By: Allan Wolper
Ethics Corner Column
Umpires are the Supreme Court justices of baseball. If they call a pitch that bounces off a batter’s head a strike, there is nothing anyone can do to make it a ball. Baseball fans boo their lungs out every time an umpire is blinded by his incompetence. But those fans still trust the arbiters of the National Pastime to render their decisions honestly.
Or the game would be flushed into a State of Enron.
This is why the Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner’s office keeps its reports of any shady activities by umpires locked up — safe from the prying eyes of the people’s press. This is why baseball engaged in damage control after recent revelations of a September 1989 gambling scandal in which two umpires were caught betting with drug-dealing bookies in Florida.
Here are the facts: On March 8, the New York Daily News identified Rich Garcia of the American League and Frank Pulli of the National League as the umpires hanging with the Florida bookies 13 years ago. Just three days later, the Boston Herald, relying on information culled from federal wiretaps, reported that the two umpires had problems paying off their gambling debts during their 1980s’ betting fling. In sports, this is as big a story as it gets. News of umpires running a tab with bookies is akin to municipal judges doing business with lawyers. There is a presumption the umpires would have to pay back their losses with information or a bad decision on the field.
The Daily News and the Herald noted that in 1989 the umpires were barely punished for their gambling sins — two years’ probation — while Pete Rose, one of the best players in history, was banned for life, costing him certain entry into the Hall of Fame. Even more bizarre: Rose gambled with some of the same bookies frequented by the umpires, according to the Herald.
“I thought that the perception of umpires involved with bookies would be devastating to the game,” said Jack Sullivan of the Herald. “I couldn’t understand how this could be covered up for 13 years. I asked the guy who tipped me off how something like this can happen and never be written about. He said, ‘People who cover baseball didn’t have the guts to do it.'”
Since 1989, there had been several stories noting that a couple of umpires were punished for associating with gamblers. But those stories did not name anyone, provided a paucity of detail, and were never followed up.
MLB officials responded to last month’s disclosures with perfect spin control. They attacked the people suspected of leaking the story and ridiculed suggestions it had been covered up for 13 years. They claimed the umpires deserved a second chance because they were contrite and did not bet on baseball, while Rose did. That’s like saying it is OK for Derek Jeter to give organized-crime figures tips on how to steal bases.
No one knows what sports the umps bet on or how much they lost because the federal tapes used as evidence in the gambling case have been sealed. It seems incomprehensible that sports journalists have not filed freedom-of-information requests to get those taxpayer-financed electronic tapes and the attendant correspondence.
The case has long been closed, and all the evidence should be available for public review. That seems to be the only way to really know all the facts.
The umpires, on the advice of MLB officials, have refused to talk about their gambling life. They should be made to, either by the baseball commissioner or by the writers who cover baseball.
Why? Two years ago, baseball officials made Frank Pulli a supervisor in charge of making certain that umpires keep away from the kind of undesirables that got him into trouble.
The Herald investigation revealed that Pulli placed bets with a bookie in New Jersey who allegedly was connected to the Genovese organized-crime family — and that Rose, Pulli, and the purported Genovese associate socialized.
And now, Rich Garcia, working as a consultant to the baseball commissioner’s office, is being considered for the same kind of supervisory job held by Pulli. The Daily News‘ reporters went after the gambling umpires, in part, because they hoped their story would keep Garcia from getting that job.
“They called me the day their story ran and asked if we were going do something about Garcia,” recalled Rich Levin, MLB’s senior vice president of public relations. “We told them there was nothing to do.”
Afterward, the News team on the gambling story — Bill Madden, Michael O’Keefe, and Luke Cyphers — stopped working on it. And their bosses have advised them not to talk about it.
Too bad. John M. Dowd, the investigative counsel who nailed the umpires and Rose, has conducted other secret baseball investigations on gambling. Can he provide names?
“I never leak,” Dowd said.