"The questions that we found out are being asked are about beating wives, marijuana use and extravagant parties," World Umpires Association president John Hirschbeck said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "And then finally with this whole thing about the Ku Klux Klan.
"You get someone from security, shows his credentials and starts asking these kind of questions, and right away what's the neighbor going to think other than the umpire is in trouble, he's done something wrong and he's going to lose his job."
Hirschbeck and union spokesman Lamell McMorris said Tom Christopher, the Milwaukee-based supervisor of security and investigations in the commissioner's office, had asked questions about Klan membership to neighbors of umpires Greg Gibson and Sam Holbrook, who reside in Kentucky. In addition, Hirschbeck said similar questions had been asked to neighbors of umpire Ron Kulpa, who lives in the St. Louis area.
Baseball stepped up background checks last August, after it became public that the FBI was investigating NBA referee Tim Donaghy for betting on games. Donaghy pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce, and he awaits sentencing.
MLB asked umpires to sign authorizations allowing the sport to conduct financial backgrounds checks, but umps balked.
"We did not anticipate that they would approach neighbors posing as a close colleague and friend of the umpire's and asking them questions such as: Do you know if umpire `X' is a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Does he grow marijuana plants? Does he beat his wife? Have you seen the police at his home? Does he throw wild parties?" McMorris said by telephone from India.
"To try to link our umpires to the Ku Klux Klan is highly offensive. It is essentially defaming the umpires in their communities by conducting a very strange and poorly executed investigation. It resembles kind of secret police in some kind of despotic nation."
Contacted Wednesday, Christopher referred questions to Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations. Manfred did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
"The claims of inappropriate questions by individuals conducting background checks was brought to our attention and looked into," Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of operations, said in a statement. "It was determined that these claims were inaccurate. Questions was conducted with a written script consistent with common practice, and there was no inappropriate conduct on behalf of the investigators."
Hirschbeck, who lives in Poland, Ohio, said that shortly before Christmas, he encountered Christopher on a street in his own neighborhood. Hirschbeck said MLB was taking what the WUA considers to be a typical heavy-handed approach to umpires and that it would be brought up in negotiations for the next labor contract. The current deal expires after the 2009 season.
"Once again, baseball's favorite way of doing things: Ready, fire, aim," Hirschbeck said. "It's not a good way to start the season."