The image that will endure is that of the stout Richie Phillips—the umpires' union boss, who had just marched his charges off a cliff—clutching a cookie. A perfect prop. Nero grabbed his fiddle, Captain Queeg rolled steel balls in his hand, and Phillips reached for the Chips Ahoy. Got milk of magnesia?
Between bites, Phillips swore he would "fight to the death" to restore the jobs of 22 umpires whose resignations were accepted last week by Major League Baseball. This vow, of course, came from the same guy who had advised the umps to tender their resignations as part of a negotiating tactic that backfired. Unless he can somehow find a way to reverse the worst screwup in recent labor history, possibly through a lawsuit, the name Richie Phillips will be synonymous with blunder.
"It'll go down as one of the worst moves in the history of negotiations," says American League umpire Dave (Happily No Relation) Phillips, who rescinded his resignation and kept his job. "He put us in harm's way. He put guys on the street."
Richie Phillips's miscalculation wiped out the jobs of a third of his union's members. Since taking office in 1978 Phillips had made the union a success, but then he gambled that the game couldn't go on without the likes of Eric Gregg, whose strike zone was the embarrassment of the 1997 National League Championship Series, and Joe West, who once body-slammed a pitcher. To the surprise of no one but Phillips, baseball gladly let those two and 20 others go.
Commissioner Bud Selig and his staff handled Phillips's gaffe superbly, giving the umpires a week to come to their senses and ask for their jobs back. Some, like Rich Garcia (unemployed as of Sept. 2), chose instead to blast umps who'd abandoned Phillips's plan instead of "sticking together."
"Right," says Dave Phillips. "Those people in Jonestown who drank the Kool-Aid, they stuck together. They're all dead."
The ousted umps are still playing follow-the-leader, but Phillips should take his own advice and quit. Selig, meanwhile, is on a roll. Retiring Jackie Robinson's number 42 for all clubs in '97 was brilliant. Making Roger Maris's family part of the '98 home run race was touching, and last month's All-Star Game tribute to Ted Williams and the best living players was stirring in its sincerity. Now this: an honest-to-goodness labor victory for the owners' side. Charlie Brown's a winner at last, but he couldn't have done it without Richie Phillips.