If you attended Vancouver Canadians
games last season, you undoubtedly saw your fair share of crappyofficiating. In fact, you probably saw more crappy officiating than yousaw great officiating. At times, it was dire. At times, it was enoughto make you actively angry. But you dealt with it, because you thought,these minor league umps make crap money, and they’re on the first stepof a many-step process towards actually getting good, just like theplayers.
So sure, your starting pitcher finds the strikezone getting squeezed.And yeah, the occasional homerun shot is turned into a pole-curlingfoul by a rookie ump with bad eyesight. And okay, you deal with thefact that your second baseman’s successful sliding double has somehow,miraculously, incredibly, been called as a rally-killing tag-out.Mostly because it goes both ways, and also because it’s really not easycalling plays at second base from a position at first.
That uneasy truce has been rocked this season in ballparks all over theminors, as the umps have gone on strike for better conditions andbetter pay, and rather than be negotiated with in good faith, they wereoffered a paltry one-time pay raise of $100 a month (which the umps sayis offset by a rise in insurance deductibles), and when they asked formore, they were replaced by scab labor.
Yes, that’s right. Oakland’s prized minor league prospects are beingofficiated by high school umpires. LA’s million dollar draftee hittersare having strikes called on them by guys who usually get $35 a game toump 15-year-olds. Seattle’s bonus babies are being buzzed by pitcherswhile the rookie, unqualified umps wonder whether they should issue awarning or just shut up and not rock the boat. And AAA catchers arehaving words in the ears of officials that would be teaching dodgeballin the gym if it weren’t for this strike.
According to the Minor League Report, the managers are noticing a real drop-off in quality: "Down here, I don’t think you’ll see much of a difference–not atthe lower levels," said one high Class A manager. "But Double-A,Triple-A, where the game is played on a different plane, that’s whereyou’re likely to see the problems. And I don’t think it’s going to getany better any sooner with the guys they have in place."
Let’s be clear - the guys breaking the strike are not doing it to further their careers. In fact, minor league baseball
is refusing to release umpires’ names so far this season so they can’tbe put on any blacklist, but you can bet they’ll lend up on exactlythat. The union will never accept scab labor in amongst its members, sothis is the one time these guys will ever see minor league action.
And so it should be. Strike-breaking is some kind of evil business atthe best of times, but strike-breaking for minor league umps - that’sjust cruel and selfish. I mean, the umps generally get paid diddly asis - you really have to get to AAA to make any kind of living in thisbusiness, and that means you have to officiate games in little league,high school ball, college ball, rookie ball, and four levels of minorleague ball just for the chance at making what someone would makeworking the drive-thru at In and Out Burger.
Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but according to the minorleague baseball website, the official starting salary for a rookie umpis just $1800 per month, or $11.25 an hour if you’re going by the40-hours a week standard. That’s less than a first-day untrainedtelemarketer makes selling insurance to grannies.
And if that still seems like a good deal to you, remember that part ofthe job entails standing in the way of curveballs, sliders, change-upsand the occasional 98mph fastball, before all squeezing into an economycar rental, driving 12 hours through the night to the next series, andthen staying in a $40 per night highway motel room in glamorous placeslike Spokane, Yakima and Boise. Not sounding so attractive now, huh?
So the umps want a little pay raise, and some better conditions. So beit. The least that the minor leagues could do is talk to them about it,but no, the minors think it so outrageous that someone on $1800 permonth who has left their wife and kids at home so they could ump rookieball in Arizona would dare pull an Oiver Twist and ask for more, thatthey’ve decided to run scabs until the regular umps get back in theircage and shut up already.
That is nothing short of reprehensible. At a time when the minors aredoing great, when franchises are selling for record numbers (theVancouver Canadians owners are in talks to sell 50% of the team fornumbers approaching $5-10m), you’d think there’d be a little scratchfor the folks who are so important in making sure the games areentertaining.
But no. Instead we have scabs officiating in AAA, AA, High A and Low-Aball, and you can bet if the umps don’t give in, we’ll be gettingumpiring in the NWL that sets the bar at a new low this season.
How the Major League umpires aren’t standing with their minor leaguebrothers on strike is beyond me. How other unions aren’t joining thefray makes no sense to me at all.
To make matters worse, yesterday, Delmon Young (right), who was the Baseball America
’s 2005 minor league player of the year, threw a bat into the chest of the scab umpire who called him on strikes
,and you have to think that kind of behavior comes from some REALLY badcalling (combined with some really non-existant anger management), andindicates that perhaps this isn’t just a financial issue anymore. Nowit’s a safety issue.
Minor League Baseball should be ashamed. And we, the people, should let them know we’re aware of it.
Mike Fitzpatrick is the Executive Director of the Professional BaseballUmpire Corp, a subsidiary of Minor League Baseball which handles alldealings with the umps. If you, like me, think the minor league umpsare getting screwed, drop him a note telling him so
Trust me, 1000 emails from the people who come to see minor leagueballgames, threatening not to do so this season until the strike issolved, will be a difference-maker in this whole sad, sorry episode.
Note: For a first hand account of Delmon Young’s bat fling, Rays Talk on MVN has a detailed account.