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?
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“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 surprised West before the game, stopping in the umpire’s room and personally congratulating West. There were no tears, but West appeared moved by the gesture.
The umpiring crew then walked through the tunnel for the playing of the national anthem, sung by the Oak Ridge Boys, on behalf of West.
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 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.
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.
The three other umpires, Dan Bellino, Bruce Dreckman and Nic Lentz came over, one by one, hugging them.
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 and razzing West along with the rest of the umpiring crew, West remained stoic. He just kept doing his job, just like 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.’’
The fans will never really appreciate him. The players may never give him his ultimate respect. And that’s OK.
It’s the life of an umpire.
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