No judgment call from minors' umps; Big-leaguers' misfortune tempers their anticipation


FREDERICK -- Scott Kennedy walks into his "office" for the day, a stark, dimly lit room barely bigger than a closet. The carpet is drab; the walls bare except for a few tacky posters left by the last tenant. His furniture consists of a couch too small to lay on and two folding chairs. The sink jutting outward might seem out of place anywhere but here.

Welcome to the world of minor-league umpires. And Harry Grove Stadium, home of the Keys, is one of Kennedy's better stops.

Unlike big-league umpires, Kennedy, 26, and his 230 minor-league brethren are real blue-collar workers, enduring long drives and seedy hotels for roughly 1/20th the pay.

Kennedy's blood runs blue -- both his father and brother are umpires. But when his third season ends Sunday, he'll start at a law firm in his hometown of Frankfort, Ky. -- not a minute too soon.

"I love my job, I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," he says. "But [when the season ends], I'll be ready to go home."

Kennedy's office -- shared by his partner, high school algebra teacher Troy Fullwood -- looks like it would be the last place to find sympathy for major-league umpires. Many of those 68 umpires earn salaries more than $250,000 and fly first-class across the country to cities where they stay in four-star hotels.

Today, 22 of the elite are set to disappear. Major League Baseball accepted their resignations, handed in as part of the umpires union's desperate-but-bungled strategy to force negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement that expires this winter. A compromise agreed to yesterday guarantees their pay for the rest of the season, but they will be replaced on the field.

For six months in the advanced Single-A Carolina League, Kennedy makes about $12,600. Still, he understands those who have had what he aspires to.

"There has to be a good reason why they're doing it for the betterment of umpires' associations overall," he said. "Believe it or not, the major-league guys are concerned about us, more so than they would let on."

But even for minor-league umpires at the game's lowest rungs, life will change for the better because of developments several tax brackets above. With three umpires already set to retire, MLB hired a total of 25 replacements from Triple-A.

Twenty-five from Double-A will move up in turn, opening a path for those like Kennedy.

"Whatever they decide to do, that affects us all down the line," Kennedy said. "If only two guys retire, there's not going to be that much impact. But if the numbers are big, that will trickle down to Triple-A ball."

Any glee, however, is hidden. The misfortune of men with a combined 355 years of pro baseball experience -- men responsible for 39 children and four grandchildren -- tempers the anticipation.

Adam Dowdy, a 24-year-old from the Chicago area, mulled over the bittersweet aspects one evening along with his crew of Patrick McGinnis and Don Goller. They were in Bowie to call a Baysox game against the Harrisburg Senators.

"I'm not big about the manner in which we would be moving up you can't be happy when 25 guys lose their jobs," Dowdy said.

McGinnis added: " and you know them, or their families and friends, or you have some relationship with them."

Kennedy has such ties through his native Kentucky, which has produced 17 pro umpires. He and his younger brother, Jack, also a minor-league umpire, regularly exchange e-mail with major-league umpires such as Ed Hickox, one of those slated for removal.

Partially because of such relationships, Kennedy and Fullwood view the image of fat, arrogant major-league umpires as unjust. Only the worst of major-league umpiring gets attention -- overweight umpires, blown calls or skirmishes with players, they said.

"On ESPN, they were showing all the big guys as umpires, then they show the NBA referees who work three or four nights a week. They don't work every night like people say," Kennedy said.

Fullwood believes the union is trying to make things better for future umpires; that taking their jobs would sabotage the quest.

"My goal is to make it, but I don't want to do it by taking the food off someone else's table," he said.

At the same time, Fullwood never knows what's going to be on his table, though he praises the Keys. "Frederick gives us first-class treatment," he said. "But some of the clubs could care less."

Fullwood, a vegetarian, said many teams present the bounty of a hot dog and Coke as a post-game meal after three hours of work in brutal heat. Or umpires can seek something else to eat with what's left of a $15 per diem, after a third goes to clubhouse dues.

Later, umpires often must room together in run-down areas only to be awakened by menacing knocks.

"You work a series, and sometimes you wonder, 'How can they put us here?' " he said. On the way to the majors, this can be the life for as long as 15 years before the shot at The Show finally arrives. If it does.

Since last March, Kennedy noted, he hasn't seen his family or girlfriend for more than a few days.

"How long do I want to do this?" he wondered. "It's something you have to decide. What are the options back home? Are we going to get a pay raise some day? Am I moving up like I should? Do I want to start a career now? Do I want to start a family?"

The nature of this gamble makes him empathize with the new hires.

"If these guys don't a sign a contract now, [MLB] says next spring, 'We offered you a contract and you didn't take it,' " he said. "I think [the new hires] had advice from the big-league guys saying, 'The opportunity is now, you've got to go with it.' "

After all, it's 230 guys going after 68 jobs, hammering home a harsh truth.

"With that type of supply and demand," Kennedy said, "you can walk away from the game and it would not miss you at all."

Pub Date: 9/02/99

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