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Minor league umps on strike, seek first pay hike in a decade

by Bruce Baskin
April 11, 2006 - Pacific Coast League (PCL)

Perhaps it was an isolated incident, but somehow I doubt it. A friend of mine who recently attended a PCL game in Tacoma told me about an incident involving the umpires. A batter checked his swing on a two-strike pitch and was called out by the home plate umpire, who ruled the swing had crossed the plate. The batter appealed, and the umpire called out to his partner at first base, "Did you get that?" No response. "Did you get that???" the home plate umpire asked again. Finally, after a shout of "DID YOU GET THAT???" one more time, the first base umpire responded to his partner at home, "I don't know!" Apparently, the first base umpire was bantering with players in one of the bullpens and not watching the play.

Umpires are human and such things can happen, but I suspect there are such things going on with minor league umpires these days with far more regularity than usual. You see, those aren't Minor League Baseball umpires working games in Tacoma, Peoria, Charleston or Buffalo these days. The guys you see umpiring minor league baseball these days were working high school games at this time a year ago. The umpires you usually see working the games all the way from AAA to Rookie ball? They're on strike.

"Oh no," you might say, "Just what we need....Another baseball strike. What are THESE guys complaining about?" Unlike the jousting between millionaire players and billionaire owners we usually witness whenever there's a work stoppage in the major leagues, this strike involves people who have not seen a pay raise in more than 10 years. And it's not like minor league umps were getting rich in the first place. On a descending scale, a Class AAA umpire makes about $15,000 a season, AA umps get $12,000 a year, Long-season A ball umpires make $10,000 annually, and Short-season A and Rookie leaguers get all of $5,500. In other words, these are not people who spend their offseasons golfing in Puerto Vallarta or tripping around the streets of Las Vegas with money burning up their pockets.

This has been an interesting walkout in that you see nothing of it in the media, even the local papers. What's even more interesting is that major league organizations, whose top prospects are now playing games umpired by guys who were working the OurTown-TheirTown high school game in 2005, have done nothing to resolve this impasse. If anything, they've conspired with their Minor League affiliates to try keeping a lid on the whole affair.

So what are more than 200 minor league umpires striking for, anyway? Let's talk about that pay raise first. The Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation, the governing body which trains, evaluates and recommends minor league umpires under the auspices of Minor League Baseball, have offered their umps a raise of $100 a month for 2006. Not much of a bump after maintaining 1994 wages up to 2006, but even that miniscule amount was rendered meaningless when the PBUC added that they wanted to increase insurance premiums from $100 to $500 a season per umpire. Given that minor league baseball plays less than six months a season, it essentially means no raise at all. Think about the Northwest or Appalachian League umpire working for all of ten weeks: He's actually losing money with that deal.

While it's hard to feel sympathetic with either side when major league ballplayers and team owners square off, there are clearly some heavies in this battle. The entire minor league system of Organized Baseball exists purely for Major League player development these days. These are teams beholden to their Player Development Contracts with their affiliates in a symbiotic relationship: The Majors need the Minors to incubate and develop their future players, while the Minors need the Majors to supply their players so they can open the gates and bring in the revenue at their home games. While contentious at times, this relationship largely works.

So why doesn't Major League Baseball step in? They should ostensibly have a vested interest in the quality of umpiring in games their top young players are in, or is it that they don't care that their $2 million outfielder from Texas is more likely to play in contests marked by unqualified umpires who may be unable to keep things under control if a beanball war breaks out? And when Major League umpires retire, for that matter, who will replace them? Someone who has spent years perfecting his or her craft in the minors, or someone slinging Slurpees at the 7-11 five days a week when he's not umpiring high school or slo-pitch softball games after work?

For their part, you have to wonder about Minor League Baseball's "what-me-worry?" approach to this strike, too. Do they really think their fans won't recognize poor umpiring so long as those Bobble Head Nights just keep on coming? Who knows? There is a reason that Minor League teams that could be purchased for a few thousand dollars 20 or 25 years ago are worth millions now: They are profitable entertainment businesses. In many situations, the baseball is secondary to the ever-present Diamond Digs, Bat Spin Races and Used Car Nights that are now a part of the game at the minor league level. While nobody begrudges minor league operators who can turn a profit in a tough business, why should profits be maximized at the expense of officials charged with controlling the very product on the field they're selling to the public?

With the monetary gains franchises and leagues are making from Minor League baseball, it's hard to understand why their umpires are treated so shabbily. These are men (and women) who literally live out of their suitcases from April to September for as little as $450 a week, plus a $20 per diem. That's twenty dollars to stretch out for three meals, clean clothing, toiletries and other necessities for a perpetual life on the road, since there are no home stands for umpires. The PBUC did offer a per diem raise for 2006: $1 a day, which translates to one more Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger from the dollar menu at the McDonald's drive-through in Billings, or maybe an extra 15 minutes on the dryer in an all-night laundromat in Visalia. How far will that $21 go for an umpire working a series in places like Las Vegas, Orlando or even Brooklyn?

At some time, the people in charge of Organized Baseball will have to realize that they're hurting their minor league product (and prospects) by taking some guy who works the parts counter at Schuck's during the day and putting him behind home plate at their Class AAA games at night. Umpiring is not an easy profession to master, especially when it's a profession without dugout breaks from the weather, but one in which a person gets abuse from the boozed-up charmers who inhabit ballparks on Dollar Beer Night. It's a hard life, made harder by the fact that openings at the major league level happen less often than within the Bush administration.

Minor league umpires are not asking for multiyear guaranteed contracts worth millions of dollars. They are not asking for anything more than a long-overdue pay raise in exchange for their willingness to take abuse from players and crowds alike while abusing their own bodies from traveling from town to town for the privilege of donning dark clothing, masks and chest protectors and staying on the field all nine or more innings of a game, sometimes in weather exceeding 100 degrees. These are people who obviously have to love baseball, because they're sure not in it for the money. What is unreasonable about paying minor league umpires what they're worth? Or at least giving them their first raise since both Tampa and Phoenix were still minor league cities?

It's apparently easy to ignore umpires, but try having a good game without them.

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Pacific Coast League Stories from April 11, 2006

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