As baseball milestones go, it's safe to say few fans are aware that Joe West is creeping up on his 5,000th regular-season game.
Umpires come and go, and no one pays much attention to them when they're gone. But West came and stayed, even though some probably hoped he would have left a long time ago.
The man known to his friends as "Country Joe" has made a few enemies in his 39 years of umpiring in the majors, but keeps on chugging along.
Sometime in the next few weeks, West will become the third umpire in major league history to reach the 5,000 regular-season games mark, following in the paths of Bill Klem (5,369 games) and Bruce Froemming (5,163).
"I'd like for it to be over," West said recently in the cramped umpires' room at Wrigley Field. "It'll come. I'm not worried when it gets here."
According to Major League Baseball, West was at 4,977 games entering the weekend, and with off days factored in, he should reach the 5,000 mark sometime during the third week of June.
West, 64, began his major-league career in 1976, became a full-time umpire in 1978 and missed a couple of years after the mass resignation of umpires in a 1999 labor dispute.
Though there are no exact figures on West's ejections, he has thrown out so many players and managers in 39 years he probably should get a patent on his thumb.
Over the decades West has been one of the sport's more polarizing umpires, often accused of inserting himself into games, or speaking out on topics like the slow-as-molasses pace of the Yankees-Red Sox matchups.
West has his enemies, his friends, and enemies he turns into friends. After he ejected White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen one day in 2010 after a spat over a controversial balk call on Mark Buehrle, Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson said West was "becoming a joke" and needed to be suspended. The two later mended their fences and are now pals.
Just last September former Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood tweeted "We all know he sucks" after West ejected manager Joe Maddon from a game in St. Louis. During the World Series, West and Maddon posed for a photo with "Flat Stanley" for one of West's grandchildren.
The default setting is West staring down a player or manager as if to say "Go ahead, try me.'' But the replay challenge system now in place has reduced the number of on-field confrontations with umps, so West is less visible on TV, relatively speaking.
Managers simply ask for a replay instead of arguing until they're blue in the face like the good old days.
"I don't think it matters," West said, laughing. "I don't think I ever lost one."
Really? Not even to Lou Piniella?
"No," he said. "I never lost one."
True, the umpire always has the last say … except when the replay says otherwise. West, who is president of the World Umpires Association, believes replay has been a boon for baseball, even if it does point out umpires' mistakes.
"Replay has helped all of baseball, including the umpires," he said. "It's our best on-the-job training. As long as we don't misuse it and learn from everything that happens, it's a wonderful thing."
West has seen quite a few changes in the game since '76. He has agreed with most of them, with one glaring exception.
"Everybody has tried to make changes in the game for the good, but there's one rule that I've never thought was good, and it came in the year before I got here," he said. "And that was the (designated hitter). It's hard to get that out of the game now that it has been in so long, but it was never good for the game, and hasn't been since its inception.
"But it was put in for attendance reasons in the American League, and once they got it in, the American League players just didn't want to let it go."
Aside from replay, perhaps the biggest change to umpiring over the years was the implementing of the "warning" system to prevent beanball wars. Teams are issued warnings that the next purpose pitch will lead to an ejection, and the shenanigans typically stop.
"That's another reason the DH isn't a good rule, because the pitcher doesn't have to bat (in the AL)," he said. "The best example I can give you is when Roger Clemens pitched in the American League he threw at everybody, and when he pitched in the National League he didn't hit anybody.
"There are still going to be incidents when they throw at each other, but that's part of the game. In the history of baseball, as time goes on they've asked the umpires to be more involved.
"Early on, the players took care of it themselves. But now that the owners have so much money tied up in these players they want us to stop it before it happens."
West is an entertainer off the field, having recorded a few country music albums, and also can be an entertainer on it. In 1986, when "the Famous Chicken" was performing during a Cubs game at Wrigley, West agreed to be part of the mascot's routine, even though he was the butt of the joke.
"Between the second and third innings, (Ted) Giannoulas twisted a towel around the neck of umpire Joe West, who was working first base," Tribune baseball columnist Jerome Holtzman wrote. "West, in mock horror, tumbled to the ground, pretending he had been strangled. The crowd roared in approval, unaware that Giannoulas and West are the best of friends."
Despite his grizzled demeanor, West is thick-skinned and able to poke fun at himself. He told the story of when David Ortiz came up with the Twins and West thanked him in spring training for replacing him as the "ugliest man in the game." Ortiz never mentioned it again until his final game last year with West behind the plate. Ortiz informed West that after his retirement West once again would be the "ugliest man" in the game.
West insists his relationships with managers and players aren't as bad as the media portrays, even if they're screaming in his face on TV.
"You guys read too much into that," he said. "The funny thing is they'll be mad at us one day and think we're the greatest thing in the world the next day. They want the guy out there to take charge. They don't want some namby-pamby guy who can be run over."
Hmmm. That's debatable, but do continue. …
"I don't think Earl Weaver finished a game I was in," he said. "But I only had him in spring training. Dick Williams, I used to kick him out every year. When he retired, Dick would stop me and we would have dinner wherever he was in spring training. Chuck Tanner, he always picked on the young umpires, and as soon as he figured out you're going to throw him out, he left them alone.
"There's a whole gamut of them. They don't make them like Whitey Herzog and Jimmy Leyland. And it doesn't matter who the manager is. If the team doesn't win, it's his fault. So he has it much tougher than we do."
Still, a manager gets praise when his team wins, while no one seems to appreciate the umps. West will go down as one of the game's longest-serving umpires, but whether he will stick around to try and break Klem's all-time record is a mystery.
"That's a few years down the road," he said. "You have to figure he worked every day of the season when he set the record. We have four weeks off (during seasons)."
So how long can Joe West continue?
"Until these TV people get tired of looking at me," he said. "My mother says it's a great job because I wear a mask and I don't scare the kids."
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