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Men In Blue Claiming More of What Used to Be Gray

October 5, 1996

Baseball’s men in blue are giving as good as they get. Or at least that’s the perception.

They’ve been spit on, cursed, pushed and insulted in almost every way by baseball players for decades, but mostly managed to stay above the fray. In recent years, however, it seems that umpires no longer turn their backs on screaming, dirt-kicking athletes. Sometimes they even wind up fighting back in court, as they did Friday.

``Umps aren’t doormats, they’re not clowns in a circus, and they’re not out on the diamonds for the ballplayers’ entertainment,″ said Ed Lawrence, who runs the Umpire Development Program in St. Petersburg, Fla., which provides major league baseball with its officials. ``Part of our job is training them not to react ... but they’re only human. They feel things. Sometimes, they’ll hear what they want to hear.″

One thing umpires didn’t want to hear resounded from a federal courtroom in Philadelphia. There, U.S. District Judge Edmund Ludwig issued an injunction preventing umpires from striking for the remainder of the postseason because Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck.

According to accounts given by both men, Alomar’s run-in with Hirschbeck might have ended sooner than it did.

The original argument over a called third strike appeared finished when Alomar returned to the dugout and Hirschbeck went back behind home plate. But then the two exchanged words a second time, and Hirschbeck ejected Alomar from the game. That violated an unwritten rule that umps eject only those players who show them up in public. In any case, it brought Alomar and Orioles manager Davey Johnson rushing out of the dugout.

Things were clearly out of hand by the time Alomar spat on the ump. And the next day, Alomar took the dispute to a whole new level by telling a reporter that Hirschbeck had been ``bitter″ ever since his young son died from a rare brain disease several years earlier.

The umpires threatened to walk out in protest of American League President Gene Budig’s decision to suspend Alomar for just five games at the start of next season. And while the umpires had agreed to comply with Ludwig’s ruling in the case, one of the retired deans of the profession said it sent the wrong message to baseball.

``Maybe umps are going after the players a little more, but some of it grows out of a sense that nothing is being done, even when the umpires are clearly right,″ John Kibler said from his Oceanside, Calif., home.

The 27-year veteran, who retired in 1989, was regarded as one of the best in the business. His control over games was so well established that when fellow umps and players saw Kibler with his shoulders hunched, they flashed each other a so-called ``John’s angry″ sign, and knew enough to avoid further confrontation.

Many ballplayers say that today’s umpires have no such early-warning system. And that as a result, minor disputes become major ones in too short a time. Kibler agrees, but said the blame doesn’t lie only with the umps.

``The conversations with ballplayers are less civil than in my day. They never began arguments by cursing you out,″ he said. ``That came later. Now it seems all of society is a lot more confrontational.″

Arguments between umpires and players or managers, or both, are practically a staple of baseball. But some ballplayers maintain that as a new generation eases into the game, the art of dispute resolution is being lost. They contend less and less of the new guys are like Harry Wendelstedt, who folded his arms and backed away from disputes, and more like Joe West, who seemed to live for them.

West is best remembered for wading into the middle of a brawl between the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets in 1990, picking up the Phils’ Dennis Cook and body-slamming him to the ground.

But that wasn’t the most notorious run in between player and ump that season. That took place in the AL playoffs between umpire Terry Cooney and Roger Clemens. Cooney gave Clemens the heave-ho after the Boston pitcher let loose with a stream of expletives to protest a called strike. Cooney never turned his back and never gave Clemens so much as a warning before tossing him.

``If I had allowed that incident to pass _ and everyone on the field knew what was going on _ I’d have been known as a person who turned his back and I couldn’t live with that because I’m a professional,″ Cooney said.

Baltimore manager Johnson still believes there’s as much mutual respect around today as there was 30 years ago when he was a player.

Despite a perception to the contrary, Johnson might be right. There was a drop of roughly 20 percent in the number of ejections between 1980 and 1990, and there wasn’t a great deal of turnover. And during the past 10 years, between expansion and retirement, Lawrence said only seven new umpiring jobs opened up at the major league level.

``That’s one of the funny things about all this good-old-days-of-umpiring talk,″ he said. ``Look at the new guys and you’ll see they’re not involved in most of the big disputes.

``So maybe,″ he added, ``it’s a case of the veterans not being as tolerant as they used to be, either.″

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