In recent weeks, tensions between Major League umpires and the players they officiate have reached a boiling point. Firstly, veteran umpire Joe West was suspended three days for saying (in what he believed to be an off-the-record conversation) that Rangers’ third basemen Adrian Beltre is the biggest complainer in the game. While technically umpires aren’t allowed to speak negatively of players, it’s atypical for an umpire to be suspended at all, let alone for an incident not involving a physical altercation.
A few weeks later, Ian Kinsler was ejected for arguing short balls and strikes. The next day, he gave an interview saying that veteran umpire Angel Hernandez was “messing” with games. “He’s changing the game,” Hernandez said. “He needs to find another job, he really does. I’m not mad at him. He just needs to go away. When it becomes blatant like that there is a problem.”
Kinsler went on to say that he believed he would be suspended for his statement, but he was only fined an undisclosed amount.
Fed up, the World Umpires Association Governing Board issued a statement on behalf of Major League umpires.
“This week, a player publicly and harshly impugned the character and integrity of Angel Hernandez - a veteran umpire who has dedicated his career to baseball and the community,” the statement said. “The verbal attack on Angel denigrated the entire MLB umpiring staff and is unacceptable.”
The union went on to attack the Commissioner’s Office for condoning the behavior of players. “The Office of the Commissioner’s lenient treatment to abusive player behavior sends the wrong message to players and managers. It’s ‘open season’ on umpires, and that’s bad for the game.”
In response, the umpires joined together to make a statement about their unfair treatment, wearing white arm bands around their wrists. Yet, this protest that was supposed to be supporting umpires ended up violating their CBA. “I want to be clear: that protest was a violation of their collective bargaining agreement” MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred said in an interview following this incident. Umpires are not supposed to go on strike, or at least, not until their CBA is renegotiated following the 2019 season. However, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for them to strike anyway.
Before the millennium, umpires were hired and regulated by the league presidents. In 1998, though, then-Commissioner Bud Selig decided he wanted that power. He instructed his assistant, Sandy Alderson, to issue a memo regarding a change to the strike zone. In reality, this memo described a strike zone that was nearly identical to the Major League regulation already in place; the memo was more of a symbol than anything else.
The umpires did not respond well, and essentially told the Commissioner’s office that they have no power. Alderson proceeded by instructing league officials to chart pitches and use those charts to generate consistency reports for each umpire. The subsequent reports were published by the MLBPA, humiliating the umpires into action.
The umpires’ then-union, the Major League Umpires Association, saw the danger in staging a full walk-out: inexperienced umpires would be responsible for officiating end-of-season play. After several discussions, they decided to turn in letters of resignation. The value of this plan was that it would essentially dissolve the MLUA, ending their CBA, and allow for the creation of a new union with a new CBA. Additionally, MLB would owe the umpires about $15 million in severance pay.
Anticipating their move, Alderson had already spent two months searching for qualified umpires to fill their positions. He hired 22 new umpires to replace the resigning 42. Recognizing their failure, the umpires attempted to rescind their resignations. The Commissioner agreed to rescind the resignations of some of the umpires, but 22 positions had already been filled. Essentially, 22 established Major League umpires fired themselves.
Umpiring is a hard job. As fans, it’s easy for us to sit on the couch and bemoan the call of an umpire. In their defense, MLB umpires need to earn those jobs. Watching umpires officiate little league, high school, or even college games can sometimes be the most painful experience baseball lovers have to endure. Major League umpires are going to get it right most of the time. That being said, in a world ever-approaching the technology necessary for automated strike zones, umpires are in no position to be giving baseball teams and their fans a hard time. The nature of their job is to make hard calls. If they are unable to handle the criticism that comes with that, they’ve chosen the wrong line of work.
Rachel Schaefer is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.