By Bob Barlow
Tuesday, June 20 marked a milestone for Major League Umpire Joe West as he became only the third umpire in MLB History – behind Hall of Famer Bill Klem (5,375) and Bruce Froemming ((5,163) – to work at least 5,000 major league games. By comparison, baseball’s 600 home run club currently consists of nine members and NASA has sent 12 astronauts to the Moon. When West, currently in his 39th season, made his Major League debut on September 14, 1976 the Toronto Blue and Seattle Mariners had yet to play their first games (they debuted in 1977), and Gerald Ford – yes, I said Gerald Ford – was the sitting President of the United States.
West has not been without controversy over the years. He has been known to insert himself into the story-line of a game all too often. He has had on-field altercations (some physical) involving players and managers. West was vocally irritated over the slow pace of play during a Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees series a few years ago. And in September 2014, he became one of the few umpires ever suspended, though only for a game, for grabbing the jersey of Phillies relief pitcher Jonathon Papelbon during an altercation. There have been off-field criticisms as well. West recently named the Texas Rangers star third basemen Adrian Beltre as baseball’s biggest complainer.
Joe West is not easily offended and is often self deprecating. He recently told the story of a Minnesota Twins rookie whom he thanked during the Spring Training season 1997 for replacing West as the “ugliest man in the game”. That rookie player, David Ortiz (aka Big Papi) kept that incident buried until his last appearance, with West calling the balls and strikes last July. Ortiz told West that after he retired at the end of 2016, West would become the “ugliest man” in the game once again.
West, nicknamed “Cowboy Joe”, is also known outside of baseball as a singer/songwriter. The 64-year-old has released a couple of albums over the years, and has appeared on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.
Love him or hate him, Joe West’s baseball legacy is secure. How many more seasons will he 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.”