Former Mets closer Billy Wagner had a '57 Chevy to thank for a few strike calls from longtime MLB umpire Joe West—at least according to former major league catcher Paul Lo Duca.
Lo Duca said on the "The Favorites Podcast" that one day in the early 2000s when he was catching for New York, Wagner told him that he would let West drive his car so the umpire would widen the strike zone.
“We’re playing like a really tight game against the Phillies and Billy Wagner comes in from the bullpen,” Lo Duca said on the podcast. “I used to go to the mound every time and like, ‘What’s going on?’ and he’s like, ‘Hey, Joe’s behind the plate. Set up a couple more inches inside.' I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Joe hates me.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Joe loves me.’
“I go, ‘He hasn’t given us the corner all day.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He literally throws 10 pitches and strikes out three guys. Joe rings up all three guys. Eight out of the nine pitches were at least three to four inches inside, not even close. Guys were throwing bats and everything. Joe walks off the field.”
Confused by some of the calls, Lo Duca said he asked Wagner after the game how the lefthander was able to get such favorable calls from West.
“I get back into the clubhouse and I’m like, ‘What the f--- just happened just right now?’ And Wagner just winks at me. I’m like, ‘What’s the secret?’ He’s like, ‘Eh, Joe loves antique cars so every time he comes into town I lend him my ’57 Chevy so he can drive it around so then he opens up the strike zone for me.’"
Apparently, a good vintage Chevy trumps whatever beef West, one of the game's most polarizing umpires, previously had with other players. The 11-year veteran Lo Duca said he was ejected from 15 games in his big-league career, with West tossing him from eight or nine of those contests.
“I’m like, ‘This guy’s been throwing me out for the last 10 years of my life and all I needed to do was rent him a ’57 Chevy?’"
West, 66, has umpired the second-most games in MLB history. Now in his 41st season, West has reached a level of celebrity that very few officials across sports ever do. He's an accomplished country musician and made a cameo in the 1988 comedy film, "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" It's that same showmanship and his tendency to inject himself in games in ways other umpires don't that has often been criticized by fans, players and MLB personnel, alike. Lo Duca's comments could further complicate West's reputation in the game.
Both Wagner and Lo Duca retired in 2010.