Code of Silence
On Sept. 30, Richie Phillips, head of the baseball umpires' union, drew a line in the infield dirt by issuing a zero-tolerance edict to acting commissioner Bud Selig and the American and National League presidents. Still stinging from baseball's failure to suspend Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar during the 1996 playoffs after he spit on umpire John Hirschbeck in the last week of the regular season, Phillips warned that the umps would eject anyone arguing "within an arm's length" of them during the upcoming postseason. Baseball told Phillips that by unilaterally imposing such conditions on the players, he would violate his union's collective bargaining agreement with baseball. But the umpires had made their point. "Basically," says one manager of a playoff team, "they tried to scare the crap out of everybody."
They apparently succeeded. Through Sunday there had been no ejections during the postseason because, despite numerous disputable calls, no one has dared to vigorously dispute them. "You don't say anything because you can't take the chance of getting run," said a National League playoff pitcher. When Eric Gregg established a dubious strike zone in the Florida Marlins' 2-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, a game in which he consistently rang up pitches that appeared far wide of the plate, there were few overt gripes. Braves centerfielder Kenny Lofton feebly protested once; manager Bobby Cox, whose seven ejections in 1997 led the majors, barely uttered a peep. Watching the game on television, another manager in the playoffs called Gregg's work "an embarrassment for baseball."
Arguments with umpires can range from the hilarious to the tedious to the dangerous: Phillips has cited Cox's stepping on the feet of Ed Montague in an Aug. 6 game as another instance of the umpires' unsafe working conditions. Since last year the umps have pushed for a formalized code of conduct, which is still in the process of being drawn up. Any code should protect them from physical abuse such as Alomar's and Cox's. But an arm's-length standard would be excessive and unfair. An argument by a player or manager, even if it winds up nose-to-nose, is a team's only means of holding an umpire accountable for his work. While such beefs rarely result in overturned calls, they are a vital—and reasonable—part of baseball gamesmanship.
He's So Money
With 474 rushing yards through last Sunday, Gary Brown of the San Diego Chargers is on pace to earn a $1 million bonus for gaining 1,000 yards this season. We believe he'll get it because Brown is a money player: He played at Williamsport (Pa.) High, whose teams are nicknamed the Millionaires.
You'd think that after 15 consecutive losing seasons including a record of 34-114 over the past six years, the Mansfield (Pa.) University women's basketball team would want all the practice it could get. But first-year coach Luke Ruppel had a more devilish plan. He decided to forgo the team's Oct. 15 Midnight Madness workout session and instead brought his team to Mansfield Holy Child Catholic Church. There Father Louis Kaminski began a 40-minute service with these words: "We are here to exorcise the demons that have plagued this program for so many years."
When NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw to consider extending the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires after the 2000 season, to 2007, Upshaw was stunned. Since the start of the season Upshaw has been trying to drum up approval from the players for a one-year extension. (That approval is a gimme, with only 15 no votes out of about 1,300 cast so far.) But the owners also hope that their ongoing TV negotiations will yield a contract that runs longer than the traditional four-year deal. "The time is right and the game healthy enough to get some real long-term agreements in TV and labor," says the Denver Broncos' Pat Bowlen, chairman of the owners' TV committee.
There's one catch: Tagliabue wants any extension of the labor deal to include a hardening of the salary cap. Under the current agreement, teams can circumvent the cap when signing new stars by spreading their huge bonuses over the length of the contract, thus softening the impact on each year's payroll. But players won't give up their signing bonuses, and they shouldn't. Because NFL contracts aren't guaranteed, such bonuses are the only way these living-on-the-edge athletes can be assured of getting paid if they're injured or cut. "There will be no givebacks," Upshaw says. "These owners have to restrain themselves. We're not going to help them do that."
Earlier this month World TeamTennis presented rookie of the year awards to Mary Joe Fernandez, 26, who has a career record of 462-210 in her 12-plus seasons on the Women's Tennis Association tour, and to Richey Reneberg, who at 31 was the oldest American to finish in the 1996 year-end Top 100 rankings.