It is not every day one receives an email from a former commissioner of Major League Baseball. Yet, that is exactly what happened to me last week.
The note came from Francis Thomas "Fay" Vincent, likely baseball's last independent commissioner. He served from 1989 to 1992, until being forced out in a coup led by team owners Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf, among others.
But despite having every right to do so, instead of walking away from baseball, Vincent continues to give back to the game he obviously loves. Most recently, Vincent was the chair of a screening committee which sifted through research done on black baseball players from 1860 to 1960 and identified a slate of overlooked candidates for possible induction into the Hall of Fame.
Vincent's father was an NFL official and that interest in umpiring, combined with his keen continued involvement in the game as a senior statesman, brought us together.
In contacting me, Vincent seemingly had two primary motives. First and foremost was to provide encouragement in continuing to draw attention to problems with baseball's umpiring. Specifically, the current issue of interest is the pending investigation by MLB and the Players' Association into the post-season umpiring assignment process, a system which is controlled by the supervising umpires today.
Vincent's second mission was to set the record straight regarding his handling of alleged gambling activity during his tenure as commissioner by two umpires who later became umpire supervisors, Frank Pulli and Richie Garcia. Back to that in a minute.
The best umpires may sit home during the postseason
To summarize, in the current system, certain umpires of lesser skill seem to get the "plum" assignments, such as the All-Star Game and the playoffs, time and time again while other very good umpires are shunned year after year.
It is here where Vincent clearly wants to see change. He pulled no punches in his assessment.
"The real problem with baseball in the postseason is that they do not use the best umpires to umpire in the World Series. They never have… When I was there, it was a rotation system. But today, they say it is a merit system. There is no rating system known to man that several of those guys would be in the postseason.
"It's dangerous. Every other sport – basketball and football – always have the best guys working. They compete hard for it. Now, Bruce Froemming is a very good umpire and hasn't been in the World Series for ten years. That's politics. There is something wrong," Vincent asserted.
I asked Vincent if he thought the current investigation into the postseason umpire selection process will bear fruit. "I hope so. I feel very strongly about that. I think it is a disgrace to have the kinds of… cccc ccccc is a good, very nice, middle-level umpire, but should not be in the World Series. And, I don't think the umpires – any of them who have been around – would disagree with that. The NFL wouldn't have a cccc ccccc in the Super Bowl. They wouldn't have it.
I agreed not to quote the name of the umpire, but readers might be able to guess the subject.
"Umpiring is very important. And there is no excuse for not having the best guys in the postseason - whatever the rating system. It may be that Pulli and Garcia are too caught up in the politics. They have a lot of friends and enemies and it is too hard for them to be objective. But, there ought to be a system that is fair… The NFL doesn't have a problem. They have a system that produces decent results," Vincent asserted.
Why not rankings?
I posed the question as to why the game hasn't dealt with all the uncertainty in umpiring by coming up with an objective system then making the rankings public, like the Elias Sports Bureau does with the players each year in the context of free agency.
"I think your question is a debatable one, a legitimate one. I don't know how I would come out on that. I think it is really more important to find a system of rating… I think that maybe having former umpires like Pulli and Garcia is not a good idea because of the politics. But, there has to be some way to come up with a rating that gives you the ten best umpires to make sure that in the postseason you use them.
"We're getting some good umpires in the postseason. (Jerry) Crawford was in the post season. But, you're getting some who don't belong there. That is a big, big problem," said Vincent.
Neither pruning nor investment
I wondered if the former commissioner thinks the game is doing all it can do to either help the umpiring improve or to weed out those who don't belong.
"Those are tough questions. I don't know the answer to the first one and the second, after five years, you're pretty well vested. The union protects you. You can get rid of an umpire, but it almost never happens.
"I think it is a subject that is overlooked. People don't pay attention. Morale is terrible. I think Selig and the boys have treated them badly. Selig will go to a game and not even go in and say hello to the umpires. He treats them like second base and that is not good for them. They are very important. Many of them are very talented.
"It goes back to the schools. Do you know another business that doesn't train its own people? Baseball should own those schools - set up their own training schools. They should give financial aid to minorities. None of that happens," he explained.
Gamblers dealt with firmly
Returning to Vincent's second point, in my original story, I used the words "alleged cover up" to describe Vincent's suspensions of then-umpires Pulli and Garcia. Writer Bill Madden of the New York Daily News first made the allegations in a recent story. Much to the chagrin of Vincent, Madden omitted Don Zimmer from his article, despite Zimmer being part of the same investigation and receiving the same punishment.
First, let's recap the background.
The two umpires and Zimmer each admitted to betting on non-baseball sports and were privately put on two-year probation as a result.
Vincent explained the matter.
"There was never any question about them betting on baseball. They weren't doing
it. They were home in
"But, on my level, I was concerned
that baseball could be embarrassed if this guy turned out to be a really bad
fellow… If the newspapers had got onto it – here we had two umpires and a
manager – I think Zimmer was managing
"So, I put them all on probation and I said, ‘Look, if anything like this happens again, I'll suspend you. But, there is no reason to make a big deal out of it. There is nothing you are doing that I think is a real serious problem for baseball.'
"The umpires I put on probation – they behaved very well. And, I let them umpire in the postseason either that year or the next year. There was no reason not to," Vincent said.
Private punishment doesn't mean a cover-up
"Some, like Madden, believe that you should make punishment of people in baseball public. Well, that doesn't make any sense. These umpires and manager, I didn't think they did anything to compromise baseball or their integrity.
"If you discipline an umpire, the history has always been to do it quietly. Because you undercut their position if you tell people that you spanked an umpire for being too aggressive or doing something that you thought was inappropriate. Baseball has never publicized a whole bunch of disciplinary actions with respect to umpires and even managers unless there is some reason to make it public.
"You want to stop it from becoming a serious issue. The public doesn't have the right to know everything. You know that. There are lots of things I think that are better dealt with privately.
"There are some things that I did that I admit I should have done differently. I don't think I did anything here that was even close to being questionable or what people could argue about. I don't understand why it is considered a cover up when you discipline two umpires and a manager. I didn't fine them. I didn't take them out of baseball. They were contrite," Vincent recounted.
Big bets could mean favors asked
I asked the former commissioner about the risk of the baseball men getting into a compromising position in their job if they became beholden to a bookie to whom they owed cash even if they never bet on baseball.
"That is right. And, that is why I got after them… They were never in debt. The amounts were not enormous… An umpire or a player who runs up bets in illegal gambling can put himself in a vulnerable position. I have never seen a case where a gambler used that position, but you and I can imagine the vulnerability.
"I treated everybody the same for that sort of thing… I told them their job was at stake and if I threw them out, there was nothing they could do. They'd be out.
"They got the point. I never had a repeat case," said Vincent proudly.
Let them hold important jobs
Vincent has no issue with these admitted former gamblers being in positions of authority. "It was speeding. It wasn't vehicular homicide," he asserted.
Never bet on baseball
The former commissioner went on to explain that there are no rules prohibiting anyone in baseball from gambling on other sports, even if it signifies questionable judgment. But, the penalties for betting on baseball are both clear and severe.
"Baseball Rule 22 says any person who bets on a game in which he has an interest shall be suspended from baseball for life. Any baseball person who bets on a game in which he doesn't have an interest should be suspended for a year.
"The only guy I ever knew who made money betting baseball was Pete Rose. That is the reason I believe that Pete Rose committed a capital crime. If people think someone is betting on baseball and they don't know about it, the game is totally compromised," Vincent said.
"The Pulli-Garcia group, you can criticize them for their judgment in bringing forward a bunch of mediocre umpires. That's all fair. But, I don't think it is fair to whack them because I disciplined them in 1989 or 1990.
"I don't think they're producing the best umpires in the postseason and that is getting to be a serious issue," said Vincent.
No comment on the investigation
I attempted to get a status on the
timing of the postseason umpire assignment investigation and whether its
findings will be made public from
The open question remains: What is going to be done about it?
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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