When umpires become a prominent conversation topic, we can assume they did something wrong. Indeed, because of botched calls in the playoffs umpires have received loud and frequent criticism from fans and media alike. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as the World Umpire’s Association faced negotiations for a new CBA this off-season. Yet the on-field issues did not cause a bumpy road for the umpires, as they agreed to a new deal in late December, ahead of the old agreement’s expiration. The owners officially signed off last week, and last night the umpires ratified the agreement.
On the surface, the new agreement addresses playoff umpiring schedules, which both the union and MLB think will help avoid the problems of 2009. Umpires can now work in successive World Series, which allows MLB to select the ones they rate the best regardless of whether they umpired the previous year’s fall classic. I’m not sure how much this will actually help, but it does remove one obstacle in selecting the best umpires for the biggest event. World Series umpires still cannot work in the LCS round, a holdover from the previous agreement.
Another portion of the new agreement, however, might have an even bigger effect on umpire quality. In addition to a pay raise, the new CBA includes “buyouts that will allow veteran umpires the ability to retire early.” Brian Lam, an attorney for the firm representing the umpires, commented on this provision.
“The retirement issue was important to several umpires who are thinking about it,” he said. “The provisions of this contract will allow them to do that comfortably in the near future.”
Sure, MLB umpires make six-figure salaries — around $300,000 I’ve heard, plus playoff bonuses. That’s some good dough for working six months out of the year. But because many of them don’t start earning that kind of money until they’re middle aged. They go from making a barely livable wage in the minors to a very comfortable one in the majors. This can have effects on their long-term financial outlook. For instance, the later they’re called up the less they’ll be able to take advantage of compound interest investments, like an IRA, which require time to mature.
A provision allowing for early retirement brings both good and bad effects. The bad is that it allows the umpires with the most experience to more easily leave the game. Teams and fans alike want the best, most experienced umpires on the field, so early retirement provisions reduce that pool. On the other hand, older umpires are just older humans, and older humans face declining faculties as they age. A 60-year-old umpire just won’t have the vision and reflexes he had 10 years prior. Letting him retire before his skills decline means more young umpires will get chances.
I think Rob Neyer puts it in perspective:
Every season, there are probably more than a dozen older umpires blowing easy while, at the same time, just as many highly skilled umpires are working for peanuts in Triple-A. Frankly, it’s as if Chris Coghlan had to spend 2009 in the minors because Luis Gonzalez decided he wanted to play another season for the Marlins.
The Players Association wields great power, but its members don’t yet have the ability to play as long as they like. Umpires, for the most part, do.
The new agreement probably doesn’t change that. But if a hefty buyout is what it takes to convince an old umpire with failing eyesight and reflexes to retire … well, Major League Baseball is going to pull in something like $10 billion this year. Seems like a small price to pay.
Altering the playoff umpire schedule and creating the possibility of expanded instant replay are certainly important parts of the new CBA, but I don’t think they’re quite as important as the early retirement provision. Again, we don’t want to lose the umpires with the most experience, but at some point declining physical skills negate that experience. Umpires should have the ability to walk away before that becomes an issue.
In the end, all I hope is that we don’t have to talk about umpires for a while. When the spotlight is on them, something is wrong. I’d prefer to have everything quiet on the umpiring front.
Photo credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore