Judge, jury and executioner: The ballad of 'Cowboy' Joe West

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, left, is ejected by home plate umpire Joe West during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, in St. Louis.
Joe West will umpire his 5,000th game on Tuesday night in Colorado. (AP)

Joe West, like all men who have spent their lives in baseball, believes in the sanctity of the game. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and he always will do what he believes is right, even if that means the rest of the world thinks he’s wrong. Sometimes that means telling a rookie he is ugly. And other times that means educating a player on the finer points of introducing oneself, since that’s a real thing in Cowboy Joe’s world. And then there is the matter of maintaining control on field, which isn’t a goal of Joe West’s but an imperative, because the game demands that of an umpire, and he’s nothing if not a humble servant of the game.

“My first responsibility is to the game of baseball,” West said in a recent phone conversation. “That doesn’t mean the commissioner’s office. That means the game. The second responsibility is to your profession. When I get on my pedestal at the union meetings, I tell them to be moral, honest, true and correct. If you do them in that order, nothing you do out there will be wrong.”

West paused and snickered.

“That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to be in the middle of a big brouhaha … ”

Joe West knows a lot of things. He knows the rules of baseball – the minutiae, coded in numbers and letters and sub-numbers, arcane as sports gets – better than anyone. He knows what is a ball, what is a strike and what is an out. He knows that as tough as he has to be as a 64-year-old in his 40th season umpiring in the major leagues, it took the toughest version of him to beat throat cancer. And, yes, he knows him some big brouhahas, having started plenty and finished even more with the power vested in him by his uniform.

“You think a police officer likes putting someone in jail?” West said. “That’s part of it. If he’s a bad guy you have to put him in jail. I agree with (Cardinals broadcaster) Mike Shannon. He said, ‘The umpire’s the last real authority on earth. You can’t appeal his decision. He’s judge, jury and executioner.’ ”

Tuesday night in Colorado, Joe West, indisputable judge, jury and executioner, will umpire his 5,000th game. Only Bill Klem (5,369) and Bruce Froemming (5,163) have worked more. Neither approached West in terms of renown, which, in his earlier years, would have bothered West.

Now, he sees his … hmmm, how best to put this? Popularity? No, because that comes with a positive connotation, and were Ipsos to do a public opinion poll on West, he might find himself in presidential territory. Mockery? No, it’s not that, either, because officials of all stripes wear the ugliest, snidest, meanest slings and arrows of sports fans, almost always unfairly, because the expectations for perfection – and it is what the world expects – simply aren’t realistic.

Notoriety? Yes. That’s it. Joe West – it’s always first name and last, except when appended by the angriest with a faux middle name that starts with the letter F – is notorious in every sense of the word. In the desire to assert himself and remind players the game is bigger than them and he’s more than happy to play steward to that realization, West has birthed a legion of those that hate the idea of him and can’t help but be drawn to him anyway.

“When I first came up, you were taught if a guy yells your name, don’t look over there,” West said. “Invariably, he’ll say you’re an [expletive] or you suck. Now when people yell my name they ask for an autograph. I got called on the carpet a year ago.”

Major League Baseball heard West was signing. This was a no-no. The league fined him. West said he wouldn’t pay. That, he said, is when he heard from Joe Torre, the league’s Chief Baseball Officer, whom West shoved in 1983 during an argument, earning a three-game suspension.

“What is this about?” Torre said.

“If I don’t go over there,” West said, “what do you think they’re going to say, Joe?”

“Well,” Torre said, “they’re going to say you’re an [expletive].”

West reveled in telling this story. He revels in telling all kinds of stories. That’s the thing about him that gets people across baseball. Nothing infuriated Hawk Harrelson, the longtime White Sox broadcaster, more than West being West – puffing out his chest (protected, of course, with his patented West Vest chest protector), projecting the majesty of his being, pointing his right index finger and tsk-tsking players and managers and coaches that dare challenge him, and heave-hoing those who cross the line that West drew in invisible ink all those years ago.

Well, guess who’s golfing buddies with West these days? Hawk Harrelson. Reviled though he may be by players who have crossed him or whom he has crossed – “That guy is a total piece of [expletive],” one of West’s ejectees said recently, asking his name be left out because, he said, in West’s world retribution is a real thing – West nevertheless maintains a wonderful rapport with some of his greatest foes.

That we’re talking about an umpire in such a confrontational fashion isn’t necessarily how one is supposed to function in 2017, but then West isn’t a product of 2017. He grew up in North Carolina and umpired during his down time playing quarterback at Elon College. He was a prodigy, calling his first major league game at 24 and joining the full-time staff for good at 26. He worked with Ed Vargo and Doug Harvey, did a spring-training game with Nestor Chylak. He learned the value of humor from Tom Gorman and charm from Paul Pryor. The umpiring fraternity isn’t merely close. It is a brotherhood born of shared experiences: the pressure of adjudicating the inches in the game of inches, of blowing a call and going to sleep knowing it, of getting old in a young man’s game – and of making sure those young men understand the role of those older ones.

See, when Joe West is behind the plate and a fresh-to-the-big-leagues kid in the batter’s box, West expects the rookie to introduce himself. Do that, West said, “and next time up you can call me a [expletive].” Don’t do that, West said, and it’s just disrespecting the game.

“A lot of problems we have today as umpires are based on how society brings up people,” West said. “When I came to the big leagues, if a player got out of line, the umpire took care of it right then. Our umpires coming out of the minor leagues – they’re not letting them take care of it. A player will come to the big leagues not knowing what he’s supposed to do.”

Lest you think West is simply a graybeard who wants things to be how they once were, it isn’t true. He loves instant replay. Seriously.

“The best thing that ever happened with replay is the umpires get to review their work and everyone else’s and learn from things done correctly and mistakes that are made,” he said. “They’ll sit in there and dissect the play. I think it’s been great for the game. The funny thing about it is baseball spent $40 million to prove we’re 99 percent right.”

But …

“When we put in replay, I thought there would be no arguments,” West said. “The first year we put in replay, ejections went up 20 percent. Baseball is a funny game. It’s typically American. If you don’t succeed it’s someone else’s fault. And the first person you want to look at is the official. Just look at our last election. When Hillary lost, it’s someone else’s fault. The Russians. Wikileaks. It’s the fact you couldn’t stand up and say ‘I lost.’ Nobody in today’s society wants to say ‘I wasn’t good enough.’ Baseball is a game of failures. The last hitter who hit .400 is dead and gone. There isn’t going to be another of those. For anybody to think this is a perfect game, they’re kidding themselves. Let’s be honest: How do you hit a round ball with a cylindrical bat square.”

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jonathan Papelbon argues with Umpire Joe West after being ejected from the game against the Miami Marlins in the ninth inning of a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Philadelphia.
Joe West was a prodigy, calling his first major league game at 24 and joining the full-time staff for good at 26. (AP)

That is Joe West. That, in 141 words, is him being thoughtful, bombastic, brash, exaggerated, contemplative and introspective. That is 40 years of marriage between a titan and the game he loves. And to see Joe West as anything but a fundamental part of nearly half a century of baseball would be wrong. The game was what it was, is what it is, because of Joe West.

It’s impossible to say whether there will be another of him because he is an archetype: the principled belligerent. West believes in the end. The means are malleable. If it takes him running a guy to make his point, he runs him. If it takes him grabbing Jonathan Papelbon’s jersey – something for which he earned a one-game suspension and near-unanimous praise throughout the game for putting a boor in his place – then grab he will.

For how much longer West doesn’t know. Two and a half years ago, doctors scraped cancer cells off the vocal cords that he used in hundreds of ejections – and on three albums of music recorded in his spare time. Radiation killed the cancer. Earlier this month, West visited an ENT and got a clean bill of health.

“As long as my knees hold up, I’ll keep going,” West said, and seeing as he carded a 76 on the course recently, they’re doing well enough. Which means all the calls for robot umpires and using cameras and radar systems to call strikes will have a fierce, staunch opponent who’s never afraid of anything, least of all letting the world know what he believes.

Joe West, above all, believes in baseball. When he first started, social media didn’t exist. There weren’t umpire scouting reports passed out to every player showing where he likes to call strikes and where blind spots may be. But the game is the game. He still wears a uniform and a mask, calls balls and strikes, renders verdicts of safe or out. And he’ll continue to do so with the morality, honesty, truth and correctness of a man who knows, above all, that nothing he does out there will be wrong.

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