|PHOENIX -- Did you notice the umpires during the World Series?
They are so glad to hear that.
"Our guys are doing their best work if nobody's talking about them," said Ralph Nelson, Major League Baseball's vice president of umpires.
And pretty much in this intense, dramatic and thrilling World Series, the umpiring crew performed in preferred anonymity, with the athletes taking center stage. No hot-headed ejections, no Don Denkinger-type blown calls, nothing more controversial than the customary gripes about balls and strikes.
Consider it an achievement because - and in some cases, in spite -- of baseball's decision two years ago to seize the opportunity presented by a labor dispute with the umpires union and centralize control of the men in blue.
Nelson believes the quality of this year's post-season umpiring is a direct result of baseball's decision to select crews based on merit through performance studies conducted continuously during the season, after years of selection by rotation. The World Series crew averaged 15 years of big-league experience.
"We're trying to put people into positions where we minimize the probability of a negative call turning a game," said Nelson. "The past two years there has been very little controversy, knock on wood."
Even if that means the same umpires keep showing up. The crew chief of this World Series and the home plate umpire in Games 1 and 7, 18-year veteran Steve Rippley, is working his third World Series in the past six years.
"It's an honor," said Rippley. "It's hard to complain when they pick on merit."
Nelson considers that a positive outgrowth of the changes implemented by his office and his boss, executive vice president of baseball operations Sandy Alderson.
Another outgrowth is the ability of management to tell umpires what it wants done and to get it. Before the Atlanta-Arizona Division Series, Nelson told umpires not to allow Braves pitchers to expand the strike zone beyond the corners, and they didn't.
He also concedes, however, that some bitterness remains from the labor dispute that led to an ill-advised mass resignation of umpires in 1999. That remains an open wound, as some of them were rehired, but 22 of them were not and are fighting for reinstatement. To replace them, MLB hired 21 minor league umpires and immediately declared them Major Leaguers.
That amounted to a 30 percent turnover virtually overnight. It would be the equivalent of replacing seven veteran ballplayers with rookies on a 25-man major league roster. In addition to the strain on personal relationships, it put untold pressure on the holdover veterans to carry the load amid a flood of rookies. Many of these veterans then were asked to be role models for new umpires who had taken the jobs of their longtime friends.
It would be nice to think all of that is in the past and has no bearing on umpiring in the World Series, but that would be wishful thinking.
"Hard feelings still exist, but you see a change even from last year, when you couldn't get all of them in one room at the same time," said Nelson. "Now they go out to dinner together. It's still very much a sensitive subject. Twenty two of them lost jobs and we'd all like to see that worked out. But on the field, they've been getting along better and better.
"You look at two of the guys in this series, Ed Rapuano and Mark Hirschbeck. Those guys were best friends, then this thing tore them apart. But it makes you feel good to see them working together and getting along. We're not completely done putting things together, but there's been a lot of progress.
"The umpires should be commended for accepting the change. They used to operate on their own without leadership. Eighty percent of them were on board with our beliefs, but some were off on their own. It was important to get everybody on the same page. Initially there was resistance, but after two years there is acceptance and it's made the umpires as a group better."
Rapuano was involved in two of the closest things to a controversy that occurred in this series, a tough call at the plate on a barehanded tag by Yankees catcher Jorge Posada and a verbal exchange with Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez over balls and strikes.
On the Posada tag, even though Fox broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver immediately criticized Rapuano for missing the call, they retracted when a different camera angle showed Rapuano had it correct.
"It's kind of disappointing they take their shots before they even see the play conclusively," said Nelson. "They had egg on their face that time because Rap was right."
In the exchange over balls and strikes, which baseball rules consider judgement calls and cannot be appealed, Hernandez was the aggressor, but both parties smoothed things over later in the game.
Dale Scott, the plate umpire for Game 3, also had a tough call to make on Alfonso Soriano's wind-blown pop-up that missed Arizona catcher Damian Miller's extended glove, landed on the infield and spun into foul ground. Scott correctly called the ball foul.
"Under the circumstances of what's going on around us, everybody here admits they're more nervous than normal," said Nelson. "But our guys have been in great position and have worked hard. They are very serious about what they do and they take a lot of pride in it."
Management hasn't made it easy, either. This year umpires were told to tighten the strike zone, speed up the game and police beanball incidents. In past years, management asked the union to cooperate. Nonetheless, it might have been biting off a bit much.
"Next year there will be nothing new," said Nelson. "We'll tweak the strike zone, beanball and time-of-game issues, but no major initiatives."
Ken Gurnick is a columnist for MLB.com. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.