- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2000

At last Major League Baseball has done something logical by herding all its umpires into one basket, shaking well and letting the men in boo work games in both leagues. Now all that's left to make the sport as attractive as it used to be is to kill the designated hitter, shorten games, sell tickets for less, appoint a commissioner who doesn't own a ballclub and … well, you finish the list.
Now that we no longer have AL and NL umpires heck, there aren't even separate league offices anymore we can forget this silly business about the American being a high-strike league and the National a low-strike league (or vice versa; I could never remember which was which). And that's only one of the benefits.
Whether by design or accident, relations between the guys in uniform and the umpires have gotten better. They'll never be perfect as long as players and managers are trying to win games and umps are trying to be neutral. But by our own very unofficial count, vein-popping, eyeball-bulging confrontations on the field have decreased substantially.
Of course, you have to remember Earl Weaver is retired. If he ever leaves his Miami golf course and returns to baseball, all bets are off.
"Sure, there's less tension and animosity this season, and the way the umpiring has been restructured has a lot to do with it," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said yesterday from Anaheim, Calif. "There are a lot of new guys, and they're hustling and getting in position to make calls. You may not agree with all the calls, but …"
And, Hargrove said, the more amenable atmosphere is simply better for the game: "The way it is now, you go out there and say your piece, and it's done. Before, it seemed like every time you argued, it had a chance to turn into a confrontation."
I'm delighted to see everybody's getting along, more or less. With Richie Phillips as the aggressive head of the umpires' union in recent years, the arbiters were allowed, even encouraged, to give as good as they got. So we were treated to the specter of umpires and managers or players screeching at one another from a distance of six inches.
You're blind! You're stupid! You're incompetent! Your mother was a @#$%&!, and you're a &%$#@!"
"Yeah? Guess what, Charlie yer outta here! But before you take your leave, let me just add that everything you said goes double for me! And by the way, your mother was too ugly to be a @#$%&!!"
Enough already. Such debacles can provide momentary amusement, but nobody pays dough to see two fat guys acting like alley cats. The idea is for people to play the game, not argue it. That's for radio call-in shows and hot-stove league discussions. (Incidentally, are there any hot stoves left?)
Another problem with two-sided squabbles is that umps are supposed to be above the battle. When they yowl back, it's the same as a teacher getting into a screaming match with a student or a parent with a small child. Such antics reduce authority rather than reinforcing it.
Early in the century, John McGraw used to shove and punch umpires. The lovable Georgia Peachpit, Ty Cobb, once got into a fistfight under the stands with ump Billy Evans. Over the years, though, a code of behavior evolved despite the combative likes of Weaver, Leo Durocher and Billy Martin. If you touched an umpire, you were gone. Ditto if you followed after he had turned and walked away. And if you cursed him or any of his ancestors, a suspension and fine were due to ensue.
Then came Richie Phillips and a period of total childishness on both sides. I'm glad he's gone, after pushing MLB for one too many demands, and reason prevails again or something a lot closer to it.
Another factor, as Hargrove says, is that this season's umpires are simply better as a group. Twenty-two of last season's umps lost their jobs after Phillips foolishly advocated mass resignations, and most of them were near the bottom of players association ratings. And because their successors work both leagues, each crew sees a team less often. That gives grudges a better chance to be forgotten.
Also, umpires are conferring more often this season and reversing decisions occasionally. Now if they could only agree on what constitutes the strike zone, everything might be sweetness and light.
Umpiring has always been a tough job. Even the famous comment by pioneer Tim Hurst that "you can't beat the hours" no longer applies. Umpires can't associate with players and managers off the field, because that might be a detriment to objectivity. They can't associate with strangers, because they might have gambling connections. It's a lonely profession, and the men in it deserve respect from the people in uniform.
But it's a two-way street and should be.

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