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Umps and players become chums just in time


Has everybody noticed the sudden solidarity between major-league players and umpires?

Neither side is playing stupid in this case, which is more than could be said about what happened during the past eight months. It was no accident when Donald Fehr, executive director of the players association, and Richie Phillips, who holds the same position with the umpires association, appeared so cozy while issuing a joint statement earlier in the week.

The players know their stance against the owners appears more justified with the real umpires on the outside looking in. For their part, the umpires are intelligent enough to solicit support rather than ask the players to honor their picket line.

Which was their major benefit in having the two basic agreements expire at the same time.

The umpires were guaranteed 75 days pay in the event of a players strike last year, meaning they were not financial losers until Opening Day this year. And they knew from Day 1 that the owners weren't going to worry about replacement umpires when they were trying to sell the idea of replacement players.

If they had had a contract in place, would the regular umpires have worked games involving replacement players? Yes.

Why? Because simple arithmetic taught them it's a lot easier to replace 64 umpires than 700 players.

Fortunately, the umpires haven't had to establish a track record in this regard. The players have. And they've always performed regardless

of who was wearing the blue uniforms -- and you never saw any pictures then of players and umpires mingling on a picket line. It wasn't as politically correct then as it is now.

When the umpires went on strike during the 1984 playoffs, Bill Deegan was praised so much -- by players and managers alike -- that he worked behind the plate in every game of the ALCS that year. The comments about Deegan, who previously wasn't particularly popular and left the ranks under somewhat mysterious conditions later, infuriated most of his former American League umpiring brothers.

Umpires definitely have as strong a case as do the players. They spend more time in the minor leagues, where they are compensated inadequately in comparison to the under

paid minor-league players. And the percentage who make it to the major leagues is even lower -- which is at least an indication umpires are better at their profession than players who too often use them as a crutch.

But the bottom line to this whole scenario is that players, generally, do not like or respect umpires. And, naturally, the reverse also is very often true.

In the simplest of terms, they are put on the field to be antagonists, a role many on both sides have mastered. So, don't be fooled by this sudden mutual admiration society.

It's a bargaining tool for the umpires, a ploy for the players. Call it a standoff.

And bet the ranch that sometime, not too long after the umpires return, it will be said more than once: "The replacements were better."

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