Umpires, MLB agree on deal

NEW YORK -- Major League Baseball ensured its first decade of labor peace since the 1960s by agreeing to a five-year contract with umpires that runs through 2014.

The deal announced Wednesday, which is subject to ratification next month, was the second straight achieved without acrimony since a failed mass resignation in 1999 led to 22 umpires losing their jobs.

"I think both sides acted very professionally in trying to work through a tough time, and we ground it out," said World Umpires Association president Joe West, who lost his job in the 1999 dispute and regained it three years later.

Owners are expected to vote on the deal when they meet in the Phoenix area on Jan. 14, and umpires are set for balloting four days later.

Stung by a series of missed calls during the playoffs, management sought increased flexibility on postseason assignments in the new agreement. MLB asked that the prohibition be lifted against umpires working the World Series in consecutive years, a request that some of the union membership had trouble with.

Negotiators said they wouldn't discuss specifics of the deal before ratification, but it is hard to imagine owners agreeing to a contract that didn't include the removal of that restriction.

"As president of our union, my first responsibility is to the game of baseball, my second responsibility is to my profession, and my third responsibility is to do what in my heart I think is right," West said, speaking generally.

"When I say baseball, that doesn't mean the commissioner's office, and when I say umpiring or my profession of umpiring, that doesn't mean the union. ... Whenever we came to something that was tough in contract, we both tried to abide by those rules."

The deal leaves the collective bargaining agreement with players as baseball's next labor negotiation. That expires in December 2011 but both sides seem intent on an early start for bargaining.

"I do believe, me personally, that these negotiations -- the umpires and the players, frankly -- are more complicated than a lot of collective bargaining agreements and that the parties are well served by getting started early," said Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president of labor relations.

New players' association head Michael Weiner had a similar view.

"I would expect bargaining will begin well in advance of the termination date," he said.

The umpires' relationship with management has mirrored that of the players, leading to work stoppages in 1970, 1978, 1979, 1984, 1990, 1991 and 1995. After the 1999 mass resignations backfired, Richie Phillips' Major League Umpires Association was replaced by a new union, the WUA, which negotiated a pair of labor contracts under union president John Hirschbeck. West succeeded Hirschbeck in February.

After a series of eight work stoppages from 1972-95, players and owners reached agreements without strikeouts or lockouts in 2002 and 2006.

The umpires' deal had been set to expire Dec. 31.

"The leadership and professionals of the WUA did an outstanding job working with us to try to get an agreement," Manfred said. "I think we're in a period of time where both sides recognize that our best interests are served by reaching a deal."