There is a crisis of sorts in minor league baseball, and the end is nowhere in sight. Minor league umpires are on strike, and their replacements — who vary in experience from major leagues to high schools — are on the hot seat. “We’re only two weeks in and you can see how frustrating it’s getting already,” said the Tucson Sidewinders’ Randy Choate, the winning pitcher Friday against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. “The players’ jobs are on the line, and we’re dealing with some umpires who have trouble at this level.” Arguments between umpires and managers, or umpires and players, are part of baseball lore. Those disagreements were on full display at Security Service Field in the first two home series. Sky Sox manager Tom Runnells had on-field arguments on all three days of the first home series. “We hold the players to a high standard,” Runnells said. “We have to hold the umpires to a high standard, too. Some of these calls they’re missing are just obvious.” Umpires have picketed at some ballparks but not at Security Service Field. Negotiations between the Association of Minor League Umpires and Minor League Baseball are at a standstill. “We hope to sit down and resume negotiations in May,” said Andy Roberts, president of the AMLU, which has approximately 220 members. “I know we want to get back on the field. But we feel strongly about this.” George King, the Pacific Coast League’s vice president of business and operations, has dealt with the issue since the five-year contract with AMLU ended Nov. 30. The strike began March 24. King said approximately 100 umpires are under contract with the PCL. Normally the PCL uses 28 umpires, with four of those on call to Major League Baseball. “The bottom line is, we’ll have umpires and the games will go on,” King said. “We hoped it wouldn’t come to this, a work stoppage, but we knew it might. We’re not so shortsighted to think there won’t be an adjustment for our guys on the field. But the umpiring will be the same for both teams.” King said one member of the three-man umpire crew Sunday was a former major league ump and one in Saturday’s crew will work the College World Series this year. Officials won’t use the umpires’ names in boxscores and are zealously guarding their anonymity. A security guard escorts umps on and off the field, and to their cars after games. King said replacement umpires have been told not to talk to the media, and the contract they signed prohibits that. To a man, players and coaches understand replacement umpires are in a difficult situation. “Some of these guys are (umpiring) at a higher level than they’ve been before,” said Sky Sox outfielder Ryan Spilborghs. “It’s a little faster than what they’re used to. We just ask that they be consistent.” Tucson’s Kevin Jarvis is a 16-year veteran who has pitched for eight major league clubs and served as a major league representative to the players union. He doesn’t like what he sees. “The integrity of the game is being compromised, all so minor league baseball can squeeze some nickels and dimes out of the umpires,” Jarvis said. “Minor league baseball ought to be ashamed at the product they’re putting on the field. . . . “If there are good faith negotiations going on, I don’t need to be commenting in the press because it wouldn’t be productive. But I understand there are no negotiations, and that’s not fair to us.” Lorenzo Bundy, Tucson’s interim manager and hitting coach, agreed. “We talked to our players about being patient,” Bundy said. “But the bottom line is, this is their career. The innings they pitch count. At-bats count. Sometimes tempers are going to be short.” Roberts, 32, has been an umpire for seven years and was promoted to the Triple-A International League last season. Roberts said no AMLU member has crossed the picket line. “We haven’t had a pay increase in over 10 years,” Roberts said. “Before we unionized in 2000, there had been a pay cut and a pay freeze.” Roberts said the average salary for Triple-A umpires is $15,000. It’s $12,500 for Double-A, $10,000 for A and about $5,000 for short-season rookie leagues. Major league umpires make between $90,000 and $350,000 with benefits and a quality pension. Most minor league umpires have offseason jobs. Roberts, who played in college at Birmingham Southern, works for a life insurance company and owns a kids baseball school. “If you’re not a bachelor living with mom and dad, it’s hard to make a living,” said Roberts, who is married with a 17-month-old daughter. Roberts said the AMLU wants a 20 percent increase in salary, a significant per diem increase ($25 to $40 for Triple-A), improvement in on-field evaluation and an unbiased arbitrator to resolve disputes. They have been offered $100 a month more in salary and $1 more per day in per diem, but that is countered by an increase from $100 to $500 per year in insurance deductibles. “That wipes out our raise,” Roberts said. With low pay, endless driving from series to series, time away from family and little chance of reaching the majors, why become a minor league umpire? “It’s a love for the game,” Roberts said. “But it’s extremely difficult for five months on the road, and the incentive is less than it has been in the past.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0250 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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