The Last Cowboy: Joe West Is On A Quest To Preserve The Sanctity Of Umpiring

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Thursday July 20th, 2017

This story appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Look: We know you’re getting paid $25 million a year, but before you step into the batter’s box and try to hammer a fastball, you’re damn well going to say hello to Joe West.

You have no choice. If you don’t greet him before your first plate appearance, West will hold up the game. He is the only umpire who does this, but so what? He is the only umpire who does a lot of things, like moonlight as a country-music singer, which has made him the only umpire with three nicknames: Country Joe, Cowboy Joe and the Blue Cowboy. He has a website, umpirejoewest.com, where he sells umpiring equipment, including a chest protector he invented, the WestVest. There is a reason Royals reliever Peter Moylan splits the umpiring profession into two groups: “There’s umpires, and there’s Joe West.”

Other umpires work games; West controls them. He is the only umpire who stands between managers and other umpires on his crew, effectively ending arguments before they begin. Arguing with West directly is just as futile. When Ron Gardenhire managed the Twins, he went to dispute a call, and West warned him, “Don’t step in my dirt.” He meant the dirt around home plate. Gardenhire put one foot on it and was ejected before he opened his mouth.

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All this has made Country Joe the game’s most recognizable ump, a man who gets stopped on the street more than many veteran players. Players have noticed how much he gets noticed. In the middle of last week’s All-Star Game, outfielder Nelson Cruz had catcher Yadier Molina snap a photo of him and West before Cruz hit. When Brad Ausmus, now the Tigers’ manager, was a catcher for the Astros, he once called West into a pregame meeting with the pitcher. West asked what was up. Ausmus said, “I just want to get your TV appearance out of the way now.”

The Dodgers once trolled him by playing his songs as walk-up music their first time through the lineup. Once in a while they show West’s cameo in the classic spoof The Naked Gun on the big screen in the outfield: “You can’t throw an umpire out of the game!” The movie came out in 1988. West’s line was funnier back then.

****

Last month, West worked his 5,000th major league game. That is more games than Bobby Cox managed, more than Dodger Stadium has hosted, and 375 short of the record, held by Bill Klem. Of course, West will remind you, “Bill Klem didn’t have any days off.” Klem called his last game in 1941.

West has encyclopedic knowledge of umpiring, going back to the days when people used encyclopedias. He can tell you Larry Barnett worked the World Series at age 30, that his friend Don Denkinger famously blew a call in the 1985 World Series because “he ran himself out of position.” And he will tell you, without hesitation: Players used to respect umpires more.

Umpires were never loved—when the first umpire was hired, in 1876, he was probably handed a pair of glasses—but everyone understood they were essential to the game’s existence. Doug Harvey’s nickname was God. Arthur Daley, the Pulitzer Prize–winning sports columnist for The New York Times, once wrote that umpires were “the foundation stone” of baseball. Players treated them that way.

Knowing they were indispensable, umpires developed distinct styles. Dutch Rennert took so long to call strikes that networks could fit a commercial break between “strike” and “one”: Striiiiiike onnnneeeeeeeeee! Ron Luciano would call outs by pretending his index finger was the barrel of a handgun. The famous rants of Earl Weaver and Lou Piniella were, in their own way, signs of respect for umpiring authority: They knew they were banging their heads against stone. Klem once responded to a photo showing a player was safe with, “Gentlemen, he was out because I said he was out.”

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These days, every game is on TV, and every broadcast features graphics tracking pitches, so we are told instantly if the umpire botched a call. And the big mistakes get replayed on an endless loop—or they get appealed and overturned.

West says “the best thing ever” is that “Major League Baseball spent $40 million to put in a system that proves we’re 99% right.” Players don’t view it that way. They have seen the future, and they want to get there ASAP. One American League pitcher says his teammates talk about an electronic strike zone “at least once a series. There are probably a lot more people for the electronic strike zone now than aren’t. I’m sure in the rule book it doesn’t say, ‘Joe West’s strike zone is this or Ángel Hernández’s strike zone is this.’ People want to know exactly where things are.”

It happens sometimes: You go to work each day, year after year, and you think you’re doing the same job, and providing the same value, and then one day you realize you are not. People act as if you are a human landline. The use of replay—which began in 2008 with home run calls and has been expanded several times since—has made players less deferential toward umpires. As Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo says, “The current player sees these umpires as middle-ground statues that have less and less relevance to the game.”

Earlier this year, while one team appealed a West call, he stood with his hands on his hips, staring at the dugout, like a bank teller standing between a customer and an ATM, as if to say: Really? (His call was upheld.)

West keeps doing the job he was hired to do, back in 1976 at age 23, every bit the prodigy in his craft then that Yankees rookie Aaron Judge is now. A few months before West debuted and America celebrated its bicentennial, the U.S. Senate approved Gerald Ford’s Supreme Court nominee, John Paul Stevens, by a vote of 98–0. There was a respect, back then, for independent arbiters of justice.

Tony Triolo/SI

West embraced the job wholly. He spent days in front of a mirror practicing the art of quickly taking his mask off while keeping his hat on. (He says in four decades as an umpire, his hat has never fallen off.) Vin Scully used to tell West he took too long to make a call. West says that was “the greatest compliment.” He believes an umpire must wait until a play ends before reaching a verdict. And an umpire must keep order. West does not enjoy throwing people out of games, but he loves having the power to do it.

“If you’re a judge in a courtroom, and one of the lawyers or one of the plaintiffs or even the defendants says, ‘You suck’ or ‘You’re an a------,’ he’s in contempt,” West says. “He’s going to jail. We don’t put ’em in jail. We just get rid of ’em.”

He laughs. He calls baseball “a typically American sport,” and when asked what he means, he says, “All of baseball looks to blame somebody else for the failure of what you’re doing. I see it in young umpires. They come up here and say, ‘If you hadn’t bobbled the ball, I wouldn’t have had a close play.’ Well, they’re paying you to call the close plays. And the truth be known, that’s the typically American cop-out.”

West still rails against the designated hitter, an innovation that has lasted even longer than he has. He believes hitters should have to field and pitchers should have to hit. Players bristle at how he carries himself but concede his competence. In a 2011 SI poll of players, West was voted the game’s worst umpire . . . but those same players also voted him the game’s fifth-best umpire. He was the only ump to appear on both lists. Royals manager Ned Yost says, “Ninety-nine times out of 100, whatever happens, he’s going to get right.” Ausmus says, “If I had a question about a rule, he is the umpire I would go to.”

West is a great umpire in ways that only good umpires would understand. They admire how West never leaves the “slot” position behind the catcher. When a ball is hit to rightfield and there might be a play at second base, West knows which side of the base to stand on before the rightfielder even throws the ball.

With every passing summer people appreciate the craft a little less and complain about Country Joe a little more. It has become a running joke among his friends. Before West’s 5,000th game, Arizona coach Jerry Narron asked Lovullo to pass along a message with his lineup card: “Tell Joe I said hi, because I think I’m the only guy that really likes him.” But when Lovullo got to home plate, West asked him, “How’s your mother doing?”

Lovullo’s father, Sam, died in January. So there is another only for the list: West is the only umpire to ask Torey Lovullo about his mom.

Kohjiro Kinno/SI

*****

West sits down for lunch in downtown Detroit wearing a Pebble Beach golf shirt and a World Series ring on each hand. Yes, umpires get World Series rings—not the enormous, diamond-on-diamond doorstops that players get but smaller ones made just for them. West has worked six World Series, which means he has six World Series rings. He brings all six on road trips and wears two at a time.

West could surely have more rings if he wanted. When he became president of the World Umpires Association in 2009, he wrote into the union’s labor contract that umpires cannot work the World Series two years in a row. He says, “If you let them pick the same umpires every year, the same six or seven or eight would work it every year. That would demoralize the staff.” Fellow umpire Andy Fletcher says West takes pride in protecting the best interests of the game “more than anybody I ever worked with, by a long shot.” But who protects the protector?

“I think, as in everything in this country, there’s not the respect for the official that there was when I started,” West says. “And I think that’s a failure of our system, not so much baseball, but the way of life. People don’t respect authority like they used to.

 “I mean, when we were growing up, the policeman was your friend on the corner. Kids today don’t look at a policeman as their friend anymore. They look at him: ‘He’s here to stop me from doing something.’ That’s not true. The policemen and the firemen and all these people are your friends. They’re there to help you.”

In 2017, those words—“policemen are your friends”—can ruin a Thanksgiving dinner and cost you Facebook friends. But it is what West believes.

During one game this year West watched from first base as a catcher turned to argue with the home plate umpire. When the catcher reached first base later, West told him, “There’s a proper way to talk to an umpire and there’s an improper way to talk to an umpire. As long as you don’t look back, no one even knows you’re talking to the umpire.” The first base coach thanked West. He said nobody else would talk to the player that way.

The earth spins, the game changes, and West sees it better than most. Two years ago, after Fletcher responded to Cubs pitcher Jon Lester’s angry mutterings by striding toward Lester, West asked him, “Why did you do that? The screamin’-and-hollerin’ days are all over.”

West says baseball is a better game now than it was, and for proof he says: “It’s grown from a billion-dollar industry to a $10 billion industry. How many businesses multiply their revenues by 10 times?” But he thinks the personal touch is being lost. He still sees baseball as “a big city” filled with players, ball boys, batboys and umpires, all doing their jobs the best they can. To players who call him an attention hog, he says, “I don’t understand what their complaint is. We’re supposed to run the game. They’re supposed to play it.”

No reasonable person would argue that we should return to the days when umpires freely had their own strike zones. But West says, “I don’t think the players respect the game as much as they did before ... That’s not a slight.” Players are one-percenters in a $10 billion business; they can’t possibly appreciate the game, the thinking goes, as much as they would if they worked in a mailroom all winter. And young umpires don’t feel the same sense of guardianship that West feels. They have video assistance to bail them out, and they know players don’t hold them in the same esteem.

Lovullo says when he talks to young umpires, “It’s very sterile. You try to say hello to them, and they’re just robotic.” Yost says the difference is clear, and it’s not just due to technology. The game’s culture has changed from Old West to corporate America.

“Thirty years ago, when the game was over, everybody would go to the bar,” Yost says. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

David Zalubowski/AP

*****

West sits in a bar after game number 5,000, and says, simply, “Umpires are human.”

Lovullo has jokingly called West “a professional beer drinker,” but it’s not the beer that draws him to the Appaloosa Grill in downtown Denver, any more than a curveball drew 35,000 fans to Coors Field earlier that evening. West loves the life. He says he has a million Hilton points, 900,000 Marriott points, another 800,000 with Hyatt, “over a million miles on all” the major airlines and no desire to take a vacation. He goes on one golf trip every winter, and that’s it.

West likes his golf courses tough, his taxes low and the challenge of calling pitches right on the black, at the batter’s knees. He says, “Everybody thinks you’re entitled to something, when you’re not. You need to go work for it, whether it be in baseball or real life.” He does his job the same way he did when umpires either worked in the National League or the American League but not both, there was no interleague play, and there was nobody staring at high-definition screens in New York City, overturning calls three time zones away.

West sits on his bar stool and drinks his beer. His girlfriend, Rita Scott, is there, along with Fletcher, Ron Kulpa and Alan Porter, the other umpires in his crew. They all agree that no ump will ever work 5,000 games again—these days they are lucky to work 125 in a season. And they will never see a scene like the one that just unfolded in the umpires’ room at Coors Field.

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Champagne and wine were poured. Cake was shared. Rockies manager Bud Black came in and reminisced. So did Lovullo. It was casual and organic and straight out of another decade.\

Lovullo talked about his father, Sam. West and Sam Lovullo, the longtime producer of the TV show Hee Haw, were old friends, and when Sam died, West went to Nashville for the memorial service. Lovullo and his family planned to go back to their hotel afterward. West took them all to one of his favorite Nashville haunts, John A’s, instead.

After Lovullo said goodbye, West and his friend Julie Richardson sang their new single, a cover of “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.” West admits his music career started as “a novelty, fun thing”—the title of one of his albums, Blue Cowboy, was a nod to his day job—but he takes it seriously. When he performs live, he sings his favorite song, the Merle Haggard takedown of Vietnam War protestors, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”:

If you’re runnin’ down my country, man,

You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.

Says West, “I think it says a lot about patriotism, respect for your country, what our fighting boys have really done for us.”

West has devoted his life to being an arbiter of the game. He does not really like talking about 5,000, but a big round number like that does get a man reminiscing. He has worked with three sets of fathers and sons: the Wendelstedts, the Gormans and the Runges. (“I think I’m O.K., though,” he says. “I haven’t worked with their grandkids.”) The first four umpires he worked with, Tom Gorman, Paul Pryor, Art Williams and John McSherry, have all passed away.

In the umpires’ room West’s crew switched back and forth between MLB Network and Fox News and listened to West tell stories about McSherry and Rennert and union negotiations from decades ago. They had heard some of the stories before. But sometimes it feels good to hear them again.

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