Interim commissioner Bud Selig seems optimistic about the meeting that will bring together representatives of Major League Baseball, the players association and the umpires union today in West Palm Beach, Fla., though the likelihood that it will produce any concrete change in baseball's disciplinary system is considered very slim.
"I'm looking forward to it," Selig said. "I'm confident that it is a necessary step in establishing the proper dialogue that I don't think has existed. It should focus attention on a lot of frustration between the players and umpires."
The meeting is part of the fallout from the notorious incident last September, when Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck during a heated argument at Toronto's SkyDome.
Alomar was suspended for five games by American League president Gene Budig, but the Major League Umpires Association threatened to boycott the postseason when the suspension was held over until the 1997 season and Alomar was allowed to participate in the playoffs.
Today's summit, which was a condition of the federal court injunction that forced the umpires to remain at work, originally was scheduled for Nov. 14, but was postponed while the owners and players union brought an end to a bitter four-year labor dispute.
"I'm confident that we can begin the process of establishing a meaningful and sensitive relationship," Selig said. "The heartache of the Roberto Alomar incident if it leads to a meaningful relationship, it will have been worth it."
The umpires would like to see baseball devise a code of conduct and enforce a disciplinary system that cannot be manipulated by the players and their union lawyers, but the system of discipline that governs the players and umpires is outlined in the separate collective bargaining agreements their unions have negotiated with the owners.
Umpires union chief Richie Phillips tried to focus attention last October on an appeals process that often allows players to postpone suspensions until it is most convenient to serve them, but the Major League Baseball Players Association would have to agree to modify the new collective bargaining agreement to give league presidents far more power over individual players. That just isn't likely to happen.
Players union chief Donald Fehr has chosen to withhold comment until after the meeting, but he said in October that the umpires union also has been successful in diluting the disciplinary power of the league presidents in situations involving umpire misconduct. For that to change, the umpires would have to agree to rewrite their collective bargaining agreement. That's also not likely to happen.
"That may be true, but we are going to have to have a dialogue," Selig said. "Hopefully, we can begin the process and something will come out of it, even if it's not out of this particular meeting."
The principles of last season's hottest controversy just want the whole thing to go away. Neither Hirschbeck nor Alomar will be present for the meeting, though several other umpires and prominent players are expected to take part along with Selig, Budig, National League president Len Coleman, Phillips and Fehr.
Hirschbeck said he hopes all sides see the need for a more standardized disciplinary system that is capable of serving as a deterrent in the era of giant salaries.
"It goes back to what can be done [under the current system]," Hirschbeck said. "The most I think a player can be fined in baseball is $500. To have a maximum penalty of $500 when players make what they make, what kind of message does that send?"
No doubt, the players also have some complaints about the on-field behavior of the umpires, and Hirschbeck said they also should get a fair hearing.
"They're going to say, 'This is what we don't like about umpires,' and that's great," Hirschbeck said. "Most of the players are nice guys. We need to sit down and see how they feel, too."
Pub Date: 2/04/97