Umpires should make the right call and eject Phillips

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Umpires union chief Richie Phillips is going to cling tenaciously to his job, even in the face of one of the greatest blunders in the history of sports labor relations.

He just plain blew it. He got desperate when it appeared that the owners were going to take a hard-line stand in pending labor negotiations and organized a desperate gambit that had no chance to succeed.

He's got to go the way of the 22 umpires that he -- and Major Phillips

League Baseball -- put out of work. The union needs to reorganize or, at the very least, hire a new director who knows when to fight and, maybe more importantly, when not to fight.

To that end, the group of veteran umpires who opposed the re-hiring of Phillips earlier this year is expected to announce tomorrow or Tuesday a plan to decertify the Major League Professional Umpires Association and form a new union.

"Decertification is definitely a thought right now," said veteran umpire John Hirschbeck, who along with Joe Brinkman and Dave Phillips have led the movement to unseat the current union leadership. "We're leaning toward a separate organization."

Richie Phillips can complain all he wants about the split that developed in the union when it became apparent that the owners were not going to fall for the mass resignation strategy. But he should have known what was going to happen. He gets paid well to plan for all contingencies, but he waded into a fight that he should have known he couldn't win.

Did he really believe, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, that Major League Baseball would quake at the prospect of losing dozens of its highest-paid umpires? Apparently, he did, which can only mean that he had lost touch both with his membership and -- some might say -- reality.

He's got to go. The umpires need to bring in someone who can make peace with the owners and get at least some of the displaced umpires reinstated for next year. Phillips is not equipped to do that, because he only knows how to fight and the union doesn't have any fight left it in.

During the unsuccessful attempt several months ago to replace Phillips with a less dictatorial leader, the name brought up by the dissident umpires was influential Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, whose non-confrontational style of negotiation has helped settle past labor disputes between the owners and the players.

Shapiro has made it a personal crusade to change the way agents, business leaders and union officials negotiate. His book, "The Power of Nice," provides guidance to negotiators who want to make progress in negotiations without making enemies.

Right now, he might be the only hope for the 22 umpires who are sitting at home today wondering whether they have thrown away their professional careers. The owners seem intent on keeping them unemployed, but might be willing to assimilate some of them into a new umpiring system next year if the union is willing to accept significant changes in their next collective bargaining agreement.

There's no doubt that the union is in an extremely vulnerable position. The dissident faction led by Brinkman, Hirschbeck and Dave Phillips continues to work to topple the current union leadership and soon may petition the National Labor Relations Board to decertify the MLPUA and form a new union.

Shapiro probably wouldn't sign on as permanent union director, but he likely would be the point man during what promises to be a difficult and challenging change in leadership.

"Our main goal is to get a change in union leadership," said Hirschbeck, who is in town to umpire the series between the Orioles and Indians at Camden Yards. "Our union has been run by a dictator and we want it to be a democracy.

"If you're not one of Richie's inner group, you don't have any say in decisions. You don't really have a vote. You just pay your dues. All we want is for the union to be run democratically."

Tough question

Of course, the big question is this: If the owners eventually bring back some of the displaced umpires -- or are forced to bring them back by an arbitrator -- what happens to the 25 umpires who were hired to replace them?

Commissioner Bud Selig insists that those 25 have been hired as permanent umpires, so they now are under the jurisdiction of the MLPUA. That means they can't just be fired, and they probably can't be fooled into submitting their resignations if Major League Baseball decides to assimilate some of the displaced umpires into the new umpiring rotation.

Sounds like an impossible situation, but baseball could re-assimilate many of the 22 displaced umpires by going to five-man umpiring crews. The addition of an extra umpire to each crew would increase scheduling flexibility and reduce stress on the umpires during the lengthy regular season.

Still quarreling in Anaheim

The brawl that erupted during Tuesday night's game between the Indians and Angels sparked more internal turmoil in Anaheim.

Reliever Troy Percival, who ignited the altercation by hitting outfielder David Justice in the chest with a pitch, was apparently upset afterward that teammate Mo Vaughn didn't join in the fray.

"That's where you learn which people on your team are standing behind you," Percival said. "You know which guys you can go to battle with. I gained respect for certain people. Certain people I have to question. You can watch the videotape."

Vaughn wasn't happy to hear that. He was the designated hitter that night and had been in the clubhouse when the fight broke out. By the time he got back to the dugout, the fight was over.

He laid into his teammates during an expletive-laced clubhouse tirade the next day, particularly taking aim at Percival for taking his complaint to the media instead of the players he was criticizing.

"Take a beating like a man and get the next out," Vaughn shouted, with Percival standing just a few feet away.

Hitting coach Rod Carew stepped in at that point and took both players aside to hash out their differences more privately.

Friday night, the team closed its clubhouse to reporters, violating baseball's rules on access for media, after beating the New York Yankees following manager Terry Collins' resignation.

Big unit, little offense

Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson apparently has decided to quit worrying and enjoy the close games. He clearly felt persecuted earlier this year when several great performances went to waste because of minimal offensive support, but he seems to have come to grips with the situation.

Once again, he got almost nothing to work with Tuesday night and came up on the wrong end of a 2-1 loss to the unimposing Montreal Expos.

Johnson is 14-9 and the D'backs have scored a total of 11 runs in his nine losses. That's an average of 1.2 runs per game. Seven times the club has been held to one run or fewer in a game started by Johnson, who has a 2.38 ERA in those games.

"It's been like that all year," he said. "It's made me a better pitcher. If we get 10 runs, I go out there like it's a 1-0 ballgame. I don't look at the scoreboard until the game's over."

If the season ended today

The Diamondbacks would play the New York Mets in the Divisional Series, which wouldn't be a delightful prospect for the Mets. The D'backs won the season series against New York, 7-2, and outscored it, 63-39, but don't expect them to be overconfident if the postseason matchup takes place.

"Once you get into October, who cares what happened in the regular season?" Arizona pitcher Brian Anderson said. "The Mets won't come in here intimidated by us by any means if we happen [to meet]."

What are friends for?

Chicago White Sox infielder Greg Norton jumped to the defense of teammate Frank Thomas after he was booed heavily during an 0-for-8, four-strikeout performance in Monday's doubleheader sweep by the Seattle Mariners at Comiskey Park.

"It's too bad they're booing Frank," Norton said. "He's a good guy and he has done so much for the organization. I've tried my best to play poorly and take some of the heat off him."

If that's the plan, Norton is succeeding. He committed his 26th error of the year on Tuesday.

Family affair

When Cincinnati's Aaron Boone and Atlanta's Bret Boone homered in the same game Wednesday, it was the first time in nearly 25 years that two brothers have homered for opposing teams in the same game.

The last time it happened was Sept. 14, 1974, when Graig Nettles of the Yankees and Jim Nettles of the Detroit Tigers turned the trick at Tiger Stadium.

Rude welcome

Not long after Marlins top draft choice Josh Beckett signed a $7 million contract, he was playfully accosted by Florida pitcher Alex Fernandez during a visit to the Marlins' clubhouse.

"So, you're the guy who's going to pitch in the All-Star Game in two years," said Fernandez, reminding Beckett of his brash draft-day prediction. "Well, let me tell you something. I've got 102 big-league wins and I've never sniffed an All-Star Game."

Fernandez is known for his lighthearted needling, but Beckett didn't know that. He quietly took the good-natured tongue-lashing and then turned to his father and said, "I think we better go."

All sentimentality aside

Darryl Strawberry's return to the Yankees' clubhouse brought out all the well-intentioned cliches about his uphill battle against drug abuse and his comeback from colon cancer, but manager Joe Torre took a more practical view.

"I can't get caught up in the story about perseverance," he said. "It's a great story, but I have to find out whether Darryl can help us."

Barring more bad news off the field, he probably can't hurt. He may take a few at-bats away from DH Chili Davis in September, but Strawberry can be a presence without even swinging the bat.

"Darryl can affect the outcome of a game without even having to come off the bench," Torre said. "He's one guy who can scare the other manager and change the way he uses his bullpen."

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