There’s an ugly labor dispute brewing in the local ballyards. An umpires’ group has suddenly threatened to abandon its decades-old relationship with the largest slo-pitch-softball confederation in the region. Unlike the adversaries in the big leagues, who recently settled their dispute without a work stoppage, the boys in blue aren’t beefing over salary or revenue sharing or anything having to do with the almighty dollar.
They’re just fed up with getting “MF’d” too much.
If the term ever makes it to a dictionary, the entry for “MF” could look something like: “(Em eff) vt. To call a person an MF’er; typically used by a softball player who lacks perspective, self-control, and an adult vocabulary [I was not out, you stupid MF’er!]”
Umpires won’t need to look it up. Anybody who works between the white lines long enough knows what it means and just how bad getting MF’d in front of strangers or loved ones can make you feel.
“To be honest, I think we get MF’d at coed games more than anywhere,” says veteran softball umpire Dave Bartee, as if he’s dropped the dirty neologism before. “Usually it’s the macho guy wanting to be macho in front of the female. So we’re used to it. But we can only take so much.”
Bartee and a heavy majority of his colleagues within the 118-person Fairfax Softball Umpires Association (FSUA) say that the powers that be in Fairfax Adult Softball (FAS), which sanctions most of the hundreds of teams that play ball within county confines, have in recent years grown too cavalier toward MF’ing and the many other forms of ump abuse. And so the umpires say that barring an attitude adjustment on the part of FAS, the umpires’ group will drop its most lucrative client.
“These things aren’t just on the field anymore,” says Mark Ingrao, FSUA’s umpire-in-chief and head trainer. “Players don’t believe it in the heat of the moment, but the truth is umpires are the only guys on the field who really don’t care who wins. So we know that getting yelled at is part of the job. But things have gotten to the point where we’re training our people to carry a cell phone and call 911 to let the police know that they’re being assaulted when a player comes after them. Nobody’s been hurt yet, but our members are scared that if something’s not done, the next assault isn’t just going to be verbal.”
The MF’ing issue came to a head two weeks ago at an FAS hearing that had been called at the request of the umpire’s group to investigate specific abuse cases. Ingrao says that the FSUA arrived at the hearing prepared to present strong anecdotal evidence of an incident from a late August tournament at Braddock Park, a massive softball complex at the far western edge of the county. In that case, a player-umpire confrontation occurred shortly after the ump made an out call at first base on a bang-bang, game-ending double play. The umpire hoped the tirader would tire himself out, as happens in thousands of similar softball squabbles season after season after season. Instead, the player accosted the ump in the parking lot and created what the umps’ group describes as a dangerous situation.
“We brought three witnesses to the hearing that corroborated that this was basically an umpire-stalking situation,” says Ingrao. “This individual MF’d our guy over and over again, and created a very ugly, potentially dangerous scene.”
The alleged MF’er didn’t offer any evidence to counter the FSUA’s case, so the umpires expected the player to get some sort of penalty, something along the lines of a one-year suspension from FAS. Instead, the FAS panel dismissed the umpire’s complaint, saying the evidence was “weak.”
“Players these days have gotten smart, and they realize that umpires can throw them out of a game if they carry on during the game, but if they come after us after the game, nothing will happen to them,” says Bartee. “That’s why we need support from the leagues, and we get it everywhere but Fairfax.”
The FSUA also has contracts to work games in Herndon, Arlington, Reston, and Falls Church. But FAS provides the group with more work, at $22 a game, than all those other leagues combined.Yet within days of the dismissal of the charges against the alleged parking-lot MF’er, the FSUA’s rank-and-file members had voted to stop working in Fairfax. The group quickly drafted a letter and mass-mailed it to FAS managers declaring its intention to leave the county. But after discussions with management, the FSUA agreed to honor what’s left of its four-year contract with FAS, which expires on Dec. 31.
The only hope for the relationship to continue, says Ingrao, is for FAS to insert language into the next contract that admits there’s an MF’ing problem in the county and outlines ways to curb the expletive epidemic.
But at this point, FAS doesn’t seem to feel any need to change its ways or bylaws to accommodate the umps. “My only comment is that in Fairfax, we respect the safety of umpires,” says Sharon Sealock, FAS chief administrator. “When sufficient evidence [of umpire abuse] is presented to us, penalties will be meted out.”
Though the sides seem far apart, if settling the MF’ing dispute were left to FSUA Commissioner Mike Sivak, it would probably get settled quickly. He understands why his members want to walk and supports their decision: “This is a safety issue, and our guys decided it’s just not worth working with fear.”
But the 23-year veteran of umpiring in Fairfax has a different perspective about big problems and little problems these days. Sivak recently lost a second leg to complications from diabetes. He gets dialysis three times a week. He was on a waiting list for a kidney transplant but was taken off when doctors detected cancer in his colon. He’s been threatened and MF’d on several occasions during his umpiring career. “One guy told me he was going to go to his car and shoot me after a game, and I found out later that he really did have a gun in the car,” Sivak says. But he’d gladly suffer whatever slings and arrows go with umping.
“I really just want to get back on the field,” he says. Even a field in Fairfax. —Dave McKenna