Brinkman retires after 34 seasons

MLB Umpire Brinkman retires after 34 seasons

After 39 years as a professional umpire, 34 of them in Major League Baseball, Joe Brinkman has retired.

Brinkman's retirement took effect December 31. MLB has announced that Bob Davidson took Brinkman's spot, effective January 1.

"Retirement was a long time coming for me," said Brinkman from his home near Chiefland, Fla. "So it was kind of anticlimactic when it came. I had considered retiring as early as 1999 and 2000, depending upon how the labor strife and the new contract turned out, but it didn't materialize. After that the time was just not right until this summer."

Several factors, one of them medical, contributed to Brinkman's decision.

Brinkman had been aware for about 15 years that he has a heart condition called atrial fibrillation. "My doctor was careful to make it clear that this is a heart condition and not heart disease, and that it was manageable through medication," he said. Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heartbeat, in which the heart begins to beat rapidly and irregularly.

As the 2006 season emerged, Brinkman's heart problems increased as an altered medication regimen proved troublesome. "I was having extreme problems with my energy level. I'd wake up in the hotel in the morning feeling over-tired and I'd go back to sleep. Next thing I knew, I'd wake up and realize that it was late afternoon and time to get to the ballpark."

It was decided that it was best that Brinkman take some time off to get his condition stabilized. He worked second base for an afternoon game at Anaheim on Sunday July 2, intending to take that time during a crew vacation beginning the next day and extended by the subsequent All-Star Break. He never returned to the field.

Brinkman had some conversations with the MLB office and vice president of umpiring, Mike Port. "Mike went through heart troubles himself, so he was very understanding. He called every couple weeks throughout the ordeal to see how I was doing," said Brinkman.

Looking carefully at his health issues, and knowing that his retirement benefit package would reach its maximum after the season, Brinkman said he became increasingly certain that the season he was working would be his last. He discussed it with his wife of 25 years, Karen. "In her usual supportive way, she told me to do what I felt I needed to do." From there, things began to happen.

"Our union attorney, Joel Smith, had also been monitoring my health," said Brinkman. "He went to baseball and let them know that since I would most likely be retiring at the end of the year anyway, it might be best to get me off the field right away because of the heart problems. Baseball agreed, and Joel went ahead and started working out the details with them." It was final; after being an umpire for about two thirds of his life, Brinkman would not be returning to the field.

The time off did prove successful. Brinkman's heart condition stabilized and he was once again able to work long and hard hours on the cattle ranch he and Karen purchased in July of 2005. "The ranch was another big factor in my retirement decision. Karen and I have wanted to spend more time at home working the cows and horses. In fact, they keep us busy enough that I might not even notice when the 2007 season starts."

The Brinkmans run about 60 beef cattle. "They are kind of like family. When they are calving you sit with them for six or seven hours, making sure there is not a problem with that $500 calf. Not that we're in it for the money -- not at all. It's the joy of doing it. It is kind of the opposite side of the world from umpiring for me."

The cattle are actually book ends in a life dedicated to sports, and represent a return to Brinkman's roots. He was raised on a dairy farm near the small town of Holdingford, Minn. He was a prep football All-American and attended St. Cloud (Minn.) College, where he played football and basketball. While serving in the U.S. Army in Germany from 1965-67 he played football, baseball, basketball and ran track.

While many considered football to be Brinkman's best sport, it was his time on the baseball field in Germany that gave him a career breakthrough. "Our baseball team was playing games for an umpire clinic being held by an instructor named Barney Deary," said Brinkman, referring to a man who became a legend in professional umpire development. "I got talked into trying it and Barney told me that when I was done playing sports there may be a future for me in umpiring."

Upon completing his tour of service, Brinkman returned to the States and took Deary up on his suggestion. He attended the Al Somers Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Fla. in 1968. He was successful and was hired to work the 1968 season in the Midwest League. The following winter Deary started the first umpire school run by professional baseball, the Umpire Specialization Program (later the Umpire Development Program) in 1969.

After attending this school Brinkman became possibly the only student ever sent from a modern umpire school straight to a Double-A league. He was assigned to the Southern League, where he worked the 1969 and 1970 seasons. In 1971 he was promoted to the Triple-A American Association. Late in the 1972 season he was called to work his first MLB games -- a doubleheader -- on September 6, 1972, at Cleveland Stadium with John Rice, Hank Morgenweck and Marty Springstead. He worked his first MLB plate job the next day.

Brinkman became a full-time contracted umpire in the American League in the same year as the implementation of the league's designated hitter experiment -- 1973 -- and he quickly rose to the highest levels of his profession. As a three-year American League veteran he worked his first postseason assignment, the 1976 AL Championship Series, in which the Yankees defeated the Royals three games to two. In 1977 he worked right field in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium with crew chief Bill Kunkel.

With only six years of big league experience, at the age of 34, Brinkman worked his first World Series. The 1978 Fall Classic, celebrating its 75th anniversary, pitted the Dodgers and Yankees. Brinkman joined a crew filled with legends: crew chief Ed Vargo, Bill Haller, John Kibler, Marty Springstead and Frank Pulli. Brinkman worked the plate for the final game, Game 6 at Dodger Stadium, in which Catfish Hunter and Goose Gossage defeated Don Sutton, leading the Yankees to their first back-to-back World title since the early 1960s. Reggie Jackson homered off rookie Bob Welch, who had struck him out with two runners on base to win Game 2.

After the 1981 season, which was marred by a players' strike that split the season in half, Brinkman was called upon to work the first AL Division Series. He also worked the 1995 ALDS when the Division Series became a regular part of the postseason. At his retirement, Brinkman had worked the DS in six of the 13 years in which it existed.

Brinkman was named a crew chief in 1983, a position he held for 24 years, ranking him near the top in all-time longevity among MLB crew chiefs.

In 1986 Brinkman worked his second World Series, in which the Mets defeated the Red Sox in seven games. He worked the plate in Game 4 at Fenway Park.

Brinkman also worked the 1995 World Series. He worked the plate in Game 6, the final game, when the Braves defeated Cleveland at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta.

In addition to the three World Series, Brinkman umpired a total of five ALCS (1976, 80, 87, 92, 97) and three All-Star Games (1977, 91, 96). He worked the Major League All-Star tour of Japan in 2000.

Two no-hitters umpired by Brinkman are an indication of the length of his career. He worked the plate June 19, 1974 at County Stadium in Milwaukee as the Royals' Steve Busby pitched a no-hitter. Twenty-seven years later, on May 12, 2001, he was behind the plate as AJ Burnett of the Florida Marlins threw a no-hitter at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Burnett had not yet been born when Brinkman worked the Busby no-hitter.

Perhaps the most replayed of the many notable games Brinkman was involved in was the "Pine Tar Game," which started on July 24, 1983. Brinkman, in his first year as crew chief, directed plate umpire Tim McClelland to call out George Brett, who had just hit a home run, for pine tar on his bat beyond the legal limitation. Brinkman had to physically restrain Brett as he charged after McClelland.

Although the call was made correctly, in accordance with the rules, the commissioner later decided that the "spirit of the rule" dictated otherwise. The call was overturned, the home run reinstated, and the game was resumed on August 18. The rule was later changed to distinguish between a bat altered to make a ball react differently and one with excessive pine tar or other substance used for grip.

Off the field Brinkman took an active and aggressive role in improving the working conditions of MLB umpires. His career began only three years after the formation of the first MLB umpires' union, the Major League Umpires Association. Brinkman was heavily involved in the umpire strikes of 1978, 1979 and 1984. In 1999 he took a leadership role against union representation that called for a mass resignation strategy that backfired. In the complicated aftermath, 22 MLB umpires lost their jobs. Brinkman cited this time period as the single most important in his career.

Brinkman's first salary in the big leagues was $12,500. At the time of his retirement, allowing for inflation, the first-year MLB umpire salary has increased more than 100 percent. Additionally, the practically non-existent vacation and benefits package of 1973 has improved exponentially. MLB umpires now receive four weeks of in-season vacation, significant event pay, and a strong pension, among many other benefits.

The union that Brinkman helped to form, the World Umpires Association, is the second MLB umpire union in history. Brinkman served as the WUA's vice president from 2000 through 2005.

The year 2000 marked the end of Brinkman's career as an American League umpire when the American and National League umpire staffs were merged. As an "MLB" umpire he got his first look at many of the NL cities and ballparks.

Away from the bright stadium lights and television cameras, Brinkman was one of the foremost educators of young umpires in the history of baseball. Beginning in 1973 he instructed at the Bill Kinnamon Umpire School and he purchased the school in 1981, renaming it the Joe Brinkman Umpire School.

The Brinkman school, which for a time was operated in a partnership with Bruce Froemming, ran every January from 1982 through 1998 near the Brinkmans' former home in Cocoa, Fla. From 1973 to 1998, Brinkman trained approximately 4,100 umpires and supplied over 500 umpires to the Minor League system. He trained an incredible 38 Major League umpires, 29 of whom are still active. There are 68 MLB umpires.

In addition to operating the school Brinkman was known throughout his career as a staunch advocate of improved working conditions for Minor League umpires. "I am proud of the minor league umpires' decision to strike last year and to stand up for themselves," he said. "I only wish they had agreed to hold out longer and gain more ground. Minor League franchises are making far, far more money than they were when I broke in. In the early '70's you could have bought a Minor League team for $10,000. Now you might have to pay $10 million. To hold umpires down the way they are is just not right."

The one thing Brinkman advocated for years but was unable to attain was five-man MLB umpiring crews. "For more than 20 years I pushed for a system where a crew would have four guys working and one rotated out for a week of vacation. This would enable an umpire to work a regular schedule of 28 days followed by seven days off. You just cannot have guys out there working for more than 28 straight days. Everything starts to look the same after that many straight games. Strikes look like balls and balls like strikes. Plus everyone needs to be with their families for at least a few days every month. Families have needs. We usually don't ask our business people to be away that long and we shouldn't ask umpires to be, either. And I think it would be good for MLB, too, with less injuries and illnesses and happier umpires. I would hope that someone will continue to advocate for this system. I always felt it was important and still do."

From the viewpoint of the broad history of Major League Baseball, Brinkman has taken a very prominent position. In 135 years of recorded history, dating back to 1871, 1,332 men have umpired Major League games. Brinkman worked more MLB games than all but four of them. His 4,505 games worked ranks him fifth on the all time list, ahead of six of the eight umpires who are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Only 15 umpires, or about 1 percent of all MLB umpires, have reached the 4,000 game mark. Active umpire Mike Reilly will likely join the list in 2007.

"They came out with the 'games worked' list when Froemming was working his 5,000th game this past season," Brinkman said. "When I saw where I fell on the list, my first reaction was that I couldn't have been around that long." He also noted that the top of the list won't change all that much in the future. "With guys now getting four weeks of vacation, they quickly lose pace. They are also breaking into the big leagues at a later age than a lot of us older guys did. So the top of this list is going to stabilize sometime soon and will never change." Froemming is chasing the all-time leader, Bill Klem, but is about two and a half seasons away from taking the top spot.

"All of these accomplishments collectively contributed to my decision to retire," Brinkman said. "I had done all that I could do. When you have reached all your goals, it is easier to say goodbye to a career."

Brinkman said that he was not sure when his crew chief position would be filled, but assumes that it would be before Spring Training of 2007. He also said that he assumes that his uniform number, 15, which he wore since the AL adopted numbers in 1980, would be reassigned.

Brinkman said that many people to this day have the impression that MLB umpiring is a three- or four-hour workday and only in the summer months. "For a lot of us, this just wasn't and isn't true. With the umpire school and then the new union, umpiring was 24/7 and 365 days a year. Karen was our school administrator and then administrator for the union, so she was involved on that level, too." He said that these things contributed to delaying his retirement by several years. "With all there was to accomplish, it just kept getting shoved back. So you wait until the time is right and then you move on."

With his on-field experience and training background, Brinkman would appear to be the perfect candidate for a position as an umpire supervisor. When asked if he had any interest in doing so, Brinkman said, "Right now, no. After 39 years in baseball, of living it every day, I am ready for a change. I am not saying I will never be interested in considering it. But for now it's time to spend time with my wife and my home." Brinkman also said he will continue to enjoy golfing, hunting and fishing in his increased spare time.

Brinkman said that he was happy to learn that Bob Davidson will get his spot on the MLB roster. "Bob is a friend, and we talked a lot during the 1999 campaign and over the last six years as well. Even though he was one of those to lose his job, he never made it a personal thing. To have my spot filled by one of the 22 who lost their jobs brings a little more healing to that whole situation. It means a lot to me."

More than 150 people gathered in Orlando in early December to give Brinkman a surprise retirement party. Brinkman was both shocked and overwhelmed. "I didn't want a retirement party and had no idea that I was walking into a celebration that night. But when I saw all those people gathered from all over the country to pay tribute to my career, it was truly amazing, and now I wouldn't give that back for anything. It was amazing. I usually have had plenty to say about things but that party left me speechless. Being surrounded by family and friends was the perfect way to bring my career to a close."

Rick Roder, © World Umpires Association. Article originally appeared on WUA website, www.worldumpires.com. Used with permission. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.