No Movement In Umpire Strike
Managers notice a drop in the quality of the umps, but few others seem anxious to resolve impasse
See also: Umpires go on strike
The minor league season has a week in the books, as managers, players and fans are trying to look past the men in blue at every stadium across the country.
Minor league umpires could not reach a deal on a new labor contract during the offseason, so they're on strike. That has forced each minor league team to hire local umpires to work games, with varying degrees of quality.
Major League Baseball sent out a memo to its clubs right before the season started, asking officials to "be patient with and respectful of these (replacement) umpires as they provide us with a needed service."
For the most part, fans and team officials have been patient, and there has been no widespread call for a quick resolution to the strike. Minor league managers have expressed the most objections, and they say they have noticed a drop in quality with college, high school and retired umpires working games.
"Down here, I don't think you'll see much of a difference--not at the lower levels," said one high Class A manager. "But Double-A, Triple-A, where the game is played on a different plane, that's where you're likely to see the problems. And I don't think it's going to get any better any sooner with the guys they have in place."
While managers and players have complained, particularly at the higher levels, there have been a total of just six ejections in Double-A and Triple-A games so far this season.
"There's a give and take, and you certainly don't want to challenge these guys because they're out there doing their best," a Triple-A manager said. "But as the season goes on I'm going to expect them to adhere to a higher standard and get better as we move along. And that's when I'm going to be more open about letting them know how I really feel.
"That said, I feel like I probably got away with a lot of stuff I've said early on that I normally wouldn't have gotten away with because every time I go out there for something, it's like looking at a deer caught in headlights."No End In Sight
The strike is the result of an impasse between the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp., which manages umpires for Minor League Baseball, and the Association of Minor League Umpires, the union that represents the umps. Their labor contract expired after last season, and the union sought higher pay and better per diem payments.
Management offered a smaller increase than the union was willing to accept but said in March that it had made its final offer. In an effort to gain leverage, minor league umpires first declined to work minor league spring training games, even though those games are not part of their deal with PBUC. Then they decided not to report to work when the minor league season began. Management ended up making another offer after their "final offer," but that March 27 offer was contingent on it being accepted by March 31. When it was not, it was pulled from the table.
George Yund, an attorney for PBUC, said he has heard positive reports on the umpiring so far this season, there have been no more than the usual number of disputed calls, and fans are enjoying the games. He said management does not plan to resume negotiations unless umpires return to work.
"Until they offer to return to work, we're not in a position to need to consider what they should be paid," Yund said.
Minor League Baseball is actually saving money during the strike because it pays replacement umpires on a game to game basis as independent contractors.
"We can withstand the strike. In labor disputes, you make a judgment in who has leverage," Yund said. "We don't have to pay per diem, we don't have to pay for hotel rooms, we don't have to pay health insurance. We're saving money."
Minor league umpires have picketed in front of several ballparks early in the season, but there has been no outcry about the replacement umpires crossing picket lines and little notice of the strike in newspapers across the country.
The umpires themselves aren't under great pressure to resolve the strike because almost all of them have other jobs during the offseason to supplement their income from umpiring, which ranges from about $5,000-$15,000 a season.
Union representatives did not return phone calls this week.Managers Notice Problems
The only leverage minor league umpires might get would be from pressure--from fans, players, managers or front-office officials--to improve the quality of umpiring. Aside from isolated complaints, that hasn't happened yet, though it might increase as the season wears on.
One specific problem managers have noticed has been a bias toward the home team, which could be a result of all umpires being hired locally instead of working for a league.
"We opened on the road and the only thing I can tell you is I can't wait to get home," another Triple-A manager said. "I don't know if those guys feel like they owe the (home) team something or what, but every game there were two separate strike zones--one for us and one for them--and their guys were getting balls a foot off the plate to either side. They're brutal."
So while management is preaching patience as it waits for a resolution to the strike, minor league managers say they feel like officials are ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away.
"I'm (ticked) off about it," a Triple-A manager said. "Mainly because we're a very unique league--we're the closest thing to the big leagues in that the game is faster and played at a higher level than any other place in the minors. What they're doing does have a negative impact on the intensity of the game.
"But we can't do anything about it--they won't even allow us to talk about it. I just wish they could resolve it. It's not fair to anybody."J.J. Cooper contributed to this story.