“They buried me on that game.”
–Eric Gregg, on his controversial performance in Game Five of the 1997 National League Championship Series
Former major league umpire Eric Gregg passed away on Monday, a day after suffering a massive stroke. He was just 55 years old. To those of us who remember Gregg’s career, the news sadly doesn’t come as all that shocking, particularly in the wake of another recent, premature stroke-fueled death, that of Kirby Puckett. If the rotund but athletic Puckett could balloon up enough in his post-playing days to make himself vulnerable to such an early demise, it’s hardly a surprise that Gregg, who struggled with his weight for his entire career as an umpire and was ten years older than Puckett, could meet a similar fate.
As I wrote in The Hit List earlier this week, as much as any umpire, we knew Gregg. As just the third black umpire in major league history, he was instantly recognizable from the moment he debuted as a substitute in 1975. Upon becoming a full-time National League umpire in 1978, he began packing on the pounds, but his outsized frame was overshadowed by a seemingly ever-present smile, and people empathized with his plight.
By the end of the 1980 season, a 350-pound Gregg launched a well-publicized campaign to lose weight. He was successful, for a time; Sports Illustrated highlighted his struggle in 1981, and Ebony ran an article titled "The Incredible Shrinking Umpire" which included a famous photo of him, his wife and his two small boys fitting into his old umpiring jacket after he’d lost 100 pounds. Like all too many people who struggle with obesity, that victory was only temporary, and Gregg was soon tipping the scales again; if he could have hit his weight, he’d have won many a batting title. Chest pains, job threats from league presidents (including the doomed Bart Giamatti), a pair of trips to the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, and finally the shocking on-field death of fellow ump John McSherry in 1996–Gregg received many a wake-up call as to his condition, and he heeded those calls for a while.
The pounds always returned, but Gregg’s fight continued to bring him celebrity; perhaps no other umpire was the subject of so many newspaper and magazine articles. By 1990 Gregg had published an autobiography, Working the Plate.
But in addition to his weight woes, Gregg had serious performance issues. His bulk hampered his mobility; Mets manager Joe Torre once argued with him over a trapped ball in the outfield, telling him, "If you’d lose a little weight, you could cover the ground a little better." Some of the criticism was more cruel. A 1996 Sporting News article recounts a play where Gregg lost track of the ball, with Phillies outfielder Greg Gross quipping, "Eric, if it was two scoops, you’d find it in a second."
No better (or worse) illustration of Gregg’s on-field shortcomings came during Game Five of the 1997 National League Championship Series. Working behind the plate, Gregg’s extra-wide strike zone ("as big as his rear end," according to former manager Dick Williams) enabled Florida Marlins rookie Livan Hernandez to strike out 15 Atlanta Braves, pushing the two-time defending NL champs to the brink of an elimination they couldn’t stave off. Coupled with Greg Maddux whiffing nine Marlins that day, the enduring image is 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. “We don’t mind if they want to call four, five inches off, and do it for both sides. That’s fine,” complained Braves manager Bobby Cox. "From what everybody was yelling at from the dugout and everywhere else, they were a lot further."
It can be argued, I think, that Gregg and the rest of baseball might have been better off if that game hadn’t happened. If the Marlins don’t win that year (just the fifth season in their short history), the thinking goes, they don’t conduct their infamous fire sale, which perhaps forever poisoned the South Florida market for baseball by slapping fans in the face while attempting to strong-arm them into a publicly funded stadium that still hasn’t arrived. Owner Wayne Huizenga doesn’t escape so easily a year after the championship, and just maybe the odious John Henry-Jeffrey Loria-MLB-as-owners bag-job between the Marlins, Expos and Red Sox never plays out. Major League Baseball stays in Montreal, the Red Sox don’t shake the so-called “Curse of the Bambino,” and while that means I don’t get to write two chapters of Mind Game, it also means I still get to chant "1918!" when the Bostons comes to Yankee Stadium. Sounds like a fair trade.
OK, perhaps that’s a stretch, starting with the point that Huizenga’s team was built to be torn apart (an issue explored in depth in Baseball Between the Numbers) and that he’d already negotiated with himself the poison-pill lease that strongly favored the landlord rather than the team. But it’s no stretch to see that Gregg’s work in that fateful NLCS game led to his undoing. A visibly overweight, demonstrably incompetent, showboating umpire whose work materially affected the outcome of that year’s postseason and forever entered baseball lore–that’s a fair bit of ammunition to have against anyone. Worse, when the Major League Baseball Players Association asked players, coaches and managers to rank the umpires in each league from best to worst in eight categories (physical condition, physical and mental toughness, accuracy on the bases, accuracy behind the plate, consistency, temperament, respect for players and overall capacity), Gregg finished second-to-last among NL umps overall.
That poll was part of the run-up to the least successful union action in the history of baseball, if not organized labor. In mid-July 1999, Richie Phillips, head of the Major League Umpires Association, announced the pending resignations of 57 of the 66 major league umps, including Gregg, effective in September, when they would become part of a new company, Umpires, Inc. The move was an attempt to short-circuit the no-strike clause built into the MLUA’s contract. Major League Baseball called the MLUA’s bluff, hiring 25 minor-league umpires to fill in. Many umps quickly rescinded their resignations, but the league offices seized on the opportunity to thin the ranks, accepting the resignations of 22, including Gregg. The union fought that acceptance in court but ultimately cut a deal which sold those 22 out in favor of postseason bonus payments, full pay and benefits for the rest of the season, and arbitration in the dispute. The arbitration led to rehiring with back pay for nine out of those 22, but was Gregg again left out in the cold. Arbitrator Alan Symonette concluded National League president Len Coleman was justified in not rehiring him, with the Associated Press reports drawing a link between that and Gregg’s weight and strike zone issues. Under an alternate plan that baseball had offered Phillips, Gregg would have been given a buyout, but Phillips chose to take his chances with arbitration. Gee, thanks.
Gregg had a difficult time letting go of his job. He petitioned a group of 25 Congressmen to intervene on his behalf, an action that drew ridicule elsewhere on this site. He descended into Homer Simpson territory by serving as the commissioner of "Wing Bowl," spent time working as a bartender and host in a Philadelphia sports bar and at Citizens Bank Park, wrote a weekly column for a Philadelphia tabloid, and struggled to make ends meet, borrowing money from former colleagues. A 2000 Sports Illustrated article found him in a routine that included working out, walking the dog, and watching soap operas. Via a December 2004 settlement that included the rehiring of three umpires, he finally received $400,000 worth of severance pay and health benefits.
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 this week, 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 Eric Milton, 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.