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Umps file ‘count’ grievance

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NEW YORK — Claiming baseball management "threatens the integrity of the game," umpires filed a grievance to stop the commissioner's office from pressuring them to call more strikes and reduce pitch counts.

The grievance, filed late Saturday, says the commissioner's office violated the umpires' new labor contract by keeping track of the average number of pitches in games worked behind the plate by each umpire and ranking each umpire in that category.

"If you have good pitchers pitching, there will be fewer pitches thrown, but if the pitchers are struggling, we can't control that," umpire Randy Marsh said Sunday. "If the pitch is a strike, it's a strike, and if it's a ball, it's a ball."

Larry Gibson, a lawyer for the umpires, notified baseball of the grievance in a three-page letter he faxed to the commissioner's office.

"The union has learned that the office of the commissioner believes the average to be around 285 pitches in a nine-inning game," Gibson and Joel Smith, another union lawyer, wrote in the letter. "Umpires are being told that this number is too high and to 'bring your pitch count down' . . . to 270 pitches a game."

Gibson and Smith wrote that umps have been told to "call more strikes," "be aggressive" and to "hunt for strikes."

"The pitch count, whether or not it is coupled with a direct instruction to call more strikes, interferes with an umpire's duty to exercise independent judgment on each pitch," the letter said. "Pitch count pressure threatens the integrity of the game, in that it brings on to the playing field improper influence on umpire performance."

The labor contract calls for the sides to meet on the issue. If they can't resolve it, the case would go to an arbitrator.

"This is the first I've heard of it," Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner's office, said when told of the grievance.

"I'm sure we'll meet with the union to discuss it. I think this has been taken way out of context by the union. I'm surprised they haven't attempted to discuss this matter with us privately and have resorted to this more public approach."

Baseball and its umpires have been at odds for more than two decades. Just last month, umpire Al Clark was fired for charging plane tickets for his wife to a credit card paid for by the commissioner's office.

Larry Barnett, one of baseball's umpire supervisors, retired July 6, partly because of the pitch-count pressure.

"I just didn't feel I could go that direction," said Barnett, whose retirement was first reported Sunday night by The New York Times on its Web site.

A major league umpire from 1969-99, Barnett became a supervisor two years ago. He said his retirement could not be directly attributed to pitch-count pressure, but to "a bunch of things."

Barnett also said he felt uncomfortable with the decision to push for more strikes, especially when he had to call a young umpire about it.

"I never even thought about it in all the games I umpired," Barnett said. "If you have two very good pitchers, this is my opinion, you might get a low pitch count. If you make four or five pitching changes, you might get a high pitch count."

Commissioner Bud Selig has been concerned about the lengthening time it takes to play games and has pushed, with little success, for the pace to speed up. The average time of nine-inning games this year is 2 hours, 55 minutes, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, down just two minutes from last year.

Gibson blamed slow games on the 2:05 allowed between innings for television commercials, a time increased to 2:25 for nationally televised games.

"Is an umpire to catch up on his average going from one game to the next and is he to keep that average in mind when making a judgment as to whether a particular pitch is a strike or a ball?" the letter said.

Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations, declined comment.

"We ought to be able to resolve this," Gibson said Sunday. "We understand there's actually a chart they developed that ranked all the umpires by pitch count over eight games. We want to see it. We hope in the future, it doesn't get created again."