begged Stello.

One day at the Haverhill (Mass.) Country Club, Stello, Mahoney and The Sheik were all in the locker room at the same time -- dripping wet in their towels. The Big Introduction was made.

"But Sheik, how do I know this kid can umpire?" said Mahoney.

Sheik was stumped. For a second, that is. Then he saw a friend, Harpy Lorigan, an old Boston College football player, coming out of the shower.

"Harpy, come here. We gotta help Stello get a job as an ump," said Sheik. "You go down to the end of the showers and run toward me. This trash can will be the base. I'll make the tag. Stello, you make the call."

"All of us were about half in the bag I'm afraid," said Sheik yesterday. "Here comes Harpy -- kinda weaving. He slides. I tag him. And Stello bellows as loud as he can, "Yeeeeerrr OOOUUUTTT!!!"

"Son," said Maloney, after his ears recovered from the shower room acoustics, "that's some voice you've got there."

The next day, Mahoney called Bill Summers, head of an umpiring school in Florida, and Stello was on his way.

So, how do you get to be a major league umpire? Not so long ago, you could do it by calling out a naked inebriate as he slid into a trash can in a shower. Sad to say, our modern umpires have clearly lost their bearings.