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Umpires' desire for respect will harm baseball

Richie Phillips probably wants to crawl into a hole and die.

And Major League Baseball officials wouldn't mind one bit if he did.

Phillips and his fellow umpires knew there was a problem: they weren't getting any respect. So the union decided to solve it in the best, and most dramatic, way they knew. By quitting, effective Sept. 2.

This proved to be the biggest blunder in baseball since Jerry Reinsdorf eviscerated his White Sox team while still in contention for the Central Division.

Darth Phillips and his Ump-erial Stormtroopers no doubt counted on a wave of outcry from teams and fans to prevent such a walkout from occurring, especially during potential pennant races.

The only problem in this ill-devised scheme? Nobody likes umpires.

Even Sports Illustrated last fall ran the declaration of "Kill The Umps!" on the cover of one of its editions.

But SI had it all wrong. Mass murder was not the answer; the umps have shown the willingness to throw their own ample bodies on the grenade.

The umpires said they were tired of abuse, citing the shameful incident in 1996, when Roberto Alomar spit on A.L. ump John Hirschbeck. They cited the comments made by Yankee catcher Jorge Posada just a few weeks ago, that umpires were in terrible physical condition. And finally, they seethed at the suspension of N.L. ump Tom Hallion, who the National League suspended for three days for bumping a player.

But the road through this battleground cuts both ways. Baseball may have started the fire, but umpires have been doing their part to fan the flames.

Following the Alomar episode, umpires announced a policy of zero tolerance for the 1997 season. The diamond became a despotism, ruled by the men in blue, and God help you if you voiced one word of dissent. Needless to say, this "my-way-or-the-highway" policy did not smooth over relations between the umps and players.

When Selig basically bid the umpires farewell, he destroyed any hopes the umpires had of settling the issue. Already the solidarity Phillips extolled is starting to crack.

On Tuesday, five A.L. umpires changed their minds. Also, it turns out 11 other A.L. umps and a pair of National League umpires never resigned in the first place.

An attempt to produce change has resulted in disaster. Phillips and the other umpires find themselves in a very tough position. If they do quit, it will mean the end of their careers. If they don't, their union will lose all credibility.

Besides that, most of the umpires' claims of "abuse" don't hold water. Posada apologized for his comments, an apology Phillips said he did not accept. And the claim of outrage over Hallion's suspension is ludicrous. Players and managers are forbidden to touch, much less bump, umpires, but the umps can bump the players all they want?

Baseball officials are at fault as well. Alomar should have been suspended immediately for his actions, not given a mere slap on the wrist at the beginning of next season.

The umpires want to run their own show. They don't want to answer to any Major League officials. So, like the spoiled kid in the neighborhood, they're taking their ball and going home.

In the process, a large number of minor league umpires might walk as well, as Phillips is scrambling to unionize them and decimate the pool of replacements at the Major League's disposal.

More umpires will probably change their minds before the deadline. But some will quit. And by walking out on their jobs, those umpires are walking out on the game. They're leaving the fate of baseball, and the fate of several teams searching for playoff glory, in the hands of untested replacements. Minor league or college umpires will come up to the majors and have to do their job in front of huge crowds. Hopefully they won't fold under pressure.

But there's a chance they will. And some how, some way, a bad call by a replacement will seal the fate of some team vying for the playoffs.

And that's a shame.

But at least Phillips will have his respect. I hear Subway has some openings...