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Steve Wulf
April 02, 1984
Once baseball's invisible men, umpires are bringing attention to themselves these days with their feisty attitudes
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April 02, 1984

The Umpires Strike Rack

Once baseball's invisible men, umpires are bringing attention to themselves these days with their feisty attitudes

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They say that an umpire is doing his job when he's invisible. "The greatest compliment I could be paid," says former National League umpire Tom Gorman, "was when somebody asked, 'Who umped that game?' "

But in 1983, the 100th anniversary of the profession, umpires were very visible—and often in a most unflattering light. Umps don't really care for instant replays, but here they are:

•On May 15 Ken Kaiser ejected Baltimore's Eddie Murray for trying to show him up, but when his manager, Joe Altobelli, objected to the ejection, Kaiser charged after Altobelli and had to be intercepted by his crew chief, Larry Barnett. Orioles general manager Hank Peters filed a protest with the American League office, stating, "It appears a personality conflict has developed, which caused me to question how objective a person can be.... He just lost control of himself and felt he was more important than the game."

•On June 28 Atlanta manager Joe Torre followed umpire Joe West toward West's dressing room to protest West's ejection of pinch hitter Bob Watson, who had thrown his bat following a third-strike call that ended the game. West turned around to confront Torre, pushed him and then raised his arm as if to ward him off. The National League fined Torre $200 but also fined West $300 and handed out the first suspension of a league umpire (three days, with pay) in 44 years. West didn't have a specific crew assignment this spring and faced the prospect of spending 1984 as a floater.

•On July 11, following a heated argument with Kansas City's Willie Wilson, umpire Joe Brinkman told the press, "I could write him up [in a report to the league office], but I'm not going to because he'll be going [thrown out] every night when I see him, anyhow...whenever he looks at me cross-eyed or just looks at me. If he apologizes, I'll run him. I just don't care if the man ever plays a baseball game when I'm on the field ever, ever again." Fortunately, Brinkman did not carry through his extraordinary threat the rest of the series. But he soon was embroiled in a greater controversy with Kansas City.

•On July 24, in the infamous Pine Tar Game between the New York Yankees and Kansas City, Brinkman's crew disallowed George Brett's apparent game-winning home run in the ninth inning because the sticky substance was too high up Brett's bat. "I have a bad feeling all of this is because of me," said Wilson. In fact, Brinkman's crew hadn't been out to "get" anybody; American League president Lee MacPhail overturned their decision because they didn't know the relevant rules. Tim McClelland, the plate umpire in the game, defended the crew's work by stating, "If somebody wants to make a farce of the rules, we'll just have to be men and take it."

For the umps, losing their dignity became an all-too-frequent event last season. They refused to work the Mayor's Trophy Game, a charity contest between the Mets and Yankees that benefits sand-lot baseball in New York, for reasons related to their 1979 strike. Also, Dale Ford sued Yankee manager Billy Martin for calling him a "stone liar." And then there was Satch Davidson, who on July 29 responded to a protest by San Diego pitcher John Montefusco by ripping off his mask, racing to the mound and angrily berating him.

So much for the old notion of invisibility. Umpires today are more arrogant and confrontational than ever before. They're supposed to be above it all, but they seem to be dishing out the dirt with the rest of the boys. Or, as Detroit manager Sparky Anderson puts it, "You get their dandruff up and they'll get up."

Temperaments aside, today's umpires are more skilled, more athletic, more intelligent, more consistent and more diligent than their predecessors. And goodness knows their lot isn't easy. Even with their much-deserved strides in pay [salaries start at $26,000-per-year and reach $70,000 after 20 years] and working conditions [two weeks vacation in season], umpires are still underpaid and overworked. Surely, nobody else would put up with the crap they put up with. "You try keeping your temper when some manager is calling you a [10-letter word] 62 times," says Bill Haller, a once-revered ump who's now an American League assistant supervisor.

It takes a hard man to endure that, and these are hard men. Their continued ostracism of the umpires who came up during the 79 strike borders on the absurd, and shows no signs of softening. Once again this spring the five remaining members of the Class of '79 weren't allowed to join the union.

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