Lonesome Cowboy: Joe West prepared to stand alone among umpires

·11 min read

CHICAGO — The Oak Ridge Boys will be there.

So will Commissioner Rob Manfred.

And Chicago Bears icon Jim McMahon.

Fourteen-time Grammy Award singer Emmylou Harris, too.

There will be another 130 guests and friends traveling to Chicago for the historic game Tuesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field between the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.

Joe West is scheduled to work his record 5,376th game when he squats behind the plate, surpassing Hall of Famer Bill Klem’s mark that has stood for 80 years.

“This record will never be broken," former umpire Terry Tata says. "It’s almost mathematically impossible."

That's because umpires now work no more than 120 games a season and spend two weeks in the instant replay office in New York, meaning it would take 45 seasons to surpass West.

Considering umpires don't reach the big leagues until they’re at least 30, it's hard to imagine a 75-year-old umpire standing behind home plate, particularly with automated strike zones and robot umpires on the horizon.

Then again, there may be no umpire like “Cowboy Joe’’ West ever again.

Because he's not only an umpire. He's also a singer-songwriter, actor, golfer and philanthropist.

West has appeared in two movies, recorded two albums, appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, sung with Mickey Gilley, Merle Haggard and Johnnie Lee, been a pallbearer for Boxcar Willie, played on the Celebrity Players Tour, thrown pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground breaking up a fight, grabbed Jonathan Papelbon by the jersey after making a lewd gesture, designed his own chest protector and won a $500,000 defamation lawsuit against former catcher Paul LoDuca?

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“He’s like a traveling road show," says umpire Dan Bellino, who requested in January to be on West’s crew for the historic game. “He can’t walk through a hotel lobby without people stopping him. It’s like the parting of the red sea."

What other umpire would prompt a player to whip out his cell phone to take a picture with West during the game as Nelson Cruz did at the 2017 All-Star Game?

“That’s one hell of a compliment right there," says former long-time umpire Jerry Crawford. "I’m sure there’s quite a few managers that don’t want to take a picture with Joe West."

Yadier Molina, right, take a photo of Nelson Cruz with Joe West during the sixth inning of the 2017 All-Star Game in Miami.
Yadier Molina, right, take a photo of Nelson Cruz with Joe West during the sixth inning of the 2017 All-Star Game in Miami.

Well, at least not while he’s still working.

“I think when Joe retires people are going to realize the magnitude of his accomplishments," Bellino says. "Sort of like a president of the United States who don’t realize the good they do until they leave office. Even though he’s always blasted by the media and blasted by the fans, they don’t realize Joe’s contribution to this sport.

“He’ll do everything for umpires. I’ve seen young guys tell him they’re interested in umpires, and Joe will ask for their address and send equipment. There’s not a single umpire, I don’t care if it’s slow-pitch softball, he won’t stop and talk to, answering their questions."

'Goes broke playing his own music'

West, 68, made his major-league debut in 1976 and became a full-time National League umpire in 1978. He has since umpired in three All-Star Games, six World Series and 23 postseasons, as well as worked no-hitters and many milestones of the past 40-plus years.

But he's best known as a showman, the most flamboyant umpire in the game. He’ll tell you that he may not always be right, but he also has never been wrong.

He’ll walk into a honky-tonk, stuff dollars in the jukebox and play his own songs all night. “He’s the only guy I know," umpire Jerry Layne says, “that goes broke playing his own music."

He takes his golf clubs on the road, knowing they weigh exactly 78 pounds, but will tell the airline agent their scale is wrong. He traveled with his own fax machine until two years ago. The man never sleeps, and is always open for a good time.

“I remember we were at Mickey Gilley’s place in Texas," Crawford says, "and Mickey’s guitarist (Larry Bob Lehman) tells Joe, 'You ever see a Niagara Falls?’ He puts four shot glasses in between his fingers and chugs them all.

“Joe thought it was the greatest thing he’s ever seen. These are the kind of guys Joe runs around with."

As much fun West has off the field, he is just as serious on it. He commands respect. And it’s not as if he looks for controversy, but somehow, controversy seems to find him.

Joe West grabs Jonathan Papelbon after ejecting the Phillies pitcher from a game in 2014.
Joe West grabs Jonathan Papelbon after ejecting the Phillies pitcher from a game in 2014.

He was suspended three games for shoving former manager Joe Torre outside the umpires’ room in 1981, and, 36 years later, was suspended another three games for saying Rangers All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre was the biggest complainer in the game.

West ejected Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell for having pine tar on his glove during the 1988 playoffs, and was there in 2004 when his crew ruled that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was out for interference when he slapped the ball out of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove.

“The fans threw everything at us," West said. “They had to call the riot squad to calm everyone down. The next day, when the fans realized we had the call right, they gave us a standing ovation."

West, who led Elon (N.C.) University to three conference championships as their starting quarterback and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, has no fear. Managers and players quickly realize you can’t intimidate him. And don’t ever question who’s the boss.

“Back in the day when you were a rookie," Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux says, “umpires would test you. I remember throwing a 3-2 pitch right down the middle with the bases loaded. And he didn’t call it. Veterans had warned me not to look at him once he tests you, so I didn’t. Once that happened, man, we were good.

“His demeanor sometimes rubbed you the wrong way, but I never had an issue with him. He always got the call right. It was amazing how good he was on the bases. I never saw him miss a call.

“There were umpires who would get intimidated by the crowd, and become homers, but not Joe. Nothing would bother him.’’

West’s fearlessness, managers say, is why they loved him behind the plate in big games, particularly on the road. The bigger the moment, the louder the crowd, the better West was.

"In a big game, with a big crowd, and the game on the line,’’ former manager Buck Showalter says, “you wanted Joe behind the plate because he didn’t care who you were or where you were playing."

'He's a stubborn mule-head'

West also doesn't care about threats because he has been dealing with them his entire career.

He was once told by a team owner in the Puerto Rico winter league that he would never leave the island alive. Another time he got a death threat while on the crew with Paul Runge and Bob Engel.

“We’re about to walk on the field," West said, “and Runge says, 'Hey Joe, you go on ahead, we’ll be right behind you.' "

Says Tata: “This is a guy who will walk into a blast furnace with two gasoline buckets, he doesn’t give a damn.’’

West doesn’t need Twitter to know he’s not popular with fans. No one gets booed more among umpires. Then again, no umpire is more renowned.

“We all know the song, 'My Way,' by Frank Sinatra,’’ says Gerry Davis, who plans to retire this summer once he reaches his 5,000th game. “Well, Sinatra has nothing on Joe West on doing things his way."

It’s no different now than with West breaking the record. The man should be planning his retirement, spending the rest of his life with his wife, Rita. Yet, after having knee replacement surgery during the winter, West says he feels good as ever, and if he steps onto the field next year, he’ll also break the record for being the oldest umpire in history.

“This is the best I’ve seen him move around in years," said former umpire Eddie Montague, who now is an MLB supervisor. “But don’t tell him that or he’ll work 10 more years. He’s a stubborn mule-head.’’

Joe West, then a National League umpire, talks to kids while picketing in 1995.
Joe West, then a National League umpire, talks to kids while picketing in 1995.

There's evidence of West's longevity everywhere in the game. He was on the crew with crew chief Tom Gorman's final game in 1977 in Montreal, and then was the crew chief when Gorman's son, Brian, made his major league debut in 1991 in St. Louis.

“Everyone says that he’s controversial,’’ Brian Gorman says, ‘but he’s really not that controversial. It’s just more of the name recognition, the aura.

“You don’t have characters like that anymore. People love arguments, but the only real arguments are with instant replay, and the guy that made it made the decision, 2,000 miles away."

From Yaz to Yastrzemski

While West has no fear of second-guessing or abuse, and embraces being a tough guy, there is another side of him off the field.

He frequently visits children’s hospitals without fanfare. He does countless charity events for veterans. He took a red-eye flight to show up for Bill Mazeroski’s charity golf tournament in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, even going on stage and singing for his wife, Milene. He showed up unannounced at long-time Dallas Morning News baseball reporter Gerry Fraley’s home to spend time with him in his final days before he died as a result of cancer.

Joe West shakes hands with former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda before the start of the All-Star Game in 2005.
Joe West shakes hands with former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda before the start of the All-Star Game in 2005.

“I do many fundraisers for children’s hospitals and military veterans," says Charlie Haje, a Florida residential and commercial real estate developer who runs charities, “and every single time Joe is asking me how he can help. When it comes to children, veterans and first responders, you won’t find anyone better than Joe. I don’t even have to ask, he’s right there on the front line.

“He may have a little crust on him, but it comes across real easy. He’s a passionate, sentimental guy, and you’ll see a little tear now and then. I’ll go to the end of the world for that man.’’

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Layne, the longtime umpire who’s home dealing with his ninth concussion, and not knowing if he’ll be able to return, wishes everyone could see he impact West makes off the field. He doesn’t call attention to it. He just does it.

“People only know Joe West as this controversial umpire,’’ Layne says, “but what they don’t know is that big heart and the humanitarian side of life. He treats people like royalty. But all they know is all of the negative things.

“If you want to put all of the negative stuff on the left side of the page, I’ll put all of positive stuff on the right side, and see how it looks."

West may call it quits at the end of the year, and players, managers and fans will have to direct their ire at other umpires. He’s undecided, but the day is coming soon.

No matter how you want to view West, he’ll forever be remembered.

“He is one of the great characters in the game,’’ Manfred said, “and truly loves the sport. Joe West’s devotion to his craft and his longevity are truly admirable.’’

And Tuesday night, perhaps just walking onto the field, or during the game, or when the tributes roll on the video board, look closely, you may see another side to him.

The big fella may shed a tear or two.

“My dad and my grandad both died before my age," says West, the only one alive from his original umpiring crew. “so I’m just tickled to be able to live this long. It’s pretty special. To think I had Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski) when I walked onto the field for the first time at Tiger Town in spring training, and the other day I’m umpiring a game with Yaz’s grandson (San Francisco Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski).

“But emotional?

“I’m emotional now just thinking about it.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe West to stand alone among umpires by setting record for games