'Cowboy' to become just third to reach historic milestone
By Paul Hagen
CRYSTAL CITY, Va. -- Cowboy Joe West had the plate Monday at Nationals Park. Which, of course, reminds him of a story. Major League Baseball's senior umpire, is an accomplished raconteur.
West's previous series was in Miami, Cardinals at Marlins. While in Florida, he had an appointment with his knee surgeon.
"He said, 'Could you work the plate more than the bases?' I said, 'Yeah, but I don't think the players would like it,'" West said, punctuating the telling with a hearty laugh.
West is sitting in the lobby of his hotel, having a late lunch of clam chowder and a club sandwich. Shortly, a shuttle will take him and the rest of his crew -- Hunter Wendelstedt, Alan Porter and Andy Fletcher -- on the short drive across the Potomac River to the stadium. Wearing a forest green shirt adorned with the logo of the historic Pinehurst Country Club, his demeanor is casual and unhurried.
An observer might have suspected he's done this before. Now that you mention it ...
When the D-backs play the Rockies at Coors Field tonight, West will umpire the 5,000th regular-season game of his decorated career. Only Hall of Famer Bill Klem (5,375) and Bruce Froemming (5,163) have more. According to researcher David Vincent, West's 123 postseason assignments trail only Gerry Davis (133). West was 23 when he made his big league debut in 1976, joined the National League staff full time in 1978, and three years later, he became the youngest to umpire an NL Championship Series game. His 40 years on the field is a record, spanning the tenures of six of the sport's 10 Commissioners: Bowie Kuhn, Peter Ueberroth, Bart Giamatti, Fay Vincent, Bud Selig and Rob Manfred.
Mike Teevan, MLB's vice president of communications, figured out that West has been on the field with 55 players who went on to be voted into the Hall of Fame.
West has an outsized personality and can come across to those who don't know him well as brash. And he first makes a joke when asked what getting to 5,000 will mean to him. "It means I'm really old," he said, laughing again. Then his voice softened.
"I actually look at everything I've done as quite an accomplishment," he said. "I came from two school teachers in North Carolina. I'm proud of the 5,000 mark, but you've got to have a lot of help. You have to have a lot of help just to get started."
West is 64 years old, and to pass Klem, he would have to work through the 2020 season.
"That would be fun. If my knees hold up, I'd like to do that," he said, noting that he's been told he's a candidate for knee replacement surgery. "I thought [Froemming] would pass Klem, but he didn't stick it out. At the time, that looked like an insurmountable thing. It's a big monster. When Bruce started out, they worked all season. They didn't have weeks off and replay assignments and things like that. So it's taking me a little longer to catch him. Yeah, that would be quite an accomplishment."
That's an understatement. Wendelstedt comes from an umpiring family. His father, Harry, was an NL ump from 1966 through 1998. Hunter made his big league debut the following season and has been at it ever since, so he has a unique perspective on what his crew chief is about to do. (West worked with both Wendelstedts and two other father-son combinations: Paul and Brian Runge and Tom and Brian Gorman.)
"It's pretty impressive, no matter how you look at it," Hunter said. "Nowadays, with the length of the games and things like that, it's something that will be impossible. There will only be three people that ever have 5,000 games. In the history of baseball, that's an achievement that will never happen again. And that's guaranteed. It will not be able to happen again."
* * * * *
In the top of the first inning in Washington, with Phillies outfielder Aaron Altherr facing Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark, Joe West notices that the barrel end of Altherr's bat is slightly chipped, and he tells him to pick out some new lumber. The player and hitting coach Matt Stairs aren't happy, but they grudgingly comply.
It's the sort of incident that West has been criticized for in the past. Some see it as a need to interject himself into the game. Isn't the old saying that you know umpires are doing a good job when nobody notices they're there?
West shrugs. What if a pitch off the end of the bat had resulted in a splinter in the catcher's eye? Is he supposed to just ignore potential hazards or infractions just to stay in the background? He established early on that that wasn't going to be his style. His first Major League game was Sept. 14, 1976, Astros at Braves in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He worked third base that night and it was a largely uneventful evening.
"I was just tickled to be there," he said. "I think I had one play. Bob Watson hit a long fly ball that was just foul. That's all I had for the whole game. Three games later, I had the plate, and that was different. Joaquin Andujar and [knuckleballer] Phil Niekro. One guy was throwing 100 mph and the other guy was throwing butterflies."
In the eighth inning, as the Braves were rallying to win, West called a balk on Andujar that allowed a run to score. "Between innings, [veteran umpire] Tom Gorman looked down and said, 'Atta boy,'" West recalled.
"I just go out there and do my job the way it's supposed to be done. Sometimes that creates confrontation. But I don't think umpires should back down or run away from a situation. If you see a rattlesnake, you don't turn your back on it. That's kind of the way I like to portray this. You cannot back down as an umpire. You can't be scared as an umpire. You have to do what's right."
Sometimes, an individual's world view can prove costly. West was part of the mass umpires resignation during contract negotiations in 1999. He was rehired in 2002, but without that gap in his career, he would be that much closer to Klem. Some colleagues weren't as lucky. Now West is president of the World Umpires Association, helping negotiate the largest contract in history.
"We had some casualties there," he said. "We lost eight people. We had three other people who lost their jobs for three years but eventually got them back. And that's part of [taking a stand]. There's nothing you can do to repair it.
"I've told every member of this union a hundred times: 'Your first priority as a Major League umpire is to the game of baseball. That doesn't mean the Commissioner's Office. The second priority is to your profession. And many times that doesn't mean the union. And the third priority is to do what you know is morally and honestly correct in your heart. And if you do all three of those, in that order, nothing will be wrong. No matter how bad it looks in the press. No matter how bad they argue on the field. If you do those in that order, nothing will be wrong.'"
Which isn't to say that there won't be problems from time to time. During Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox, Alex Rodriguez was called out on a controversial play when it was ruled that he deliberately chopped the ball out of the glove of pitcher Bronson Arroyo at first base.
"On that play, you're going to get killed there no matter what," West said. "But we did what was honest and morally correct. In the best interest of baseball and what's good for the profession. We did everything right. And we still had to get the riot squad out there. That's just part of the profession. You're never going to win. They don't have wins and losses for umpires."
Joe Torre, who now helps oversee umpires in his role as MLB's chief baseball officer, was the Yankees' manager then.
"[West] has always had a presence," Torre said. "He's always been able to get a reaction and has a reputation for being a bit [stubborn]. But he's a proponent for Major League Baseball and has a lot of respect for the game. And I respect that about him -- even though, as a manager, we didn't always come down on the same side.
"He has the good of the game at heart. He's been a colorful character, and he still is. I respect his work ethic and I hope he stays healthy long enough to achieve what he wants."
In 2014, West was suspended for making contact with Jonathan Papelbon after the Phillies' closer made an obscene gesture toward the booing fans at Citizens Bank Park. He has no regrets. "What Papelbon did was inexcusable," he said.
On this night, the Nationals beat the Phillies, 6-4, on a walk-off home run by Bryce Harper. West remains on the field to make sure that Adam Lind touches the plate with the winning run, then walks to the umpire's dressing room.
* * * * *
Joe West is sitting at the end of the bar in Crystal City. The West Coast games are playing on televisions behind him. The waitresses know him. The manager stops by to say hello. He tells stories, laughs, entertain, reminisces, unwinds.
This is the side of West that those who see only the man in blue don't know: Funny, outgoing, generous. He does not, like T.S. Eliot's Prufrock, measure out his life with coffee spoons. He embraces it with gusto and has a circle of friends that is both wide and eclectic.
After the game that night, there was a knock on the umpire's room door. It was a pal who just happens to be a chef on Air Force One. West is on a first-name basis with a Who's Who of country music stars and has put out two CDs of his own, Blue Cowboy -- which includes three songs he wrote and two he arranged -- and Diamond Dreams, a collection of baseball stories. He performed two songs for Buck Pizzarelli and the West Texas Tumbleweeds, and he recently did a duet of "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma" with Julie Richardson that was released on Diamond Records. He's performed at several well-known venues, including the original Gilley's in Pasadena, Texas.
He had a small movie role in "The Naked Gun" and in the television crime drama "The Oldest Rookie." He's an avid golfer with a single-digit handicap. He once owned a restaurant. He developed and patented the hard shell chest protector, the West Vest, used by all umpires, the only such equipment endorsed by MLB.
A few years ago, he followed country singer Eddie Rabbitt at a telethon to support veterans in Los Angeles. The switchboard lit up when he said he'd take three kids under 14 to the plate for the pregame meeting between the umpires and managers for any parent who donated $2,500. He's since repeated the offer in L.A., and he also did it in Boston to benefit the Jimmy Fund.
"When I was a young umpire, I used to get mad when they'd argue with me or disagree with me," West said. "And [Hall of Famer] Doug Harvey said to me one day, 'Why do you let them ruin your day? Don't let them ruin your day. You're having a good day. If they give you trouble to kick them out, kick them out. But don't let it ruin your day.' It might be the greatest piece of advice I've ever been given. I said, 'Where were you my first four or five years?'"
Hunter Wendelstedt has known for years that West is different than his on-field persona: "I met Joe when I was a little, little kid. He always used to take care of me. I came with my dad to Houston one time. Joe said, 'If you're going to be part of this crew, you've got to dress like part of this crew.' I didn't really understand what that was, and then in the middle of the afternoon, there was a knock on the door and Joe presents me with a big belt buckle with a W on it. So I got my first cowboy belt buckle courtesy of Joe West.
"Fast forward to the next day and we're standing in this factory. He had just come up with the chest protector and I'm standing there with a chest protector on. And Joe West is swinging a bat and hitting me in the chest with it. So those are some of my early memories."
It's starting to get late. "It's amazing, because you put all your eggs in one basket. And then you're lucky," West said. "Because if you look at it, in the history of baseball, there haven't been 400 umpires in the big leagues.
"But through it all, it's been fun. The greatest thing you learn from it is that umpires are human beings, just like anybody else. They're trying to do the best they can in everything they do."
He stands up, ready to walk back to his hotel. Joe West has third base later today.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.