CHICAGO – Ah, nothing like the life of an umpire.
Here is Joe West, on the greatest and emotional night of his career, breaking the all-time record with his 5,376th game as an umpire Tuesday, and the moment he steps onto the field before the St. Louis Cardinals-Chicago White Sox game, he’s lustily booed.
“Well, what did you expect?’’ says James Bond, his childhood friend from Greenville, North Carolina. “It’s emotional for all of us, but not for the fans or players.’’
The moment a video tribute ended at Guaranteed Rate Field, one teenager stood in the aisle and yelled: “Joe West! He’s the worst umpire I’ve ever seen.’’
Yep, just another testament to West’s longevity, and either his popularity or notoriety, depending on which way you choose to view it?
LONESOME COWBOY:Joe West prepared to stand alone among umpires
“Can anyone else even name five umpires?’’ said Charlie Haje, West’s longtime friend who traveled from Destin, Florida. “How about three? Anyone besides Joe?
“He’s got to be the most famous umpire in history.”
Well, judging from the turnout for West, who can dare argue?
When you’ve got everyone from 14-time Grammy singer Emmylou Harris to Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion quarterback Jim McMahon to commissioner Rob Manfred and former commissioner Peter Ueberroth to the Famous San Diego Chicken on hand, you’ve been doing something right.
Manfred and Ueberroth stopped in the umpires’ room and surprised West, where he appeared genuinely moved. White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Cincinnati Reds advisor Walt Jocketty stopped in, too, personally congratulating West.
“I don’t have any enemies in baseball,’’ West says, “I’ve outlived them all.’’
The umpiring crew then walked through the tunnel for the playing of the national anthem, sung by the Oak Ridge Boys, who have known West for 40 years.
West and his umpiring crew took the field as “Elvira’’ by the Oak Ridge Boys blared on the loudspeakers. Three of the four umpires looked toward the stands behind home plate, filled with current and retired umpires, supervisors and family members, and waved.
Then, came Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration’’ over the speakers while the scoreboard acknowledged West’s achievement.
West, wearing a gold chest protector, looked straight ahead, shuffling his feet across home plate, while cameras flashed around him.
Cardinals 16-year starter Adam Wainwright broke the ice, walked over, shook his hand, and congratulated West.
By the end of the night, West says there wasn’t a single player who didn’t say congratulations, with Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux even hanging around a little longer on a mound visit just to say hello to West.
Then, everyone turned their attention to the centerfield scoreboard, where it informed fans that West was breaking the record of most games that had stood for 80 years.
The tributes started with award-winning country singer Garth Brooks paying homage, followed by retired umpire Bruce Froemming, longtime umpire Gerry Davis, retired umpire Steve Rippley and retired umpire Jerry Crawford.
The group of 130 friends and family sitting in Section 129 gave West a rousing standing ovation, which was soon joined by other fans in the area. West heard the noise, looked up, and touched his hat.
“Joe looked very emotional then,’’ said former umpire Randy Marsh, who came in from Cincinnati for the game on his way to Houston. “It was so nice to see them acknowledge an umpire who devoted his whole life to baseball.’’
The three other umpires, Dan Bellino, Bruce Dreckman and Nic Lentz came over, one by one, hugging him.
“It was tough to hold back a tear or two,’’ West said, “but [actor] Tom Hanks said there’s no crying in baseball, so you can’t do it.’’
Then, of course, there was a game to be played, with the scoreboard sending out a congratulatory message after the game became official in the fifth inning that West set the all-time record. The crowd of 16,380 booed even louder, softening only when the San Diego Chicken came out and presented a bouquet of flowers to West.
“Pretty special, and very emotional,’’ said umpire supervisor Ed Rapuano, who umpired more than 900 games with West, and took days off to pay his respects in person before his scheduled early-morning flight to Miami.. “I remember we worked the barnstorming tour one spring from Birmingham, to Greenville, to Richmond. And now, to see this, how can you not be emotional? All of us are.’’’
Just ask Bond, Joey Moore, Russell Smith and Tommy Durham, who all grew up with West, sitting side by side and reminiscing about their childhood friend an hour before the game.
“We wouldn’t have missed this for all of the money in the world,’’ Bond said. “You kidding me? I knew damn sure I was going to be here.
“This is a big deal. A huge deal.’’
So, while the fans had their fun booing, razzing West, despite the scoreboard reminding White Sox fans that West was behind the plate when the White Sox and ace Mark Buehrle won Game 1 of the 2005 World Series, West remained stoic. He just kept doing his job, just as he has for more games than any umpire who ever lived.
“He’s very consistent, man,’’ White Sox manager Tony La Russa said before the game. “He controlled the game. And that’s what an umpire is supposed to do. I always thought he was fair. He’s going to enforce what is right. You couldn’t disrespect the game.
“I think he’s the perfect guy to set the record because he really represents what an umpire should be about.’’
Says Marsh: “On the field, he just wants the game to be run right. That’s all. He’s doing it right, by the rules of the game.’’
It was exemplified in the final inning of the White Sox’s 8-3 rout when West refused to give in and expand the strike zone to end the game. There were two walks. The bases were loaded. And it wasn’t until closer Liam Hendricks was summoned, and ended the game on a called third-strike on a 10-pitch at-bat by Tommy Edman.
“When he called that last strike,’’ La Russa said, “I said, “I love Joe West!’ His call ended the game. It was an amazing moment for him and he deserves every bit of it.’’
West walked off the field into the tunnel, and was greeted in the umpires’ room by one of the Oak Ridge Boys, who couldn’t believe that West called a balk in his historic game.
“But I was right,’’ West said, “it was a balk.’’
West returned to the field after several minutes, hugged his wife, Rita, and then posed for pictures with his friends and family members as West’s picture and achievement shined brightly on the scoreboard:
“Congratulations Joe West on your career milestone 5,376 games. Major League Baseball record.’’
They might have stayed around for pictures all night but the stadium lights went out after about 15 minutes, and never came back on, leaving the group to trudge slowly through the grandstands to board the bus back to the hotel.
The fans will never truly appreciate West. The players may never give him his ultimate respect. Even the stadium engineers shut the lights off on him early.
Life as an umpire, no matter how great the achievement.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale