They're All Thumbs
Lou Piniella has been ejected many times in his major league career, but until last week he had never been tossed in spring training for asking an umpire to stop talking to one of his players. On March 4, one day after Richie Phillips, the head of the umps' union, announced that the umpires would enforce Rule 9.01(d) to the letter—it allows them to eject anyone who protests a decision—the normally judicious Ted Hendry, who was working at second base, threw out Piniella in the eighth inning of his Seattle Mariners' 14-13 exhibition win over the Milwaukee Brewers. The reason: Piniella had yelled that Hendry's chatter was affecting Seattle shortstop Andy Sheets's concentration.
Thus, what began as the umps' justifiably angry reaction to baseball's lily-livered handling of the Roberto Alomar spitting incident is threatening to devolve into high-handedness that could compromise the game. Alomar was suspended with pay for the Baltimore Orioles' first five games of 1997 for spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck last September; judging from Phillips's announcement and Hendry's quick tossing of Piniella, common sense appears to have been suspended indefinitely. "Why don't they just come up with a damn firing squad?" San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker said last week. "It's the same thing."
The argument is part of baseball's culture, part of the social contract. Argue a little, O.K. Curse a little, O.K. Start kicking like a colt or covering up second base with dirt, you're outta here. Now, however, the umpires have apparently adopted a zero-tolerance policy. What exactly constitutes an objection to a decision? Is dropping the bat or batting helmet at the plate after a called third strike beyond the limit?
Players and managers have shown a troubling lack of respect for umpires since long before Alomar let fly. "Discipline has eroded over the years," says American League ump Don Denkinger, a 28-year veteran. Absolutely correct. But the umpires have exacerbated on-field tensions by becoming increasingly confrontational. Although a long-delayed summit held on Feb. 4 failed in its goal of improving the relationship between players and umps, the umpires should continue to press their points behind closed doors instead of imperiously on the field. There is a right way to address the issues—just as there used to be a right way to argue.
The Sun Devil Gambling Question
Questions about point-shaving were directed—perhaps unjustly—at Jerry Tarkanian's Fresno State basketball program last week, but more compelling signs of point-shaving were apparent in Phoenix, where the U.S. attorney is looking into at least three possibly tainted Arizona State basketball games from the 1993-94 season.
Though The Fresno Bee wrote in its March 6 editions that the Bulldogs' program was the "focus of [a] betting probe," there was, at week's end, no indication that any federal agency was investigating. Wildly inconsistent play and egregious foul shooting, neither of which is foreign to any college team, were the main reasons that rumors of fixing surfaced and eventually ended up in the Bee. According to oddsmakers and sports-book supervisors, the type of suspicious betting activity that generally gets investigators interested (e.g., the betting line suddenly tilting toward a team as a result of an unusually high sum being wagered on that team) did not take place in connection with any of the Fresno State games labeled as suspicious by the newspaper.
It's a different story in Arizona, where the FBI last week confirmed reports of an investigation into sports gambling. A government source told SI that the investigation involves point-shaving and that subpoenas have been issued by a grand jury. The source also said that targets of the inquiry include players from the 1993-94 Sun Devils and at least six gamblers. The source expects indictments will be returned within several weeks. According to the FBI, Arizona State coach Bill Frieder, who has never made a secret of his taste for hitting the tables in Las Vegas, is not under investigation, nor is any other coach or official at the university.
The Arizona State episode began to unfold in early 1994, when a group of three men wagered startlingly large sums against the favored Sun Devils at several Las Vegas sports books. According to managers from several of the sports books and an official of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the gamblers were a kind of gang that couldn't bet straight. They pulled out stacks of $100 bills and displayed naiveté about betting protocol. The sources in the federal government, the gaming commission and the sports books told SI that the gamblers bet heavily on three games: the Sun Devils' 68-56 loss to nine-point underdog USC on Feb. 19, their 87-80 loss to 1½-point underdog Oregon on Feb. 24 and a 73-55 victory over Washington on March 5.