It almost seems as though every mistake by American baseball government instructs the Korean Baseball Organisation, “Study this and learn what not to do.” In American baseball, umpire accountability often seems something along the line of promiscuous celibacy. In South Korean baseball, umpire accountability is a necessity.
When enough players between the SK Wyverns and the Hanwha Eagles complained about an inconsistent strike zone following a Thursday game, the KBO didn’t just hoist platitudes about effort, they up and did it. They demoted the entire umpiring crew, re-assigning every member of the crew to the country’s Futures League for re-training.
What a concept. And, as a Yahoo! Sports writer named Mark Townsend observes, “Try to picture this scenario. MLB officials approach Joe West. MLB officials then inform Joe West that his entire crew is headed back to rookie ball for retraining. And you thought the stare West gave Madison Bumgarner was frightening?”
Stare, schmare. From what American baseball fans have seen of American umpires the past couple of decades, many if not most American umps might be tempted to take hostages at the very hint of the American game taking a KBO-like stance on accountability.
Townsend cites a writer with the Korean news service Yonhap News, Jee-ho Yoo, who quoted Eagles outfielder Yong-kyu Lee as asking the KBO to consider that the league’s umpires should take player complaints into consideration more seriously. The league actually listened.
“Even though [the KBO season has] only been three games this season,” Lee says, “a lot of players are really unhappy with the lack of consistency on ball-strike calls. I’d like to ask all the umpires to please be more considerate of the players. We’re all very confused. I know the umpires are doing their best out there, but I just hope they should start seeing things from the players’ perspective, too.”
Allow that Lee spoke in language considerably more polite than the average American major leaguer, and you still see a serious point. The KBO isn’t really in the mood to suffer foolish umpires gladly. They’re funny that way. You might think the American Show would reply, “Say what?” when you call for uniform strike zone call and enforcement, not this too-long-time nonsense regarding umpires’ “individual” zones, and the KBO says “Say this!” when demoting inconsistent umpires.
You would have thought American umpires learned the hard way, after the accountability question provoked their original union to implode over two decades ago.
You don’t remember? I take you back to the summer of 1999, right around the All-Star break, when Major League Umpires Association director Richie Phillips announced that 57 of the Show’s 66 umpires resigned effective the coming 2 September. The arbiters wanted “to continue working as umpires, but they want to feel good about themselves and would rather not continue as umpires if they have to continue under present circumstances,” Phillips proclaimed. “They feel in the past seven months or so, they have been humiliated and denigrated.”
Let’s review the humiliation and denigration, shall we? We can do so courtesy of the late Doug Pappas of the Society for American Baseball Research, whose essay “22 Men Out” ran the entire business down admirably.
Pappas noted that umpire Tom Hallion got suspended for bumping a player during an argument and the umpires screamed blue murder, momentarily and blissfully ignorant of how much louder they would have been screaming if a player didn’t get suspended for bumping one of them.
Then-commissioner Bud Selig, who wasn’t customarily known for taking positions of wisdom, proposed that the commissioner’s office and not the individual leagues (they still had their own administrative structures at the time) should assume the business of umpire oversight. As Pappas observed, Phillips put the proverbial kibosh on that by proclaiming that would amount to a change of employer good for millions in umpire severance pay.
The Major League Baseball Players Association conducted a survey of players, coaches, and managers to rank umpire performance, which led to Selig’s office asking teams to chart pitches and file reports on each umpire’s strike zone. Pappas reminded his readers that Phillips dismissed the former as lacking “credence” because “ratings are always subjective” and the latter as “just another case of Big Brother watching us.”
Pappas cited a 14 June 1999 installment of the HBO series Real Sports aboard which Phillips “took his arrogance to a new level,” comparing umpires to federal judges who “should [not] always be subject to the voter, just like federal judges are not subject to the voter.” Sandy Alderson, then doing the job Joe Torre does now, could barely stifle a laugh.
“Federal judges can be impeached,” Alderson retorted. “I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching.” (Who’s to say today’s players aren’t concerned likewise, often as not?)
Phillips didn’t stop with the mass resignation, either. On the same day he announced it, he proclaimed the umps would now be employed by a body called Umpires, Inc. that “would negotiate to provide umpiring services to MLB—and it, not MLB, would supervise and assign the umpires,” Pappas wrote. “In short, Phillips proposed to turn the umpires into a self-governing association, free of MLB control.”
To owners and players alike, this demand was tantamount to a municipal police union demanding an end to civilian control of the police force. Even if the owners had been willing to cede such authority, the screams of the MLBPA would have killed the deal. And the owners weren’t willing. When informed of the umpires’ move, Sandy Alderson . . . termed the resignations “either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted.”
The final outcome, of course, was 22 umpires gone for good, seemingly, after the leagues hired 25 minor league umps (all of whom had major league experience) and several of the MLB arbiters scrambled to rescind their resignations. The American League re-hired the first fourteen rescinders; the National League decided “performance standards” would apply when picking the umps to re-hire. Imagine that.
A group of MLUA dissidents led by John Hirschbeck and Joe Brinkman called for a new union and for de-certifying the MLUA, both of which happened in the 1999-2000 off-season, with the World Umpires Association (now the Major League Baseball Umpires Association) born. Eleven of the 22 men out (including Joe West and Sam Holbrook) were finally re-hired in 2002.
All that because Phillips and his allies in the old union sought to become and remain a law unto themselves. Today there remain enough umpires who still think they alone and not the rule book have the power of the strike zone and other calls. They may even think that fans pay their way into the ballpark (whenever they’ll be allowed to do so again) to see the umpires. All things considered, it might be true in West’s case. Might. But not for the reasons he might think.
Commissioner Rob Manfred, whose reign has been inconsistent when phrased most politely, but who’s rarely been caught beyond mere thought when it comes to umpire accountability, ought to look more acutely at the answer the KBO handed to at least one umpiring crew who thought so: “Not so fast.”