One of the things I have learned in my legal career is that, when it comes to negotiations, whatever people tell you is important to them usually is not, and that they couldn't give a tinker's damn about whatever it is they say they care about. This lesson seems to be playing out in textbook fashion as we watch Major League Baseball's attempt to do background checks on umpires unfold.
Major League Baseball claims to be most concerned about avoiding the nightmare that is L'affaire Donaghy, and has infused its rhetoric regarding the background checks with appeals to integrity and security and all that is good and wholesome in the world. While I'm sure that on some level they do care about those things, I just don't believe that it's the primary motivator in this instance.
Call me cynical, but I get the sense that baseball has felt pretty good about itself in the past couple of weeks, what with the mostly good press over the falling milestones, and by the fact that baseball's scandal -- steroids -- looks like a manageable one compared to the awful PR of Michael Vick's brutality and the catastrophe that is Tim Donaghy. I think baseball likes being the good son in the eyes of public opinion, if only for a week, and is looking for ways to stay, relatively speaking, in everyone's good graces. Rather than any real concern over the integrity of umpiring -- honestly, in the age of QuesTec how much can one compromised umpire affect the outcome of a baseball game -- Major League Baseball wants to look like its being proactive for once in its existence, even if such putative proactivity is obviously a knee-jerk reaction to what's going on in basketball.
Not that the umpires are any better. In what is perhaps one of the most ineffective and poorly thought out press releases I have seen in some time, the umpires' union tries to turn the issue about background checks into a referendum on Major League Baseball's greed and willingness to make a quick buck under the guise of adding integrity to the game. Maybe such a criticism would provoke thought if it weren't for the fact that the umpires are doing exactly that by trying to link an extra playoff bonus check for their members to the background check issue while claiming that a seventh umpire is essential to the integrity of post-season play.
But no matter who is being more disingenuous, I think that Major League Baseball ultimately wins this issue because it has picked a battle in which it has public opinion on its side. If the umps don't think this is important, they can ask the Major League Baseball Players' Association -- one of the most successful unions in the history of organized labor -- just how hard it was for them to avoid the imposition of steroid testing in 2002. The World Umpire Association likely doesn't have anyone as cagey as Don Fehr on its side, and in the wake of the mass resignations fiasco a few years ago, its membership doesn't have the will for a fight.
I predict this battle will be a short one, and that by the beginning of next season, someone in Bud Selig's office will be getting reports about what every ump has for breakfast each morning.