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Arbitrary arbiters? Players, managers adjusting to more aggressive umpires


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The scene was familiar. Orioles manager Johnny Oates went nose-to-nose with umpire Drew Coble on Tuesday night in Toronto, and it wasn't hard to tell that what they were saying there cannot be printed here.

Gone are the days when the umpire stood impassively while the maniacal manager spit and cursed and kicked dirt on his shoes. Now, as often as not, the umpire strikes back.

Coble is well-known around Baltimore. Former Orioles manager Frank Robinson referred to him as "a liar and a no-good human being" after an argument in 1990. Robinson was suspended for his disparaging remarks, but he never withdrew them.

The major complaint of players and managers is that some umpires have become so combative that they won't let anyone air a legitimate gripe. They also complain about rabbit-eared umps charging the dugout or following someone off the field to get in the final word. They say the men in blue should be above that.

The umpires, perhaps because of the strength of their union, seem to have become increasingly militant over the past 10 years. The players and managers don't like it, but there are two sides to every story.

How would you like to be cursed and second-guessed by a bunch of millionaires in front of 40,000 people every night? How would you react if your every judgment was subject to question by the mass media and millions of partisan fans?

For every replay that proves a disputed call incorrect, there might be 10 that show just how well most umpires do a difficult job, but the one mistake gets all the ink. If they have been known to get a little defensive, who wouldn't?

There have been instances when it appears the umpire is intentionally baiting a player or manager, but appearances can be deceiving, especially when an incident is viewed from the stands or on television.

One league official pointed out that what you see isn't necessarily representative of what an umpire gets. He might have been taking verbal abuse for several innings before he finally charged the dugout and seemingly initiated a confrontation.

"You don't always know everything that led up to that point," the official said. "You also don't notice when something is said and the umpire doesn't respond."

Nevertheless, the umps have undergone a dramatic image change over the past decade. They are viewed by some players as

with Coble, said his relationship with the umpires is more than cordial. What happened Tuesday was done with Tuesday, he said, and he doesn't feel there will be any carry-over to the next time the Orioles come in contact with Coble and his crew.

"I would hope not," Oates said. "There are a lot of different personalities out there. There are going to be umpires you like better than others and vice versa, but it doesn't matter. We're all trying to do the best we can. I really feel they want to be fair."

Robinson might not agree. He carried a running feud with Coble for a couple of years and also had problems with umpire John Shulock in 1989. It got so bad at one point that season that Robinson threatened to resign as manager if the situation were not addressed by the league hierarchy.

Robinson chooses his words more carefully now that he is the Orioles assistant general manager. He has been reprimanded and fined for previous criticism of certain umpires, and he does not want to cause on-field problems for Oates and the team.

"I just think the authority figures on the field need to be more understanding of the players and managers under some circumstances," Robinson said.

Former manager Earl Weaver didn't agree with much of anything the umpires did. Some of his rhubarbs are legendary. But today's umpires probably would be kicking dirt right back at him.

The argument between Coble and Oates on Tuesday night was viewed by thousands of television viewers, as was the questionable ball-strike call that precipitated it. Coble admitted afterward to using a vulgar term that would have been cause for ejection if it were directed at him, but it was Oates who was ejected for calling him on it.

This double standard has been the source of frustration to some managers, but Oates did not complain. ("It ain't a church picnic out there, fellas," he said.) He did smile at the concept of wiring the managers and umpires so that the content of such discussions could be monitored.

"I think that would be very enlightening," Oates said.

Don't hold your breath. It would never fly with the umpires' union or the league office.

Has the quality of umpiring diminished? That depends on whom you talk to. The increasing use of the video replay has put the performance of the umpires under tremendous scrutiny and -- it might be argued -- they have aggravated the situation by keeping arguments alive long enough for viewers to see the replay several times.

Their detractors say that they have become lazy because they under no pressure to adhere to a high standard of performance.

"There just aren't any checks and balances," said one Oriole. "As a player, if you fail, you are either sent out or released, but, as an umpire, you are not penalized for either poor work habits or improper conduct. It stands to reason that, if that's the case, the situation would get progressively worse."

The situation is complicated by the policy of American League president Bobby Brown not to make public any disciplinary action taken against an umpire. That leaves the perception that the umpires never are reprimanded, which is not the case. There also is the perception that the strength of the Major League Umpires Association has left the league powerless to control the umpires' on-field behavior. There may be some truth to that, but it is not quite that simple.

"I think they are human, and I think in some ways they are jealous of the players," said an Orioles player, "but I also think it's a tough job. One borderline call and somebody is going to be yelling at you.

"That constant barrage can do one of two things. It can make you passive, especially in big games, or it can make you go the other way and [be very aggressive]."

To hear some players tell it, the umpires have become far too sensitive, some of them unable even to allow a player's normal intensity and emotion to go unanswered.

"They've reached the point where if you react to a pitch -- even when you are just mad at yourself -- they take it personally," an Orioles pitcher said. "I've had to go up and tell them, 'I'm not mad at you. I'm mad at myself.' "

There also seems to be the perception in both leagues that the umpires are developing an ego problem, and why not? Baseball has become a game of bigger-than-life personalities, so it seems almost logical that the arbiters of the game might try to measure up.

"It's a joke," Chicago White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell told the Chicago Tribune on Thursday. "It's a joke -- like it's their game. They all want to show off their game."

McDowell was upset at plate umpire Al Clark, whose strike zone was not large enough for his taste. He still was fuming after the game, which might have contributed to his lack of inhibition about criticizing the umpires.

"He's got a strike zone about this big," McDowell said, holding two fingers about a centimeter apart, "and they keep letting him get away with it."

The strike zone probably is the most frequent source of disagreement, because every umpire has a different one, but the amount of time spent arguing about it is limited by a rule that calls for the ejection of any manager or coach who questions a ball-strike call.

Generally, however, the umpires will allow a pitcher to voice his disapproval over a ball-strike call, as long as he isn't too theatrical.

"There have been a couple of situations where they had a chance to get me, and they just ignored me," relief pitcher Gregg Olson said, "which may be the best thing to do with somebody who is upset."

Oates said the reaction of the umpires might depend on the demeanor and reputation of the player or manager who is arguing. He doesn't go out often, he said, so he might have a chance of getting a fair hearing.

"I think they perceive me as a very fair manager," he said. "I don't take cheap shots at them. When I go on the field, it's because I think I have a legitimate gripe. They let me have my say."

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