Nine veteran major-league umpires will be returning to work two years after a failed bargaining gambit by the old Major League Umpires Association left a third of its members out of work.
Arbritrator Alan Symonette ordered Major League Baseball to rehire nine of the 22 umpires left unemployed when management accepted their resignations. Thirteen remain unemployed.
The failed resignation strategy - conceived by former union boss Richie Phillips - fractured the MLUA and led to the formation of a new union under the leadership of umpire John Hirschbeck, but many Phillips loyalists chose to pursue arbitration rather than accept a deal negotiated by the new World Umpires Association that would have put about half of them back in uniform.
It took nearly two years, but Drew Coble, Greg Kosc, Gary Darling, Larry Poncino, Larry Vanover and Joe West will return, along with two veteran umpires - Frank Pulli and Terry Tata - who have indicated that they intend to retire.
Baseball also was ordered to give the nine back pay for the time they missed.
Symonette did not dispute management's main argument that the umpires voluntarily resigned and could be replaced under the terms of the previous collective bargaining agreement, but his decision to allow some of them to return, anyway, had Major League Baseball officials scratching their heads.
In a statement released yesterday by the commissioner's office, management seemed to hint at some kind of appeal, though the decision of the arbitrator is binding and extremely difficult to overturn in the courts.
"While feeling vindicated that it's core position that the umpires resigned and that MLB had the right to hire replacements was upheld, we are at a loss to understand the arbitrator's conclusions with respect to some of the National League umpires," the statement read. "Major League Baseball will thoroughly examine the opinion and consider what further action is appropriate."
Phillips persuaded most of his membership to submit resignations in an attempt to force early bargaining on a new labor agreement, a move that played right into the hands of hard-line owners. Most of the umpires attempted to withdraw those resignations, leaving MLB in a position to keep only the umpires they wanted to keep.
To his credit, Phillips created enough legal havoc to persuade ownership to agree to submit the 22 cases to arbitration, a strategy few seriously believed would get any significant results. From that standpoint, the ruling was a huge victory, but the returning umpires considered it only a partial triumph.
"It's not a good day. It's only a sad day," West said. "I feel like a plane went down with a lot of my friends."
Umpire crew chief Larry Young, one of the umpires who returned to work after the resignation gambit fell apart, told the Associated Press that anything short of a full-scale reinstatement was a disappointment.
"I'm saddened by the fact that 13 of my colleagues and a lot of good friends apparently are not going to have jobs at this time," Young said from Chicago.
It is not clear yet how the returning umpires will be assimilated into the current ranks. Baseball probably will form extra vacation crews and reduce the use of minor-league fill-in umpires, but nothing will happen until MLB lawyers decide whether to try to appeal the decision.
Also unclear is the union status of the returning umpires, many of whom were resentful of the successful attempt to decertify the MLUA. They likely will be welcomed into the new union if they choose to join, but could choose to work independent of World Umpires Association representation.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.