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A family feud strikes baseball

This apple _ not at all green, but somewhat sour _ did not fall far from the tree. Jerry Crawford, president of the Major League Umpires Association, their union, has been a National League umpire since 1977, two years after his father, Shag Crawford, ended his 20-year umpiring career.

Crawford, unlike about two dozen colleagues, will keep his job, partly because it would be unseemly for Major League Baseball to accept the rescinded resignation of the union's head but primarily because he is good. Baseball America, bible of the church of baseball, ranks him the National League's best.

Soaking up some sun with lunch before heading for the ball-yard here recently, Crawford practiced what unions preach _ solidarity, something his union has lacked in its current debacle. Vowing not to "grease the slide" beneath any umpire, he said, essentially: There are no bad umpires, the strike zone is uniformly enforced as defined in the rule book, and because umpires are thoroughly vetted before getting to the big leagues, demotions from the big leagues would be unjust.

Crawford's first two propositions are redundantly refuted daily. His third sounds strange in the fiercely competitive 1990s and is downright weird in the severely meritocratic world of professional athletics. His obduracy in defense of all 67 other umpires may accord with the ethics of unionism but is symptomatic of the mentality that has produced the meltdown of relations between umpires and a game that, they are learning, can dispense with many of them.

MLB is choosing which resignations, voluntarily submitted and then rescinded by most umpires, to accept. That MLB has this choice proves the ruinousness of the strategy devised by their union's lawyer, Richie Phillips.

He assured them that if they resigned effective Sept. 2 _ their contract forbids a strike _ MLB would quickly negotiate a successor to their contract, which expires Dec. 31, or they could form a corporation selling umpiring services and MLB would have to deal with it. But OPEC cannot dictate oil supplies, and umpiring certainly is not a commodity a cartel can control.

Until now the umpires' union has benefited them. Salaries, based on seniority, range from $75,000 to $225,000 (the top was $33,500 when Crawford's father retired in 1975), plus a $20,000 bonus for all, plus up to $30,000 for post-season service, plus first-class travel, plus $240 per diem and 31 days off during the season.

But today's conflict, like so many nowadays, is primarily about status, respect and recognition. As, and perhaps partly because, players have become spectacularly remunerated, some umpires have become lazy, out of condition, truculent, confrontational and arrogant.

The umpires' most persistent provocation is their refusal to adhere to baseball's most fundamental rule, which defines the strike zone as extending vertically from the hollow beneath the kneecap to the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants. The absurd result is that hitters and pitchers must adjust their games to that day's home plate umpire.

The disappearance of the upper third of the strike zone is one reason pitchers are being hammered so hard that home runs are becoming boring. It also is a reason for the tedious game length.

Umpires are baseball's judiciary, and like the nation's judges they are finding that the more noticeable they are, the less respect they enjoy. As Section 9.01(a) of the Good Book (the rule book) says, austerely, "The umpires shall be responsible for the conduct of the game," a responsibility not inferior to any in this Republic. Unfortunately, umpiring, like judging, has come to illustrate the irresponsibility that infects any profession insulated from accountability.

Baseball's family feud with umpires is especially unfortunate because big league baseball has the affections and traditions as well as the tensions characteristic of families. It is pleasing that among the replacement umpires being promoted from Triple A ball are two more sons of former big league umpires.

George Will is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group