October 9, 1997 in Sports

Phillips Far Too Full Of Himself

Peter Schmuck The Sporting News
 

Somebody needs to tell the head of the umpires association to stifle himself.

Union chief Richie Phillips is so hungry for attention, he always seems to pick the wrong place and the wrong time to thrust himself and the umpires he leads into the spotlight.

Last week, the umpires suddenly stepped forward to tell the world they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. They are going to follow baseball rules to the letter and eject players and managers who step over the line.

That’s fine. Everyone wants to see the umpires do their job better, but the underlying theme of this latest outburst was that they don’t get enough respect and are not treated as an important part of baseball’s entertainment package. There is absolutely nothing new here.

Every year or so, Phillips finds some reason to make a public fuss, which fulfills his personal hunger for headlines, and whips the umpires into a righteous frenzy. Last season, he had a real issue - the spitting incident involving Roberto Alomar and umpire John Hirschbeck - which allowed him to exploit the postseason media crush. This year, in the absence of a burning issue, he created one.

No one is going to say it, but there is a very simple dynamic at work here. Phillips always has resented the players association because it has real leverage in its collective bargaining relationship with the owners. The umpires have far less, which is understandable - the players are, after all, the product. That’s a source of great frustration to the scrappy Philadelphia lawyer who leads them.

Don’t misunderstand. Phillips has done a lot for the umpires. His hard-nosed leadership has improved their employment environment immeasurably. He just doesn’t know when to quit.

Once again, he has turned the spotlight on the umpires at the wrong time, leaving them open to another on-field controversy like the one involving Rich Garcia in Game 1 of last year’s American League Championship Series. Garcia made a horrible call on the controversial Derek Jeter home run that was deflected into the stands by 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier. It was an honest mistake. But, in the wake of the Alomar-Hirschbeck controversy, it left the umpires looking petulant and incompetent.

For once, baseball management did the right thing, reacting swiftly with a stern warning that the umpires would face legal action if they try to enforce any unilaterally imposed code of conduct that diverges from standard practice. Who knows whether ownership has any real recourse - short of punishing the umpires during the next labor negotiations. But the warning at least put Phillips on notice that the industry is losing patience with his grandstanding.

This is typical behavior for the blustery Phillips. He has done something to disrupt or distract from the postseason four times in the past 14 seasons. The umpires struck the 1984 League Championship Series because they had not settled on a contract. Phillips used the expanded league playoff format in 1985 (the playoffs were expanded from best-of-5 to best-of-7) as a reason to demand more money for the umpires. Then came the threatened umpire boycott last year and the out-of-the-blue announcement this year that the umpires were taking disciplinary matters into their own hands.

Phillips again has lost perspective. The umpires generally do their jobs very well and deserve credit for the role they play in the sport. But they gain nothing by pushing their way into the postseason spotlight. The last thing the sport needs right now is the specter of some churlish umpire throwing a key player out of a playoff game just to make a point.

If the umps don’t tread lightly, they may find themselves in an even weaker bargaining position the next time they try to negotiate a new labor agreement with the owners. They must guard against alienating the public, which only would embolden the owners to take a hard-line stance in the next round of collective bargaining.


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