Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Minor League Replacement Umps

The minor league umpire strike, which I talked about earlier, has come to fruition.

A good article about it, revealing both sides of the issue, is found here.

A story about picketers marching at a Toledo Mud Hens game is here.

And I recently attended my first minor league game since the strike began.

To be fair, I bought the tickets long, long ago, before I even knew of the possibility of a strike. I didn't know for sure that there would be replacement umpires until I showed up. By the time I next plan on going to a minor-league game (June), I hope to hell the whole thing is sorted out. I support the minor league umpires wholeheartedly, not because of some mindless knee-jerk support of my fellow officials (which I admit to), but because the offer from management is insulting and disgusting. The umpires, whose salary has been the same since 1997 (the top ump in AAA make $17K a year), have been offered a $100/month pay raise, a $1/day increase in per diem, all while their insurance deductible is increased from $100 to $500 per year.

Two observations from the game I saw:

1. A young guy came up to the front row and called the names of a few members of the home team. They warmly greeted him. It turns out he was a striking umpire. The bits of conversation I recall went like this:

UMPIRE: You guys know you have scab umpires tonight.
PLAYER: Yeah. What can we do to help you?
UMPIRE: Well, don't go crazy or anything, but if you could make it clear that you don't like the work they're doing, it'd really help.
PLAYER: Yeah. Anything we can do. Anyone who asks, we'll say we got your backs.

Sure enough, a player was ejected from the game for arguing. It was a visiting player--not one of the ones I eavesdropped on. Still, in the context of the conversation I heard, it was nice.

2. I don't understand the mindset of a replacement umpire, and not because I have a job with a strong union.

My grandfather, I learned recently, got in some serious trouble once because he scabbed at an automotive plant in Detroit back in the 1930s. I don't think I would cross a picket line myself, but man, if I had to feed a family in the depression, I can't promise I would. I've read Mary Barton. I've read Grapes of Wrath. I get that people can be so desperate that a paycheck--any paycheck--is more important than the abstract notion of respecting union solidarity.

But umpiring?

I don't believe that this is the only job that any of the replacement/scab umpires can get. Nobody's family, I am utterly confident, would go family if a Florida State League game had to use players as umps (the only thing that could otherwise get the game played). I don't want to presume what's in these men's heads, but I'm highly confident that a primary motivation isn't money, but is more to get seen by people who matter. There are two issues with this. First, it's simply cutting in line. A double-A umpire has likel worked his way up through three levels of A ball to get where he is, all for either love or for the very statistically-unlikely shot at a big-league job. To cut in line while officials fight such terrible treatment by management is simply an injustice.

Also, even if they succeed and are able to handle minor-league ball, if they get hired on, they won't be forgotten by their crewmates. I know I wouldn't be able to.

3. So is it okay to heckle a scab umpire? I still don't think so, simply because I try to be polite towards those I disagree. A guy next to me kept shouting things like "That's not the way they do it in the pros, SCAB!!!" Didn't feel right to me.

I kept feeling like it was a lose-lose proposition for the umpires. I saw a second-base umpire make a gutsy (and, I think, correct) call that a second basemen never touched the bag while turning a double play. Thing is, any spectator, player, or manager who that call went against doesn't have the trust for that umpire. In the back of everyone's mind will be: "Did the scab blow it?" And that's not a position any official should want to be in.

4. On the other hand, is it possible to strike successfully when, no matter how well you do your jobs, at least half the people believe you're terrible anyway? The minor league teams are keeping the strike hush-hush. In spite of the articles I link to above, the media is awfully quiet about this. Some newspapers are reporting that there's not a noticeable difference in quality (which, in a game where nothing weird happens, might be true...but wait until the first weird situation, brawl, or beaning).

How can a group everybody dislikes succeed at a strike, when public support is essential to success? Although I completely support the umpires and sincerely want them to beat the scummy management, I don't have the answer to that conundrum. That worries me.

This sucks. I want it to end immediately or sooner, and the only way that it can be done in a just way is for management to give an offer that isn't so abjectly offensive.

4 Comments:

At 5:17 AM, Blogger John B. said...

The thing that I hate about umpires, specifically major league umps, is that they thinkt hat they are 'bigger than the game', in that some major league umps feel that theya re as big a part of the game as the players and managers.

The best umped and reffed games are those where I don't even notice the ump or ref, and sadly I see few of those games anymore. A few Major league baseball umps are the worst--they are essentially spoiling for a fight with certain managers and players, when the ump is actually charged with simply keeping the game fair and in control.

Players and managers can lose their cool, they are not charged with keeping play fair or in control, that is the umps job, one not done nearly as fequently as it once was.

That being said, the pay of minor league umps is horrible compared to major league umps, but then again, so is the pay to most minor league ballplayers compared to their major league counterparts. A few minor league ballplayers are paid well, mostly when they sign a large contract and expect to be int he minors for a few weeks or months before joining a major league roster by September.

I do have a problem with a striking ump telling any player to 'voice their displeasure' with replacement umps...this is essentially code for "argue and protest and make the replacement's life miserable".

 
At 6:33 AM, Blogger Blogging Ref said...

John,

I go to dozens of games a year, and I don't notice any umps who try to take over a game. This was more of a problem 25 years ago than it is now. Can you give me an example that shows that this happens more than occasionally?

Getting paid less than major league umpires isn't really what's at stake here. The salary hasn't gone up in 9 years (compare that to the cost of living in this country). The new contract has next to no raise--the small raise is almost entirely offset by the higher insurance deductible. This means they'll go well over a decade without a single raise. That is completely unacceptable in ANY profession, and would lead to a justified strike by anyone--and I'd support it whoever it was.

Do you think the game will be better off with high school/AAU/and even Little League umps? Even if you believe that the best games are when you don't notice the umpires, you can't do without them. Would you rather make like the old days and have one player--probably a non-starting pitcher--from each side ump the game? Do you believe officials are expendable...a (barely) necessary evil?

 
At 7:55 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Good analysis, although I disagree with you on one point. It's perfectly allright to heckle scabs. Sometimes, you have to tell people you disagree with them.

(Of course, you still have to get the calls right if you want your heckling to be worth anything.)

Although, if your seat neighbor felt so strongly about it, I wonder why he crossed the line. Only dollars can convince management to change.

I'm with you - here's hoping it's settled by June.

 
At 6:27 PM, Blogger Blogging Ref said...

Joe,

I tend to agree with you...but I take some pride in my politeness, so even in a situation like this I can't see myself going for verbal abuse.

Let's get this over with, management. Once it becomes clear that the new guys aren't as good as the old ones, someone will have to cave in. It's really about the money...minor league managment, in spite of unprecedented money and success, doesn't feel it can give any raises. They suck. Cheap bastards.

 

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