VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The baseball umpires have achieved the nearly impossible trick of turning themselves into villains over an incident in which one of their own was spit upon by a player.
With their threats, grandstanding and general boorishness in the aftermath of the Roberto Alomar spitting incident, they have managed to crumble a plot of moral high ground that should have been indestructible.
Their threat to shut down the playoffs last year hardly endeared themselves to the baseball public; it was as if they were the last people in America who didn't understand that the fans were weary of such shenanigans -- and that mattered now, after the debilitating strike of 1994.
As justified as they were to complain about baseball's feeble response to Alomar's expectoration, they selfishly failed to recognize that a larger issue -- the health of the game -- was far more important.
Now comes Monday's news that the umpires have decided to "get tough" with the players this season and eject those who dispute even minor issues.
"Arguing with the umpires at any time will be grounds for ejection," said Richie Phillips, chief of the umpires' union.
It's a right-minded sentiment on the surface; although the umpires clearly are more hotheaded and confrontational than they were years ago, the primary root of any general incivility is the spoiled, mouthy disposition of some players.
All of sports would be better off if the umpires, referees and officials got together and agreed not to take any more of that guff.
College basketball referees, in particular, must endure a pathetic level of childish hostility from coaches who disagree with every call.
The baseball umpires don't have it nearly as bad.
But their "get tough" pledge isn't about that.
They aren't really concerned about cleaning up an aspect of the game that doesn't really need much cleaning, anyway.
They just want to illuminate, yet again, the gross disrespect they felt they were shown during and after the incident in which Alomar spit in John Hirschbeck's face last September.
To which there is only one appropriate response:
Can we puh-leeze talk about something else?
The sooner the Alomar incident is relegated to fine print, the better off baseball will be.
It's a tired issue that succeeds only in alienating fans who see it as a metaphor for the arrogance that, they feel, is ruining the game.
The umps don't care.
They don't want the issue to die because they didn't get their way last autumn and they want everyone to know they're feeling aggrieved.
It's the kind of "look at me" attitude found more often in a kindergarten classroom than in a profession populated by alleged adults.
The umps got a bum deal, and we all know they got a bum deal when American League president Gene Budig gave Alomar a light sentence while "commissioner" Bud Selig stood around pretending not to notice.
But there's nothing baseball can do about it now, six months later, except learn from the mistake. Meanwhile, the umps have taken the issue and blown it up to symbolize what they feel is the low regard in which they are held throughout the game.
This is know as martyring.
The truth is that the vast majority of players, managers and baseball people respect the umpires for their professionalism and competence.
As Alomar himself has said again and again when asked if he expected any retaliation this season, "The umpires are professionals. I expect them to do their jobs the same as they always do."
In other words, the umpires have the respect they feel is lacking.
You wouldn't know it by Phillips, who has become obsessed with Alomar.
The umpires will suffer a loss of respect only if Phillips continues to squawk about Alomar and refuses to let the issue die the death it deserves.
Alomar made a terrible mistake and baseball responded poorly, but that doesn't mean the game hasn't backed up the umpires before, and it certainly doesn't mean the umps are taken for granted or disrespected or whatever.
It just means a lot of smart people did stupid things that they wish they could have back again.
Alomar has apologized, Hirschbeck has accepted and everyone wants to move on.
Only the umpires seem determined to keep the issue bubbling until their version of justice is served.
Actually, Orioles owner Peter Angelos also is doing this with his quest for the world to see Alomar as another victim, as if that might ever happen.
The umpires want even more. They want to hold the game hostage.
Please, let's just play ball.
Fans don't want to see umpires walk tall; they want to see players, most of whom behave just fine.
Of course, the umps' challenge to the players is mostly just an idle threat.
These are the same umps who threatened to change the strike zone last year, and threatened to uphold the balk rule to the letter a few years before that.
No permanent changes came out of those threats, and none will come out of this one, either.
The umpires are just running wild and running their mouths.
And no one wants to listen.
Pub Date: 3/05/97