Striking Minor League Umpires Demand Better Pay

Two hundred minor league umpires have been on strike since the beginning of the season. Their pay has not changed since 1997. They've been offered a $100-a-month raise, but turned it down.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Striking minor league baseball umpires are scheduled to return to the bargaining table today.

Two hundred-and-twenty umps have been on strike since the start of the season. Did you miss them? Their job is sometimes called a tough road to nowhere, because few minor league umps ever make the big leagues. Still, NPR's Ted Robbins tells us that the umps want to get back on that road soon.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

The thing about satellite TV is that you can find a channel for just about anything.

(Soundbite of television noise)

This, however, is a curse for John Conrad. The tall, fit guy in his late 20s, sees too much TV these days. Instead of umpiring in the Class A California League, he's in Phoenix installing satellite TV for a living.

Mr. JOHN CONRAD (Member, Association of Minor League Umpires): That's about it. Off to the next job.

ROBBINS: And eating fast food for lunch.

Mr. CONRAD: I've got to pay rent. I've got to eat.

ROBBINS: Have you got a family?

Mr. CONRAD: Yeah, my wife. My wife, she's a schoolteacher out here.

ROBBINS: John Conrad makes a lot more as a satellite TV installer than he does as a minor league umpire, which is why he's on strike.

For a five-month season, minor league umpires make between $9,000 and $17,000. That salary hasn't changed for nearly a decade. Owners offered Conrad and other umps $100 a month more, but then asked them to pay more for healthcare.

Owners also offered to increase Conrad's $20 food per diem by $2.

Mr. CONRAD: The way gas prices are now and the way everything else is going up, it just makes it impossible to live.

ROBBINS: Minor league baseball legal counsel, George Yund, says the offer is what owners can afford.

Mr. GEORGE YUND (General Counsel, Minor League Baseball Association): The issue is dollars and cents.

ROBBINS: But there' more to it than that, says Yund. Minor league umpiring was traditionally regarded as an apprenticeship.

Mr. YUND: It was relatively little play, but they wouldn't work for very long, as they would either move up to the major leagues or move out and do something else.

ROBBINS: But now, umpires say it's not an apprenticeship, it's a career; even if it's seasonal. They want an across-the-board increase that they're not publicly disclosing, and a higher per diem. Umpires voted down the owners' last offer two to one.

(Soundbite of baseball game)

Unidentified Umpire: Strike!

ROBBINS: So the minor leagues replaced the umpires, mostly with retired minor league umps, college and high school umps. The striking umps say they're more consistent than the replacements. Regular umps have to graduate from schools that usually supply the league.

(Soundbite of baseball game)

Unidentified Man: Good call (unintelligible).

ROBBINS: At a recent AAA Game between the Tucson Sidewinders and the Memphis Redbirds, I wanted to know what the players thought. Their own dreams, to some small extent, depend on quality umpiring, but they either didn't want to talk about it...

Unidentified Player: Uh, no. No chance.

ROBBINS: Or, like Memphis Redbird Desi Relaford, didn't care who calls balls and strike in the minors.

Mr. DESI RELAFORD (Minor League Player, Memphis Redbirds): Honestly, I want to see regular umpires in the big leagues. I'm not worried about these guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBBINS: That's what owners say they're counting on, that players and fans don't mind the replacements, even if they become permanent. That scares John Conrad.

Mr. CONRAD: We're all afraid of them saying, hey, you're done. Your chance at going to the big leagues is completely over.

ROBBINS: Every day, John Conrad wakes up as a satellite TV installer he says he hopes for a settlement that will allow him to pay the rent while pursuing his fragile dream.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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