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Nightengale: Legendary Umpire Joe West Dishes on Players, Managers at 5,000th Game

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Umpire Joe West and Chicago Cubs manager have words during a baseball game. Photo: AP

You listen to his songs online, watch him eject your favorite managers and players, and scream every time he makes a call, whether it’s right or wrong.

Joe West, 64, the most polarizing umpire in baseball, is still at it, 40 years after it all began, and he’s behind the plate Tuesday night at Coors Field, working his 5,000th game in the major leagues.

He has umpired more games than all but two of his predecessors, 369 games behind Hall of Famer Bill Klem and 163 behind Bruce Froemming.

“It’s something I’m not making a big deal out of,’’ West says, “but it’s something I’m very proud of.”

The first time West was behind the plate was Sept. 16, 1976, a 5-3 game between the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium. The game, featuring Joaquin Andujar and Phil Niekro, had just seven strikeouts, four walks, three homers, and two relief pitchers. It lasted just 1 hour, 54 minutes.

“Nobody believes it when I tell them,’’ West says, “they look it up and come back shaking their head.’’

West is the only living umpire from that crew that day. Gone also are every ballpark he worked that year, except Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Country Joe West, who has produced two country music albums, appeared in the Grand Ole Opry and The Naked Gun, and developed and patented his own chest protector, has out-lived them all.

His tenure has spanned six commissioners, 21 World Series champions, 151 umpires and 55 Hall of Fame players. The game Tuesday between the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks pits two franchises that didn’t exist when he began his career.

The impressions he left were often indelible.

“Joe was infamous, or famous for testing out a pitcher early in the game,’’ says Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “He would call a ball that was a strike to see if you were relaxed, or cool with it, to see how you’d react.

“Well, I learned something way too late. When I was with Boston, I decided I’m going to find out what song Joe wants to hear when I come to the mound. They gave me some obscure, sentimental song, and there’s Joe behind home plate, tapping his feet, and singing to the song.”

Now, a man who’s seen just about everything provides his thoughts to USA TODAY Sports about his tenure, and the sport’s evolution.

Pace of Play: “It’s the TV commercials. We’ve got 19 minutes of commercial time. I remember when I came up, (NL umpire supervisor) Blake Cullen initiated a 1-minute, 40-second clock in between innings. Only three pitchers complained – Randy Jones, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton – and they were the best of their time. They thought it was too long to wait before pitching. Then, it went to 2:05. Then, 2:30 for network games. And now, over three minutes for the playoffs.

“We’re doing so many things to help speed up the game, but I can’t do anything about that commercial time. But as much as we want to complain, it sure pays a lot of bills.”

Pitch Clock in 2018: “I don’t like it. I don’t think you can take away a pitcher’s ability to get himself ready at his own pace. Instead of a pitch clock, let’s get rid of all of the walk-up music. Players wait like it’s a Broadway play before they come out to the plate.”

“People talk about eliminating the visits to the mound, too. I still remember when (Bob) Gibson was pitching and (Tim) McCarver went to the mound. Gibson told him, “The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it, so get behind the plate.’’

Game Changers: “The base running has gotten worse, and outfielders hitting the cutoff man is even worse. And no one changes their swing anymore. They’re all trying to hit home runs. They think, ‘If I’m a 30-home run hitter, I’m a millionaire. If I hit .270 and make contact, I’ll never be paid.

“It’s like watching the US Open now. If you keep swinging from your heels all the time, it’s tough to keep the ball in play. Babe Ruth struck out a lot too, but he hit .342.

“You just don’t see anyone try to hit the ball the other way. And nobody chokes up. Barry Bonds used to choke up on the first pitch, not just when it’s 0-and-2. The only one I see choking up now is the kid from Chicago, (Anthony) Rizzo, and he only does it when he has two strikes.’’

Worst Rule in 50 Years: “The DH. It’s horrible. It was supposed to be an experiment to help increase attendance in the American League, and now it’s ruining the game. You watch the games in the NL, and how pitchers go right after the seventh and eighth hitters. In the AL, they pitch everybody like it’s a 3-4-5 hitter.

“The DH has really hurt the timing of the game.’’

Best Anecdote: “It was Pudge Rodriguez. He was in spring training with the Marlins, and he parked his Porsche into the umpire’s parking lot. Well, the security guards let me know who was in our spot.

“When he got behind the plate, we exchanged hellos, and I said, ‘Crazy morning. When I got here today, someone parked in our spot, so I had to make sure the security guard towed that thing.’

“Pudge caught the first three outs, and he left the game. He really thought we towed it. Now, he’s in the Hall of Fame.’’

Replay: “I love the fact that baseball spent $40 million to prove that we’re right 99% of the time. It’s a good thing for umpires.

“I remember going to [(ormer umpire) Drew Coble’s wife’s funeral. When I got there, Don Denkinger (who blew the critical Game 6 call of the 1985 World Series), sat down next to me in the back pew of the church. We had just put in replay, and he says to me, ‘Where the hell were you when I needed you?’’

Hitting Their Spots: “Even today, Tom Seaver might be the best I ever saw. He would keep you on your toes from the first pitch to the last. Greg Maddux pitched to his spots. So did Randy Jones and Steve Carlton. The game moves so much faster when guys throw strikes, and guys like Randy Johnson, he was horrible to work when he first came up, but just great by the time he left.’’

The Greatest: “Barry Bonds was the best left-handed hitter I ever saw, and Albert Pujols was probably the best right-handed hitter.

“Now, the best hitting team I ended up seeing was the Big Red Machine, just as they were dismantling.

“Those Yankee teams were great, too, but they never swung at anything until they got their pitch. The Reds would swing at everything.’’

Friendliest face: “That’s easy. Dale Murphy. Nobody was better than Murph. He would sign autographs for kids in the outfield right before every game. Just a peach of a guy.

“Even the other teams loved him. I remember once there was a beanball situation, and just before the pitcher threw at him, the catcher yelled at him, ‘Watch out, Dale.’’’

Biggest Complainer: “It’s got to be Adrian Beltre. Every pitch you call that’s a strike, he says, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!’ I had a game with him recently and the pitch was right down the middle. He tells me, “that ball is outside.’

“I told him, ‘You may be a great ballplayer, but you’re the worst umpire in the league. You stink.’’

(West later clarified to USA TODAY Sports that he and Beltre are on friendly terms).

Dugout Nemesis: “I only had him in spring training, but I don’t think Earl Weaver finished a game that I was in. I remember once he was walking into the clubhouse to get something to eat before the game, and I said to him, “You know, Bobby Cox is about to pass you in career ejections.

“Earl went nuts and said, “He’ll never pass me.’ I almost had to throw him out before we even got on the field he got so mad.’’

Greatest Call: “I was at second base in Game 4 of the (2004) ALCS with the Red Sox and Yankees when Dave Roberts stole second base. I called him safe. The Red Sox went onto win that game, and never lost again the rest of the postseason.

“Even today when I see Dave Roberts, he says, “You made me famous.’”

“The funniest line I remember from that series was from Kevin Millar. He kept saying, ‘You better not let us win one.’ The way the Yankees were playing that series, I kept thinking, ‘Right, good luck on that one.’”

Historic Moment: “It had to be when Pete Rose broke the National League consecutive hit record, unless you want to count when A-Rod knock the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove, and we called him out.

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

Prized Possession: “I got an autographed baseball from Merle Haggard. Come on, you can’t do better than that?

“Now, I’ll keep my mask and chest protector from my 5,000th too.’’

For Young Umpires: “I tell them your first responsibility is to the game of baseball, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Commissioner’s office. The second is to your profession, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the union. And the third is to do in your heart what you know is honest, moral and correct. You do them in that order, and nothing that you’ll do is wrong, no matter how much they argue on the field.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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