Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Kill the Umps!

Who cares if they walk off?

By Randy Horick

JULY 26, 1999:  I once knew a blind softball umpire named Sonny Robinson. Every week during the summer, you'd find Sonny ensconced behind the plate, presiding over city-league games. He wasn't utterly blind--just very, very nearsighted. So he had no particular problem calling balls and strikes, but anything more distant than the pitcher's mound became iffy.

On close plays along the basepaths, Sonny was open to suggestion. Players in the dugout and girlfriends and wives in the stands learned to holler "Safe!" or "Out!" depending on the situation. Amid this cacophony, the loudest rooting section generally prevailed. Sonny would gauge the responses, as if determining whether the ayes or nays had carried a Senate voice vote, then solemnly pronouce his call without betraying that he had heard even a peep from the bleachers.

On long fly balls that made it beyond the 4-foot-high, chain-link fence, Sonny never even bothered with pretense. He would simply query spectators who had parked their cars on the grass beyond the outfield. "Did it go over on the fly or on the bounce?" he'd yell. If the reply was, "On the bounce," Sonny would order the runner to return to second base. Otherwise, he'd make a circling motion with his index finger and declare, "Home run!" If no spectators happened to be available for consultation, the call reverted to the viva voce rule, and an argument generally ensued.

But Sonny brooked no arguments for the same uncomplicated reason that no city parks and recreation officials could compel him to take an eye exam: He owned the ballpark. And as long as the city enjoyed free use of Sonny Robinson Field, the umpire would be Sonny Robinson. Before each game, Sonny would call the players together and make his supremacy clear. "Boys," he would say, "now when I'm right, I'm right. But what you got to remember is, even when I'm wrong, I'm still damn right."

"You're right, Sonny," we would chorus.

Somewhere along the way, major-league baseball umpires have developed a severe Sonny complex. Figuratively, they have brought to life the old clich of the sight-challenged ump.

Literally, and with more serious consequences, they have turned from judges into imperious satraps who have concluded that, even when they're wrong, their word must be as unchallenged as a papal pronouncement. As a model of sheer loopy chutzpah, you have to take your hat off to the umpires. Late last week, the boys in blue up and outdid even their own bad selves in announcing that they plan to resign en masse on Sept. 2.

The umps' union leader, Richie Phillips, who has revealed a singular talent for deadpan comedy, says that he and the boys are subjected to a hostile work environment and are inadequately compensated to boot--which is a little like Secretariat carping about the rigors of life on the stud farm.

Some Asian potentates have it worse than these guys. They're paid as lavishly as a number of the players. (Their contract with Major League Baseball, for example, entitles them to a collect severance pay of $15 million; split 68 ways, it works out to about $250,000 per ump.) They suit up for about four hours a day, six days a week, and they take five months off each year.

They're part of one of America's most exclusive fraternities. At the major-league level, umpiring vacancies open up about as often as new slots on the Supreme Court.

NFL referees are subject to review after each game and season. Only those who receive the highest marks are allowed to officiate the playoffs. Those who don't consistently measure up are not invited back for another season.

Baseball umps for the most part are laws unto themselves. They can't be overruled by instant replays. No grading system determines which umps work the league championships and World Series. (As Phillips assured everyone, with a face straighter than an Iowa highway, there's no more difference in quality among the 68 major-league umpires than among, say, so many spark plugs or bottles of Budweiser.) Lately, Richie and the guys have carried the doctrine of Umpire Infallibility so far that they have reserved for themselves the right to reinterpret baseball's rules. Every copy of the rulebook, for example, may say that a ball that crosses the plate three inches above the batter's belt is a strike. But every umpire today says differently, and woe be unto any schlub who disagrees.

That arrogance reflects one way that the umpires collectively have gone blind. Traditionally, umps were schooled to believe that the apex of their craft was to become invisible: The best umpires perform their jobs without drawing undue attention to themselves. According to the old-school doctrine, the best way to end an argument with a manager was to turn your back and walk away.

By contrast, many among this current crop of surly soreheads eagerly seek confrontations. Sometimes they're even the provocateurs, as when umpire Tom Hallion recently bumped a player. Naturally, after Hallion received a three-game suspension from the league president, his colleagues railed as if he had been sentenced to burn at the stake. To them, of course, burning would have been too lenient for Roberto Alomar, who was suspended for spitting on an umpire. (It is not well known that Alomar's gesture, inexcusable as it was, came after the ump had vulgarly referred to him as a latter-day Oedipus.) Given their mind-set, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that the umpires demanded that players genuflect them before entering the batter's box, as do the scrubbed and mannerly Taiwanese kids at the Little League World Series.

Unfotunately for them (and fortunately for the rest of us), the umps are no better at envisioning the future than they are at seeing their role in proper perspective.

In announcing their resignations, of course, their intention is not to leave the game but rather to force baseball to kowtow. Since the umps are forbidden by their contract from calling a strike--as they did a few years back--their strategy is to quit, then form a new corporation called Umpires Inc. that will negotiate a cushy deal with Major League Baseball.

By quitting just before Labor Day, the umps reason, they will imperil the rest of the season and the playoffs. They'll persuade minor-league umpires to refuse to serve as replacements--leaving college and high school umps as the only (and, presumably, unacceptable) alternative. The owners will have to come crawling.

But the umps have made one enormous miscalculation. Unlike Sonny Robinson, they don't own the show. And they may find that they'll be treated less like a class of Brahmins than like the air traffic controllers in 1981.

Sure, we may have a few rough days with high school umps (though at least these amateurs know the strike zone). But we'll get by. Meanwhile, we'll have to put up only with overpaid jerk ballplayers instead of both overpaid jerk umpires and players. There'll be fewer ugly scenes and more focus on the game. And fans, for whom umpire baiting is as integral to baseball as Cracker Jacks and fungoes, will finally have a measure of revenge against the class of citizens, next to IRS agents, whom they most revile. It could be the greatest thing since the double-header.

Lord knows it's hard to achieve unanamity among Americans on anything these days. But if we could hold a nationwide town meeting, I think one resolution would pass by acclamation: Umpires, don't let the screen door slap your hiney on your way out.

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