The 1998 baseball season might be the best ever, but the millions of fans tuning in the World Series this week should be I warned that the same cannot be said of the umpiring. Some of the umps who'll work the Fall Classic are good at their jobs, and some aren't so good, but they all have one thing in common: It is their turn.
For the most part, veteran umpires get to the World Series the same way you get served at the deli or Larry King chooses a new wife. Someone says, "Who's next?" and up steps an ump, mask in hand, ready to call one of the most important ball games of the year. By the time this year's Series is over, all but 19 of the 64 full-time umps in the big leagues will have worked one of the season's premier events—either the All-Star Game or one of the three rounds of playoffs. "Most umpires are nice guys," says New York Yankees manager Joe Torre. "There are just certain ones that I think shouldn't be in postseason play."
In short, some umps stink. Not all of them, of course, but enough to leave players and fans wondering, for example, when the strike zone was turned sideways. Did the umps get a memo informing them that the zone would henceforth be eight inches high and three feet wide? "I guess it just evolved that way," says National League director of umpires Paul Runge. "A few years ago, we were told to raise the strike zone, and everyone started yelling and screaming that we were calling too many high strikes." But at least a hitter can reach a fastball at his belly button. The strike the umps have created since then—half a foot outside—is the greatest gift to pitchers since the rosin bag. Batters, like fans, can only stand by and watch as the ball lands in the catcher's mitt, which is in another zip code. "It's frustrating," says Yankees rightfielder Paul O'Neill, "and the wider they go, the wider pitchers are going to throw."
Another cause for frustration is the umpires' belief that the strike zone is theirs to interpret, as if it were an Impressionist painting. It's O.K., they say, if a particular ump's zone is eccentric, as long as it's the same for both teams. "What bothers me is this idea of my strike zone, like it's a personal choice," says one team executive. "It's not your strike zone. There's only one strike zone, and it's in the rule book."
Last week, in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, home plate umpire Ted Hendry triggered a wave of second-guessing when he failed to call the Cleveland Indians' Travis Fryman out for interference. Fryman had run outside the base path on his way to first and was hit by a throw from the Yankees' first baseman Tino Martinez, who had fielded Fryman's bunt, to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch covering the bag. While it was a debatable call, a case could be made that Fryman beat the throw, nullifying the charge of interference. What was harder to explain was Hendry's strike zone, which seemed to include three of the five boroughs of New York City. Unlike the non-call on Fryman, Hendry's warped view of the zone distorted every inning. Cleveland batters struck out nine times, eight on called third strikes. Indians first baseman Jim Thome, a distinguished judge of the strike zone, laughed when Hendry punched him out for the third time. "He was calling terrible pitches on both sides," said Tribe shortstop Omar Vizquel. "It was a joke." The Yankees fanned 11 times, four of them looking. "You couldn't have reached some of those pitches with bamboo poles," Torre said.
Hendry is hardly the only offender. In Game 5 of last year's National League Championship Series, Florida Marlins rookie Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Atlanta Braves, a mark that deserves an asterisk the size of 305-pound plate umpire Eric Gregg, or at least the size of Gregg's ludicrous strike zone. "That was brutal," said then Braves first baseman Fred McGriff, who took a pitch down the middle—of the opposite batter's box—for a called third strike that ended the game. "Some of those pitches were eight to 10 inches outside. It changed the whole series."
Why are guys like Gregg allowed to play god every fall? Why was the 58-year-old Hendry, generally considered a below-average and over-the-hill ump, behind the plate in the ALCS? You can start by thanking their union, which has more juice than a Tropicana factory.
In its latest contract, a five-year deal that took effect in 1995, the umpires' association made sure that its members would share in plum assignments. The contract stipulates that no umpire can work more than one special event (All-Star Game, Division Series, LCS or World Series) per year, with one exception: An ump can be assigned to both a Division Series and the World Series. Nobody, no matter how highly regarded, can work two World Series in a row. The objective: spread the wealth. In addition to their salaries, which range from $75,000 to $225,000 with a $7,500 bonus for crew chiefs, umpires get $12,500 for a Division Series, $15,000 for an LCS and $17,500 for a World Series.
This system ensures postseason work for three quarters of all major league umps. It also makes it impossible for the best officials to work all the most important games, a unique situation in major pro sports. The NBA's 58 referees are regularly graded by the league—and ranked from 1 to 58—with the best 32 working the playoffs and only the top 11 eligible to officiate the NBA Finals. The NHL and the NFL also constantly evaluate their officials and use a merit system to determine which ones qualify for the postseason. Only in baseball is a Ted Hendry rewarded while superior arbiters sit at home.
Umpires' union chief Richie Phillips doesn't see a problem. In his mind every ump is a great ump. "We have a pool of 64 marvelous umpires," says Phillips. "Very little distinguishes one from another in ability. There are tens of thousands of umpires, and only 64 of them get to the major leagues. They do that by going through a torturous process at the minor league level. They are selected for their superior talent, and once you nurture that talent with major league experience, it puts these people in a somewhat lofty zone."