Twenty-two major-league umpires are out of work today, left with only faint hope of getting their jobs back after the Major League Baseball Umpires Association reached a compromise with baseball owners last night that allows them to be replaced at least temporarily.
The umpires union dropped an unfair labor practice charge against Major League Baseball and withdrew its request for an injunction that would have prevented management from accepting the resignations of the 22 umpires who gave notice in July in an ill-fated effort to force management to begin negotiations on a new labor contract.
In return, Major League Baseball agreed to pay the union $1.36 million in postseason bonus money, guarantee full pay and benefits for the displaced umpires for the remainder of the season and allow the dispute to be submitted to arbitration.
That left open the possibility that some or all of the umpires might be rehired, but the comments of union chief Richie Phillips and the dejected countenance of the umpires who attended the negotiations belied any real hope that an arbitrator would reinstate them.
"We think that it's a shame for baseball," said Phillips, who conceived the risky resignation gambit. "Baseball will suffer from the loss of these enormously talented people that the commissioner's office has arbitrarily determined to hurt."
The agreement was reached after two days of negotiations in Philadelphia, where lawyers for the umpires union had petitioned U.S. District Judge J. Curtis Joyner to issue a temporary injunction that would have kept the umpires at work.
Joyner chose instead to delay a scheduled hearing on Tuesday, then prodded lawyers from both sides to work out a settlement, the terms of which were obtained by the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, many of the affected umpires already had begun preparing for the worst.
"Everything that I've worked for for 16 years is in jeopardy right now," umpire Ed Hickox, one of the umpires facing termination, said Tuesday.
"I started when I was 19 years old and just got a full-time assignment this year. All of my dreams were starting to come true, and now they may be in vain."
Hickox doesn't fit the stereotypical profile of the veteran umpires that baseball is preparing to replace, though he is 37 years and has been umpiring in the majors on a part-time basis for the past nine years.
"This is my first year with a schedule," he said. "You have to pay your dues. I had to pay the longest dues ever. I don't know of anybody who spent nine years as a reserve umpire. Now I have my schedule, but what started out to be the happiest year of my life has become one of the most difficult."
Hickox worked Tuesday night's series opener between the Orioles and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Camden Yards, but he left the stadium without explanation before game time last night and was replaced by a substitute umpire.
Fans may have trouble being sympathetic. Hickox voluntarily submitted his resignation in a show of solidarity with the umpires loyal to Phillips, endangering a job that includes perks and a paycheck -- $250,000 or more -- that the average fan can only dream about. But the situation is a little more complicated than that.
He had to choose between loyalty to the union that made those great working conditions possible or an internecine rebellion that might fracture the union forever. He could have joined the group of American League umpires, led by veteran crew chief Joe Brinkman, that chose to stand against Phillips' gambit, but stayed in the union fold and now may pay a staggering price -- the only career he has ever known.
"No question, there's a lot of stress on me and my family," said Hickox, who has two children and lives in Daytona Beach, Fla.
It's not much easier for the older umpires. They make a good living, but few are independently wealthy.
"Everybody has bills. Everybody has kids in school," veteran umpire Rich Garcia told the Associated Press. "Anybody who works for a living understands what that's like. What they don't understand is why we did what we did.
"The hardest part is that people are laughing, saying, 'Hey, you resign, you lose your job.' Well, all we were trying to do was get baseball to the bargaining table. It didn't work. But none of us saw what was coming."
Orioles manager Ray Miller saw the strain on umpire Greg Kosc when lineup cards were exchanged last night.
"Greg had tears in his eyes at home plate," Miller said, "and for anyone that's been in the big leagues for a long, long time, when someone tells you it's your last day, that's a pretty tough thing. And those guys have never had to experience anything like that.
"Obviously, we argue and all that stuff, but you have a lot of respect for people who have put so many years in the big leagues. You don't want to turn your back on them."
The trouble is, the umpires -- as a group -- had already used up whatever sympathy they might have engendered with baseball ownership and the public with a series of smaller confrontations over working conditions and rule interpretation.
Phillips has never encountered a battle too small to turn into a war. He exasperated baseball owners recently when he filed a grievance over a Major League Baseball directive that ordered the umpires to call a slightly higher strike zone.
The growing militancy of the umpires union had become such a source of frustration for baseball management that the owners were preparing to press for major changes in their labor contract with the union upon its expiration at the end of this year. There were even rumors of a spring lockout.
The strategy came apart when several umpires refused to join in the de facto strike and dozens of others eventually asked management to allow them to withdraw their resignations.
The owners allowed some umpires to remain, but accepted 22 resignations and hired minor-league umpires to replace them. Those new umpires are scheduled to begin work today.
It appears that, for once, the owners have labor law on their side, unless Phillips can convince an arbitrator that the owners engaged in an unlawful attempt to break the union by selectively allowing some umpires to stay and forcing others to go. Most of Phillips' strongest supporters were among those whose resignations were accepted.
That may be a long shot, but Phillips has ushered the umpires through several previous disputes. Though the chances of mass reinstatement appear slim, there remains the possibility that baseball will hire some of the affected umpires back before next season, perhaps in exchange for major concessions in collective bargaining.
Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.
The 22 umpires who will lose their jobs as of 6 a.m. today:
Drew Coble ...................Gary Darling
Jim Evans .....................Bob Davidson
Dale Ford .....................Bruce Dreckman
Rich Garcia ..................Eric Gregg
Ed Hickox .....................Tom Hallion
Mark Johnson ...............Bill Hohn
Ken Kaiser ....................Sam Holbrook
Greg Kosc ....................Paul Nauert
Larry McCoy ..................Larry Poncino
Frank Pulli ....................Terry Tata
Larry Vanover ...............Joe West
Pub Date: 9/02/99