The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

 

"They Buried Me on That Game"

Yesterday an article of mine on the untimely passing of former MLB ump Eric Gregg -- who died Monday at the age of 55 following a massive stroke -- went up at Baseball Prospectus. I'd written a short paragraph about Gregg in this week's Hit List, but when my editor, John Erhardt, suggested cutting a couple of lines because I didn't have room to expand on a particular assertion, I offered to bang out a quick piece once I got back from my Boston trip.

Gregg, of course, was the instantly recognizable, ebullient but grossly overweight National League umpire who became the men in blue's biggest celebrity. His struggles with obesity transcended the sport. Unfortunately, they can also be seen as part of the undoing that led to him losing the job he loved so much.

The assertion in question was that it can be argued that Gregg and the rest of baseball might have been better off if Game Five of the 1997 National League Championship Series hadn't occurred. That's the game where Gregg's extra-wide strike zone helped Marlins rookie Livan Hernandez strike out 15 Atlanta Braves, many on pitches that appeared six inches off the plate. The Marlins' saga, from their unlikely championship run to their first fire sale to the protracted stadium battle which still hasn't been resolved might have unfolded differently; for all we know the Expos might still be in Montreal and the Red Sox still without a championship if owner Wayne Huizenga hadn't sold out to John Henry the following year.

Furthermore, Gregg, already on thin ice due to his high-profile (or some would say wide-profile) weight issues, wouldn't have had such powerful ammunition to be used against him when he played a part in the ill-fated umpire resignation of 1999. Fifty-seven umpires resigned on the advice of Major League Umpires Union president Richie Phillips, and while most quickly rescinded their resignations when MLB called their bluff, Gregg's was accepted. Nine out of 22 umps whose resignations were accepted were rehired after an arbitration process; he wasn't among them, nor was he rehired via a later settlement. He did belatedly receive $400,000 worth of severance pay and health benefits, but only after five years of sporadic employment and a bit of public ridicule for his inability to move on with his life.

The Marlins' component of the argument is admittedly a bit of a stretch, but the link between that fateful game and Gregg's demise seems pretty clear. In a Players' Association poll the next year, Gregg finished second-to-last among NL umpires in an eight-category poll of players, coaches and managers. "They buried me on that game," Gregg would later say, and this week those words took on a chilling weight of their own. My first reaction was to recall "the enduring image... of Gregg punching out a seemingly endless succession of bewildered hitters while hamming it up like Leslie Nielsen behind the plate in The Naked Gun," as I wrote in the article.

Here's the piece's conclusion:
From a public standpoint, Gregg never did get a chance to write another chapter to his short life, so we're left with an image of a man who struggled with his weight, wasn't particularly good at his job, received some terrible advice from his boss and lost that job, never got back on his feet, and died young -- a grossly unfair reduction. Reading various obituaries, one comes away with the impression that Gregg's peers--fellow umps, players, managers (even Cox)--held him in high esteem, and his family loved him dearly. Son Kevin Gregg (not the pitcher), in talking about his father as his inevitable final hours unfolded, painted a portrait of a hard-working, well-liked man who overcame many obstacles as he rose from humble origins to make the major leagues, a success story just like many a ballplayer.

As fans, we sometimes have a tendency to reduce players players to the sum of their stats and forget the human side, but as often as we bust on the incompetence of Neifi Perez or Aaron Small, we're not impugning these players' personalities, just their performances. Umpires don't have stats (well, they do, but parsing them is another story) and there's a temptation to see them as interchangeable, particularly with the amount of turnover seen in recent years. They've become anonymous autocrats, and we gripe about their performances even as technologies like Questec squeeze their authoritah. Many of them are still just as belligerent as the rank and file appeared to be when Phillips marched them like lemmings into the sea. For whatever his shortcomings, Eric Gregg was different than that. Rather than being buried for his role in one game, he should be remembered as the all-too-human face of the men in blue.
As testament to the positive aspects of Gregg's life, the man was remembered on Friday in an upbeat memorial service in Philadelphia:
Bill White, the former major-league player who was NL president during part of Gregg's 23 years as an umpire, called Gregg a pioneer in the game.

Gregg, known for his rotund build and his big laugh, umpired his first major-league game in 1975, becoming the third African American to do so.

"I've been to a few celebrations of life," White said. "Jackie Robinson, Elston Howard, Junior Gilliam, John Roseboro, Curt Flood, Larry Doby. They were all pioneers. And we're here today to celebrate another pioneer. Eric Gregg wasn't the first black umpire, but he was the most flamboyant."

Marty Appel, the former New York Yankees public relations executive who cowrote Gregg's autobiography in 1990, described Gregg as the "most famous umpire in baseball history."

"Eric saw baseball the way it's supposed to be, in its truest form -- fun and entertainment," Appel said. "He never lost that spirit, whether he was dancing with the Phillie Phanatic or going toe to toe with Tommy Lasorda."

...Everyone had an Eric Gregg story. White told of how he entered the umpires' room shortly after an earthquake hit San Francisco before Game 1 of the 1989 World Series. He looked around the room and saw just five of the six umpires.

"Where's Eric?" White asked.

Someone pointed downward.

"Eric was under the (buffet) table, and every few minutes this big hand would come up and grab a shrimp," White said.
It's certainly sad to see the man go, but I'm gratified he got the sendoff he deserved. He truly was larger than life.

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