Image via Bleacher Report.
Image via Bleacher Report.
All things in baseball begin with the strike zone. So too did the game’s last great officiating uprising, which happened not very long ago at all, and was simultaneously a bold job action, an excruciatingly prolonged train wreck and, eventually, a success.
Baseball owners’ biggest concern in the 1990s, after skyrocketing payrolls and well above the sudden and suspicious beefening of the game’s sluggers, were the umpires, who had been long hired and regulated by American and National League presidents. Under this system, the two leagues’ arbiters evolved separate folkways in terms of training, equipment, and especially the strike zone. The advent of interleague play made the idea of two separate but equal umpiring corps, each with a slightly different concept of what constituted a strike, seem antiquated—as did the idea that something as essential to the game as umpires fell fully beyond the owners’ control.
After the 1998 season, Commissioner Bud Selig publicly acknowledged that he sought direct control of the umpires for the commissioner’s office. Though league presidents would still technically manage the umpires for the 1999 season, Selig began to take clear steps to end this arrangement. He did so through Sandy Alderson, the longtime Oakland general who left the Athletics to take an executive vice president position in the commissioner’s office. Chief among Alderson’s duties was asserting the commissioner’s control over the umpires in a way no commissioner had previously attempted. On February 19, Alderson’s office issued a memo dictating that the upper reaches of the strike zone be raised to two inches above the top of the uniform pants. It’s hard to imagine a more picayune subject for an executive edict, and in truth, baseball’s official rules said the top of the strike zone was even higher, at the midpoint between belt and shoulder. The memo was, in some ways, simply a baby step in making that law an actually enforced reality. But it was also the first sign that Selig was seeking to arrogate the right to decide this sort of thing, and this seemingly unimportant memo was not received as such.
The umpires’ response to Adlerson’s memo essentially boiled down to Make me. Bruce Froemming, the National League’s senior umpire, declared “It's a total lack of respect to change something against the rule book definition and not sit down with a group of umpires and say ‘this is what we'd like to do; how do you feel about it.’” Faced with an intransigent umpiring corps, Alderson decided to go around them. In April, he asked team officials to chart pitches and file reports with the commissioner on strike zone consistency at the end of each homestand. Still stinging from the blow to their egos when a player’s association rating of them went public at the end of March, the umpires took this as another measure designed not only to usurp their authority, but humiliate them as well. And if there is anything umpires hate, more even than second-guessing, it’s being shown up.
When the regular season began, most umpires did not apply the new directives so much as shrink the strike zone all around. The game’s offensive boom received an even bigger jolt, as pitchers were all but forced to serve up balls over the plate if they hoped to get a called strike. By the end of May, scarcely a quarter of the way through the season, home runs were flying out of the park at an unprecedented and frankly ridiculous rate; by June, batters had already connected on a staggering 48 grand slams.
Many pitchers, meanwhile, lost a crucial weapon when the outside strike call disappeared, and the league’s most masterful black-painters suffered mightily for it. After ten starts, Atlanta ace Greg Maddux’s ERA sat, implausibly, above 5. One opponent noted of Maddux, whose pinpoint dominance was notable for its effortlessness, “it looks like he’s trying.”
Star pitchers being denied their bread and butter inevitably led to bloated ERAs, which led to carping in the press and arguments on the field, all of which in turn fueled the umps’ Us vs. Them mentality. The last straw came on June 26, when ump Tom Hallion bumped Rockies catcher Jeff Reed during a confrontation on the mound. At another time, the incident might have been brushed off. In the charged summer of 1999, however, Hallion received a three-game suspension. Even more galling was the fact that the suspension—the first ever given to an umpire for any reason—was handed down by National League President Leonard Coleman, presumably at Selig’s behest. What autonomy the umpires had from the league office had disappeared.
On July 14, while the All Star Game was taking place at Fenway Park, most of the umpires were down in Philadelphia, attending a contentious marathon meeting to decide their next move. They initially voted to strike, despite the fact that their current contract, which ran through the end of the season, contained a no-strike provision. Eventually, the strike option was vetoed, in the words of umpires union chief Richie Phillips, “in the interest of the fans, so the season would go on in uninterrupted fashion.” If that was the umpires’ true intention, it made their next move that much more baffling.
Phillips (at left) had headed the Major League Umpires Association for over two decades. He spearheaded the 1979 strike that won the umpires some key concessions and a great deal of public sympathy when baseball resorted to using incompetent replacement officials. That strike and two others in 1984 and 1995 successfully raised umpire salaries and won important benefits like in-season paid vacation. The umpires came to trust Phillips implicitly, and saw his combative style as the main reason for the new power and respect afforded to the MLUA. Throughout the 1999 season, every time the umpires received another perceived threat, Phillips was front and center in the press, blasting MLB in loud and often hyperbolic fashion, unafraid to antagonize the people he hoped to see at the bargaining table. When the pitch charting plan was revealed, he denounced it as “juvenile” and compared Bud Selig to Big Brother. Later, he accused the commissioner of “deliberately provoking” the umpires. “This is a guy,” Frank Deford warned in Sports Illustrated, “who led a walkout of altar boys at his parish church, when he was 13. And the priest caved in.” Phillips was 100 percent sure of two things: that his umpires would follow him to the end of the earth, and that he could not lose.
And so, Phillips announced that rather than strike, 57 of the league’s 66 MLUA-affiliated umpires would submit their resignations, effective September 2. At that point, the union would effectively be dissolved, and a new umpires association would form to begin negotiations anew. A work stoppage would be bad enough, as it would thrust inexperienced replacement umpires into duty during the last month of the regular season, and possibly the playoffs as well. According to Phillips’ calculations, the resignation would also put the league on the hook for as much as $15 million in severance pay. “The league is in chaos,” Phillips declared, almost proudly, when revealing the resignation plan. This was the nuclear option as an opening offer.
Many people in baseball were afraid the umps might make good on the threat, but the commissioner’s office was not among them. “I heard he might make a move like this in the near future,” Alderson said coolly, and revealed he’d been working for two months to line up replacement umps. “This is either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted.” MLB, at the owners’ urging, wanted to tear down and remake the way in which umpiring was done; changing the umpires who would be doing it would, in a sense, help expedite those goals. And, at the cost of $15 million, it might even be, as Alderson noted, “the cheapest option.”
The united front Phillips counted on from his ranks broke down almost immediately. As early as the day on which the resignation ploy was announced, reports emerged that one faction of umpires who were uncomfortable with Phillips’ plan had quietly reached out to other potential representatives. One by one, umpires got cold feet and rescinded their letters of resignation. “Most people in that room thought they were going to be signed and not sent,” admitted umpire Dave Phillips.
Doomsday came earlier than expected. On July 27, after a federal court ruling went against MLUA, the 42 umpires who’d stuck to their guns crumbled, and attempted to rescind their resignations as a group. There was a problem, though: MLB had already announced its intention to hire 22 new umpires from the minor leagues, pointedly referring to these hires as “permanent employees.” So rather than take back all of the tenured umpires, Selig opted to accept the same number of resignations (13 from the National League, 9 from the American League).
The axed umpires were mostly veterans, some of them rated highest by the hated players’ association poll. Some, like Ed Hickox, had labored in the minors for well over a decade before finally making it to the bigs in 1999, only to get the boot after less than a year. Hallion was among the “resigned” umps. So too was Eric Gregg, the umpire whose gigantic strike zone had such an impact on the 1997 playoff matchup between Maddux and Livan Hernandez. Also “resigned” was Drew Coble, whose wife was dying of cancer at the time.
The chaos that Phillips was counting on arrived as promised, but it came to his own house. His initial reaction was to maintain his usual defiance, insisting “I will fight absolutely to the death.” But the umpires were so divided by that point that it wasn’t clear who Phillips was fighting for anymore, or with whose permission. Union president Jerry Crawford grumbled that a “dissident” faction of AL umpires had conspired against the resignation gambit, and that a strike was still on the table. MLB countered that any umpire participating in a strike, which would violate the labor agreement between the league and the umps, would be fired.
Phillips quickly went from pressing his presumed advantage to backpedaling furiously. Though he seemed dead serious at the time, he now argued the resignations were meant to be seen as “symbolic gestures.” He sought arbitration with the leagues, but both the NL and AL turned him down. Further attempts to challenge MLB’s arbitrary firings in court were also rebuffed. Phillips also came realize he’d badly miscalculated the degree of public sympathy for the umpires. Throughout the debacle, Phillips made sure to remind everyone that regular umps were cheered by fans when they returned after the 1979 strike. But in 1999, with less than a third of umpires being replaced, the inexperienced officials would be sprinkled around the game, meaning they were unlikely to do the mass damage they inflicted two decades ago, or cause a similar amount of public outrage.
Finally, on September 1, Phillips was forced to accept the severance packages offered by MLB, officially terminating the 22 rogue umpires, most of whom were scheduled to work games that very day. The new umps took their places and went largely unnoticed. In the ensuing offseason, Selig eliminated the offices of the league presidents entirely, bringing the umpires (and nearly everything else in the game) under his control once and for all. Phillips was removed when the umpires overwhelmingly voted to decertify the MLUA and form a new union without him; that new organization negotiated a new five-year contract in 2000 that held no provision for rehiring or compensating the ousted 22. The freshly unemployed Phillips promptly sued MLB.
As they continued to appeal their cases in court, some of the “resigned” umps attempted to make a living in low-paying minor league jobs, while others had to go into other industries. Hickox became a police officer in Florida, and Gregg worked the concession stands at Citizens Bank Park.
MLB slowly reached agreements with the “resigned” umps, and by 2004 all of the outcasts had either been rehired in some capacity or allowed to retire with benefits. Phillips, now long gone, received the brunt of the blame for the mess and its prolonged resolution. “He should have held the letters and used them as a weapon,” said Bob Davidson, one of last rebels to be rehired. “But he couldn't wait to turn them in.” To some, the entire affair and its aftermath seemed like a bad dream, the specifics subsumed in ambient dread. “I just sat in the back and listened to what was going on,” Hickox recalled. “To my knowledge, everybody agreed with what was going on, and I surely wasn't going to disagree, being the new kid on the block. I had no idea what I was getting into.”
It’s generally acknowledged that ball/strike calls have improved measurably in the last two decades, both in terms of consistency and in their resemblance to the rulebook definition of the strike zone. But after 1999, and the contentious QuesTec era of the early 2000s, Selig’s efforts to regulate the strike zone took into account the feelings of the umpires. Ten years after Alderson’s pitch strike memo, when every stadium in baseball was outfitted with Pitch f/x zone evaluation cameras, MLB took pains to do so as quietly as possible. Fears that this would “reopen wounds” were allayed when it turned out the system was used not for an umpire evaluation, but almost exclusively to track pitches for the league’s Gameday app. MLB continues to keep its own umpire evaluations secret. And Selig’s baffling and bafflingly tenacious opposition to instant replay only makes sense in the context of not wanting to provoke umpires. Which means that, over a decade after their flirtation with Mutual Assured Destruction, both Major League Baseball and its umpires got what they wanted. All it took was nearly blowing up the game.