Passion For Umpiring Pushes Joe West Past Milestone

Twenty-six of the 30 big league ballparks had not yet been built when Joe West umpired his first game. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Joe West was reminiscing about the memorable moments of what became the 5,000th regular-season major league game he has umpired, in a career that began back in September 1976.

Moments like Albert Pujols’ 400th home run and Willie McCovey’s 500th.

“Lot of guys today don’t know who Willie McCovey was,” he said.

There was Nolan Ryan’s fifth of seven no-hitters, the no-hitter Clay Buchholz threw in his second big league start for the Red Sox back on Sept. 1, 2007, and Felix Hernandez’s perfect game on Aug. 12, 2012.

“The great thing about this job is you witness a piece of history every day,” West said.

Like the first ejection of Bud Black’s managerial career, back when the current Rockies manager was with the Padres on May 31, 2007.

“Don’t remember,” said West, who has had a lengthy list of ejections.

Black, however, remembered. It was in Pittsburgh. Padres catcher Josh Bard hit what was called a home run. Bard circled the bases and was putting his catching gear back on when then-Pirates manager Jim Tracy challenged the ruling, claiming the ball actually hit off a railing on top of the fence and came back into play and should be ruled a double, not a home run.

The umpires agreed. West signaled that it was a ground-rule double. Bard charged out of the dugout in full catching gear right at West, who was near second base, and was quickly ejected, and then Black was out of the dugout to challenge the decision.

“I do remember now,” West said. “He followed me around the infield until he got kicked out.”

He got kicked out.

And in retrospect, Black said West got the call right.

“We always do, don’t we?” West said with a smile.

West has been a big league umpire longer than any man in history, but he is third on the list in games umpired, behind Hall of Famer Bill Klem (5,375) and Bruce Froeming (5,163).

“I have been here more years, but I have to realize when Bill Klem worked, he didn’t have a week off at a time or go to (New York to oversee) replay, those luxuries that the smart union chief got for the umpires now,” said West, who now serves as the president of the umpire’s union.

West also has managed 123 postseason games, which according to researcher David Vincent is second only to Gerry Davis, who has 133 on his ledger.

West has worked for six of the game’s 10 commissioners from Bowie Kuhn to Peter Ueberroth to Bart Giamatti to Fay Vincent to Bud Selig and now Rob Manfred.

“I look at everything I have done as quite an accomplishment,” West said. “I came from two school teachers in North Carolina. I’m proud of the 5,000 market, but you’ve got to have a lot of help just to get started.”

The game has been a passion for him since his college days, when he was playing football, first at East Carolina and later at Elon.

Diamondbacks coach Jerry Narron said he was “10 or 11” when he first remembers West, who played against Narron’s brother Johnny in high school.

“And when I was 15, I went to a Cincinnati Reds tryout camp and Joe was there, umpiring,” Narron said. “I’ve watched his career.”

Narron raised his eyebrows, smiled, and added, “I might be the only guy in baseball who likes him . . . Seriously, he’s one of the best umpires in the game. He has a flair about him, but when he comes to calling balls or strikes or calling safe or out or fair or foul, he is focused and does his job.”

West appreciated the compliment, but then pointed out he loves his job or he wouldn’t still be putting on the gear 41 years after his big league debut.

“Mike Gallego asked me one time why I was still umpiring,” West said. “He says, ‘You can’t need the money.’ He said, ‘The travel stinks.’ He says, ‘Why do you keep doing this?’

“I said, ‘And give up all the free golf?’ ”

West smiled and added, “Umpires are real people. You’ll understand how much fun they are to be around. It’s a close-knit fraternity. It’s a close-knit group, and they pull for each other. They’re like the third team on the field.”

And West is the senior member of that team.

How long has he been around?

Well, consider that just four current ballparks were even in use when West starting umpiring—Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and, of course, Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park. Only Wrigley (7,915) and Fenway (8,133) have hosted more games than he has umpired.

“They have been around a long time,” West said.

Joe West has been around a long time, too. And he’s had a good time along the way.

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