May 24, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story


How the Minor League umpire strike affects Red Wings fans --- or doesn't

For Brian Kennedy, it all comes down to respect --- or the lack of it.

From his place on the board of directors of the Association of Minor League Umpires, Kennedy says the members of the AMLU are striking this year because their employer, Minor League Baseball, treats them like Rodney Dangerfield.

So earlier this spring, right before the start of the baseball season, the approximately 220 members of the AMLU went on strike. On May 1, they rejected, by a 2-to-1 margin, a tentative agreement that had been reached between the union and Minor League Baseball through the efforts of a federal mediator.

And so the strike continues, causing some controversy across the minor league, including Rochester. The non-union replacement umps have been accused of making bad calls and favoring home teams, and some Red Wings fans have started to notice.

A Minor League Baseball press release on May 1 said the proposed agreement would have given umps a roughly 12 percent salary raise, while an AMLU release countered that the raise amounted to $100 a month. (Under the previous contract signed in 2000, an ump's monthly salary ranged from $1,800 to $3,400, depending on league level and seniority.)

But Kennedy says salary isn't even the major sticking point. What's blocking everything --- officials are slated to meet this week for another round of discussions --- is the per diem MiLB gives umps for meals. Under the 2000 contract, per diem tops off at $25 a day for Triple-A umps and bottoms out at $20 for Single-A and lower.

AMLU officials say those figures haven't changed in six years. The proposed agreement would have raised per diem gradually through the life of the new contract, capping at $39 for AAA umps and $29 for A umps. AMLU officials say that's still lower than a national standard of $44.50 per hour that they cite.

"The main reason," says Kennedy of MiLB leaders, "is they're cheap. They don't see us as revenue generators for them. They have the money, but they say we're not worth it."

Minor League Baseball spokesman Jim Ferguson says the mediated agreement was more than generous. Ferguson notes that the AMLU's bargaining committee --- of which Kennedy is a member --- unanimously recommended to the union membership that the agreement be adopted.

However, Kennedy says he's "not necessarily surprised" that the membership rejected the offer. Despite his implied support of the agreement before the membership vote, Kennedy says he actually believed the proposed agreement wasn't all that great. "There wasn't much difference between that and the last contract," he says.

So the umps continue to strike. In their place, MiLB, which is headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida, has inserted replacement umps recruited from, basically, any place in the community they can be found. The identities and backgrounds of the replacements are not being revealed, so they could be anyone with just a general knowledge of baseball.

AMLU, which is based in Hoover, Alabama, says many of the replacements are being culled and inserted city by city, with, for example, a Rochester resident calling games played by the Rochester Red Wings at Frontier Field. The union says that policy has resulted in shoddy officiating that often favors the hometown team.

Several recent incidents might prove them right. Earlier this month the manager of the Double-A Birmingham Barons, Chris Cron, pulled his team off the field in a game against Jacksonville after tension between the two teams led to three bench-clearing incidents by the eighth inning. After the game, Cron lambasted the work of the replacement umps, saying the situation in his game "should have been handled properly. It wasn't and it escalated as a result." He added, "It's gotten to the point where the safety of the players and personnel on the field is in jeopardy."

Cron isn't alone. Shortly after the Birmingham-Jacksonville incident, Bill Masse, the manager of the Double-A Trenton Thunder, called the efforts of the replacement umps "an absolute joke. ... It is absolutely not professional baseball that we're playing out there. ... Everybody knows it stinks."

Without a doubt the strike has placed minor-league teams, including the Red Wings, in an extremely awkward position. On the day the proposed agreement was reached, Red Wings general manager Dan Mason virtually rejoiced. "The replacement umpires have done a fine job," he told City, "but the players and managers will be happy to see the regular umps back in the fold."

When contacted by City last week, Mason was a little more guarded. "I'm really not supposed to comment on this subject," he said. "It's an issue between Minor League Baseball office and the umpires union. I've got to keep it between them."

But staying neutral can be a tall order when the replacement umps make controversial calls during a Wings game. When, during the second inning of the Wings' May 19 game against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, SWB's Chris Coste popped a fly ball down the line in left field, the third-base ump initially called the ball fair, resulting in a double for Coste. When Rochester manager Stan Cliburn protested the call, the umps reversed the decision and called it foul.

Then, in the third inning, SWB's Josh Kroeger was called out in a close play at home, spurring a blistering protest from Scranton manager John Russell. The umps let the call stand.

"I've seen a lot of bad calls," Red Wings fan Dan Ryan said after Friday's game. "I saw a couple tonight."

But despite all the questionable calls, the average Red Wings fan might not even care about the ump strike. During Friday's game, two different couples decked out in Wings garb admitted they weren't even aware of the umps' situation.

"A lot of people probably don't even know there's a strike," said Ryan, a Wings season-ticket-holder for 12 years. "A lot of people are just here for a good time."

Ryan expressed general support for the striking umps, saying the AMLU members deserve higher salaries. Harry Leathersich, a 20-year season-ticket-holder, agreed, asserting that "umpires are generally unappreciated by the league."

However, Leathersich said he couldn't name the umps' major demands, and he expressed general disapproval for labor strife. "I don't think strikes are ever good," he said. In addition, he said the replacement umps "might not be as experienced as they should be for this league," noting that the replacements seem to be calling a bigger strike zone than normal.

But is a larger strike zone something the casual Wings fan would notice? If they did notice, would they even care? If Kennedy and the other striking members of AMLU are looking for respect, it might be a bad sign that many baseball fans don't even notice that they're gone.

Speaking of UMPIRES, Red Wings

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