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What's Dumber Than Four Major League Umpires?

LAST WEEK I made the foolish mistake of bumping into The Editor at The Weekly, and he asked me what I was going to write about this week. Before I had a chance to answer, he said, "And no one gives a shit what you bought at the grocery store last week. Or what it's like to stand in line at Disneyland with a bunch of Japanese people."

Momentarily taken aback, I said, "Well, I read the other day that the South Carolina state legislature passed a law making it illegal to sell urine. (True story.) That oughta be good for a column. Maybe two."

He grumbled back, "Most of those awards you mysteriously win every year have the word 'sports' on them. How 'bout writing about sports?"

Shocked, I responded, "It's baseball season. There aren't any sports."

Being the wise and powerful man that he is, he convinced me to throw off the shroud of hypocrisy in which I am cloaked and admit to the world that I still have at least some interest in baseball. And he was right.

In all honesty, I do follow baseball, but I do so from a safe distance. I watch the highlights on ESPN SportsCenter almost every night, and on days when the newspaper sports section is painfully thin, I'll glance at the standings.

I also occasionally bump into a baseball game on the car radio from time to time and sometimes I'll even listen long enough to hear what the score is. That way I can listen to the Diamondbacks broadcast team and their idiot color man, Rod Allen, who butchers the English language like he was Professor Irwin Corey's star student or something.

This Allen guy is the undisputed king of the "shoulda went."

I used to love baseball; nowadays I put up with it. I proudly consider myself to be one of those "20 percenters" who became disgusted with the game after the 1994 strike, which caused the cancellation of the World Series. I plan on being a 20 percenter for life or longer. (If I end up in hell, watching baseball on TV will probably be part of the broad definition of "eternal damnation.")

Still, this baseball season has been okay. It lacks the superficial excitement of last year's home-run race between the unintelligible (but highly likable) Sammy Sosa and the new record holder, Mark McSteroid. But there have been some surprises, both good and bad.

We've only got a couple more months until the games start meaning something. Unless, of course, all of the division titles and wild-card slots have been locked up by then, in which case we'll just start watching football. Which, come to think of it, we would do anyway.

As we head into the dog days, there are some intriguing questions floating around baseball. Among them:

· What's dumber than four major-league umpires?

Five major-league umpires. Now, if you asked the question What's dumber than five major-league umpires?, those same umpires would probably say, "Uh, we're not sure. Can we ask (union chief) Richie Phillips?"

Are these guys a piece of work or what? Widely perceived as overpaid overeaters who arrogantly disregard the rules they are supposed to enforce, the umpires have, in the minds of fans and non-fans alike, almost impossibly positioned themselves beyond the much-hated ballplayers on the You Suck! scale.

And out of all that chow they consume, apparently none of it is in the "brain food" category. See, they already had a contract where they pretty much couldn't be fired. So what do they do as a negotiating ploy? They resign!

Now all major league baseball has to do is accept the resignations of the ones they don't like and go hire new ones willing to umpire baseball in exchange for a six-figure salary. If these guys were any dumber, there'd be a Latin name for their place in the plant kingdom.

Maybe that's why they're so large. They're not allowed to have sharp objects, so when dinner comes, instead of cutting it into pieces, they just eat the whole thing.

Not surprisingly, at press time several of the umps were "reconsidering" their resignations. And Richie Phillips needs to reconsider his career options. Right now, he has none. Next week will probably be even worse.

· What's the biggest surprise of the first half of the season?

Well, Toronto's in the wild-card hunt, Cincinnati is challenging Houston for the NL Central, and a horribly-depleted San Diego is only two games out in the NL West. Plus, the Mets haven't folded yet. But I guess the biggest surprise is that they're still showing regular-season baseball games on TV. I stumbled across one the other day while searching for Celebrity Bowling. Wow, it's just like the old days, except back then people cared.

· With a payroll of almost $100 million, shouldn't the Dodgers be higher than last place in their division?

Hey, sure they're in fifth place right now, but they're almost in fourth. I hope new owner Rupert Murdoch is happy. (Well, he probably is, now that he finally married his 32-year-old concubine.) What he has done to the Dodgers in two short years is the baseball equivalent of the Steve Martin book How I Turned A Million Dollars In Real Estate Into $100 Cash.

The Dodgers used to be the flagship of baseball, the model to which all other franchises aspired. Now they've become, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe (when discussing the case of M. Valdemar), "a nearly liquid mass of loathsome -- of detestable putridity."

· Is there any team more disappointing than the Dodgers?

Let me put it this way: if that Poe guy were alive in Baltimore today and following the Orioles, he'd be doing some serious drugs. With a similarly astronomical payroll, the Orioles are sucking worse than the Dodgers. Which proves that the only thing money can buy these days is George W. Bush.

Which brings us to the most important question of this baseball season: When does the UA football team play at Penn State?

August 28. Soon, but not soon enough.

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