The umpires are in the news again. And though bad calls by umpires are hardly new, the omnipresent television replays of blown calls have led to renewed and justified demands from fans for baseball to take steps to improve things. In my opinion, the remedy is obvious and I suspect the baseball authorities will soon agree it is time to act.
Baseball is an industry that changes slowly and for most of us that pace is fine. But the umpiring profession is mired in ancient structures. For years baseball leadership has ignored umpires and treated them as if they were like the bases – necessary but hardly worthy of attention.
Today a young man – no women yet in the major leagues – who seeks to become a professional ump must find his way to one of the umpire schools owned and run by former umpires. Because those schools are not owned and operated by MLB, the training of entry level umpires is not managed by the major league authorities. The novice umpire will have to pay his own way, though recently there have been efforts by MLB to recruit and support minority candidates.
Generally the system remains as it has been for decades with the result an embryonic umpire has no assurance of a job when he finishes school. Even if he finds a job in the minors, the life is difficult, with low pay and meager expense allowances.
In addition to leaving the umpire schools to outsiders, MLB also leaves the development of minor league umpires to others. Minor league umpires are employees of the several minor league organizations, and a young man may linger for years in the minors with only slight hope of ever getting to the majors. It is not unusual for young men to be forced to spend as many as 10 years in the minors before getting a chance in the show.
Today an umpire in the AAA level minor leagues makes about $15,000 for his six months of baseball work. In the lower minors, the umpires make even less money. Obviously a family cannot be supported on that pay and so a young umpire has to find other employment for the balance of the year. In this economy one can imagine the challenge that imposes. It can hardly be surprising so many minor league umpires give up and leave the profession.
Major League Baseball should immediately adopt reforms to the umpiring system. MLB is now a $7 billion dollar industry awash in cash so the costs of these changes can hardly be the reason to defer making them.
- MLB should buy the umpire schools and take over the training and development of all umpires in professional baseball. The recruitment, training and compensation of minor league and major league umpires should be controlled by the commissioner and modern personnel programs instituted to insure proper professional development.
- Minor league umpires as employees of MLB should be offered the opportunity to become members of the same union as major league umpires to insure all of them are properly represented and protected by Federal law.
- The use of technology to improve the accuracy of on field decisions should continue to be explored with the full involvement of the umpires. Additional use of replays should be carefully adopted with careful attention to the risks of further delays in the games.
Over the years the umpires have been the victims of benign neglect as generations of owners and commissioners were content to focus on what they believed were the more important economic and unions issues facing the game. Now, however, there is time and ample money sloshing throughout baseball to warrant the kind of broad changes I am suggesting.
For that reason and because reforms are so obviously warranted I believe the baseball leadership under Commissioner Selig will take the action all of us close to the game have believed is so long overdue. The game will be better as the umpiring improves.
And finally, moving the umpiring profession into the modern era of personnel and management development will surely result in more and better qualified young men – and women – deciding to join the profession. The reform makes so much sense it has to happen and soon.
Fay Vincent was the baseball commissioner from Sept. 2, 1989, to Sept. 7, 1992.