Some of his critics—and he has many-say that Phillips has made his union more powerful than the mighty Major League Baseball Players Association. Donald Fehr, after all, can't save the job of an aging player who can no longer get around on a fastball. Phillips & Co., on the other hand, can keep a card-carrying call-blower on the job longer than Strom Thurmond. "We get evaluated every day," says one player, "and if we're not doing the job, we're gone. With umpires who aren't good at their jobs, there's nothing anyone can do."
Indeed, while all umps are supervised, evaluated and sometimes fined by the leagues—"Umpires are accountable," insists American League director of umpires Marty Springstead—and while merit, not seniority, is now the main factor in the promotion of crew chiefs, umps enjoy almost as much job security as Supreme Court justices. While the NFL turns over nearly 10% of its officials each year, attrition has claimed only four big league umpires since 1993.
According to departing Baltimore Orioles CM. Pat Gillick, "The umpires have been on the agenda at every general managers' meeting in the last 25 years." Gillick and other G.M.'s are pinning their hopes on commissioner Bud Selig's newly appointed executive vice president for baseball operations, former Oakland A's general manager Sandy Alderson, who is said to be eager to address the game's umping troubles. For starters, insiders say, Alderson will try to shift jurisdiction over the umpires from the leagues to the commissioner's office and lobby to have the game train its own umps, rather than leaving the task to profit-making academies run by longtime arbiters such as Joe Brinkman and Harry Wendlestedt.
Many insiders think baseball missed a chance to break the umps' union two years ago when Phillips threatened a strike over Roberto Alomar's spitting at ump John Hirschbeck. Selig's office is almost certain to take a harder line with the union in the next collective bargaining talks and push for a system that rewards merit and gives incompetents the thumb. "You've got to play a little hardball," says Gillick. "If the lower-rated guys continue to screw up, they have got to be gone. Do it like a big company does—offer early retirement. Give them a couple years' salary and get 'em out of there."
To some, the umps' aptitude is less disturbing than their attitude. Nobody held a grudge against Jim McKean, who may have blown a call on a fly ball to Cleveland's Kenny Lofton in Game 4 of the ALCS and later found himself out of position on a stolen base attempt and was hit by catcher Sandy Alomar's throw. Far more grating was what happened in the first inning of Game 2 of the Cleveland-Boston Division Series on Sept. 30. After Indians starting pitcher Dwight Gooden questioned a couple of ball calls, Brinkman told Gooden to shut up and pitch. The pitcher raised his hands as if to ask for peace. "I said, 'Let's get back to the game,' " Gooden would recall. Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove went to the mound and waited for Brinkman, who promptly ejected him, poking Hargrove in the chest. A few hitters later, after Brinkman blew a call on a play at the plate, he tossed Gooden for telling him to "get into the f—-ing game." It was a fine afternoon for all those fans who had bought tickets to see Joe Brinkman in action.
"The umps have an air about them," says one National Leaguer, perhaps thinking of Pepe Le Pew. "They get paid no matter what kind of job they do, and there are quite a few arrogant ones."
Still, Phillips claims that umps are less confrontational than they used to be. "To control the game, they have to control volatile tempers," the union boss says. "I don't believe Joe Brinkman baited Dwight Gooden. I think Dwight Gooden wasn't happy with a call and he violently disagreed. Players have a right to disagree; they don't have a right to curse at the umpire about it."
Springstead believes that postseason baseball has grown so pressure-packed that many umpires would rather skip the extra paycheck and go fishing. "This is going to sound crazy, but a lot of guys don't want to put their careers on the line," he says.
Phillips and Runge scoff at such a thought. "I love Marty, but that is absurd," Phillips says. "There's not an umpire at this level who doesn't relish the opportunity to umpire in the postseason." Adds Runge, "I don't think there's one guy in the National League who feels that way."
But one veteran umpire, requesting anonymity, agrees with Springstead. "It's not worth it to be here" in the postseason, says the ump, one of the most respected in the big leagues. "Most of us feel that way. I felt a little different when I was younger and liked all the cameras and the little bit of money, but it's just not worth it. If you do your job, nobody says anything. Mess up just once and they never let you forget it."