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Umps Fight Strike Zone, Cuba

Baseball umpires, once again angry at owners, filed grievances Friday to block the new interpretation of the strike zone and to prevent the American League from sending them to Cuba for Baltimore's historic exhibition game.

The more serious grievance, one that could create confusion on the field, deals with the strike zone memorandum issued Feb. 19 by Sandy Alderson, the new executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner's office.

Responding to complaints that umpires have lowered and widened the strike zone, Alderson told them to raise the top of the strike zone to two inches above the top of the uniform pants. That's still below the definition called for in the official playing rules - the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants.

"In a misguided edict attempting to raise the strike zone, the commissioner's office in fact substantially lowered the zone and has done so in direct violation ... of the Major League Agreement, which requires a two-thirds vote of the rules committee in order to effect any rules changes," said a statement issued by the office of umpires union head Richie Phillips.

Phillips also complained the interpretation was made unilaterally by baseball, saying the umpires' labor agreement requires they be consulted.

"Should the umpires comply with the new strike zone rule, they will violate the Major League Agreement and their contractual obligations to enforce the official playing rules."

Alderson was in Cuba working on preparations for the March 28 exhibition game and could not be contacted, and commissioner Bud Selig's staff was unable to reach him.

Umpires at first demanded that the AL and NL offices - their legal employers - tell them to enforce Alderson's memo. So far this spring, they have been calling higher strikes.

"All the players need to know is: `What is the strike zone?"' said Gene Orza, the No. 2 official of the players' association. "My understanding was that the commissioner's office memorandum did not suggest or want strict enforcement of the rule, just that they wanted the rule to be more strictly enforced. It was premised on the belief that to strictly enforce the rule as written would require the umpires to make too radical a change."

"The conclusion of the grievance is that umpires would be happy with a new edict: strictly enforce the strike zone. No fair-minded person can claim the strike zone as written in the rule book is the one the umpires have been calling."

The other grievance is probably over money. As part of the agreement with Cuban sports officials for the Orioles' exhibition games, half of the umpiring crew was to come from the American League, the other half from Cuba.

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