Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Largest Ump, RIP

There are not many people truly worthy of the description "larger than life" and in reality it's hard to tell if it fit Eric Gregg. His friends and colleagues certainly believe it, and today they grieve the most well-known (outside of St. Louis) former umpire of Major League Baseball.

Gregg was huge: nearly 400 pounds at the largest of his largeness, around three bills after a drastic weight loss program. He embodied the stereotype of the 1990s ump -- overweight, overpaid and incompetent. Simply stated, Gregg was a poor ump -- his strike zone fluctuated from pitch-to-pitch, he bonked clear out/safe calls at the bases and he received among the lowest marks in a 1998 (or 1999) poll of players, managers and coaches by ESPN that rated all the major league umps for ability, accuracy, professionalism, physical fitness and consistency.

One area where he always received high marks, and in which he differed from the typical '90s ump = attitude and treatment of the players and managers. For all his shortcomings as an umpire, Gregg had no similar shortcomings as a man and this was clear on the TV screen: jovial, kindly, temperate, and respectful of the players and coaches who often disdained his calls. They'd hate the decision but never the decisionmaker.

He is best remembered for game 5 of the 1997 NLCS when, as that game's home plate umpire, he called eight batters out on strikes and had a strike zone so wide that it breached the far side of the opposite batters box. It's no coincidence that Gregg's strike zone was exhibit 1 in Sandy Alderson's case to force umpires to adhere to a more uniform strike zone and be subject to constant performance reviews.

Alderson's move to make the umps more accountable for their performance quality, combined with the upcoming expiration of the umps' union contract at the end of the 1999 season led to Richie Phillips' boneheaded move to have all the umps resign en masse as a renegotiation ploy. Gregg submitted his resignation and, unlike more than 3/4 of his fellows, MLB would not allow him to rescind it.

After losing his job, Gregg bopped around doing various odd jobs: bartending, working concessions at the ballpark, whatever he could do to gain cash. He tried to come back as an umpire, but that failed due to his lack of fitness and MLB's lack of confidence that he could do the job well. His family went from upper-income house to midsize apartment as the struggles continued. A sad downturn for the avuncular father of four and his stable family.

On Sunday, Gregg was hospitalized after suffering a stroke. Yesterday, he died. Eric Gregg, largest of the umpires, was 55. RIP.

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