August 26September 2, 1999
Interview with the Umpire
Eric Gregg, the legendary plump ump from Philly, opens up about the game, the fans and the prospect of losing his job.
by Howard Altman
photographs by Andrew Campbell
The sun is bright, and a stiff, refreshing wind is blowing in from Lake Michigan, a mile or so from the right field wall of the time tunnel ballpark at Clark and Addison.
It is a Friday afternoon in early August and the Chicago Cubs are yet again one of baseballs worst teams. But that does not deter nearly 39,000 people from interrupting their day at noon to watch the Northside Nine play two games against the division-leading Houston Astros. Theres still Sammy Sosa and his pursuit of Mark McGwire in the home run derby.
And this is still Wrigley Field.
As the fans ignore the standings and scream for a Cubs victory, the big man in the blue suit standing on the grass just behind third base puts his hands on his prodigious hips and takes it all in. Eric Gregg, West Philly High grad and Major League umpire, says Wrigley is his favorite ballpark, in his favorite city, in part because "I can smell the hot dogs grilling when I walk on the field."
But this trip is a little different for the 48-year-old Gregg. Earlier this season, the National League Greggs employer levied a $5,000 fine against the plump ump for exceeding his 300-pound plus weight limit and suspended him for two weeks from July 1 to 14.
And thats only the beginning of Greggs woes. After 23 years in the business, a World Series, playoffs, two no-hitters, first-class travel, soap opera cameos, hot dog commercials, countless charity appearances, a book and the resulting fame of being baseballs most recognizable arbiter, Gregg will probably be standing on the unemployment line as of next week. He is one of 22 umpires (out of 68 in both leagues) who, pending a highly unlikely last-ditch compromise with Major League Baseball, will be out of a job on Sept. 2.
With his visibility, Gregg is enduring an arduous love-hate relationship with the fans. He is at once beloved and berated, the poster boy for labor stupidity and the arrogance of umpires. At least thats how it seems from the loud chorus of boos, fat jokes, unemployment jibes and derisive catcalls from the stands that rain down on Gregg from the stands.
Thanks to a controversial and highly questionable labor strategy cooked up in July by the umpires union at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott, this will likely be Greggs last baseball journey to Sweet Home Chicago.
And oh what a journey it is.
If Eric Gregg is singing the blues, he isnt showing it on this glorious afternoon in the Friendly Confines.?
"I love it here!" Gregg explodes as he walks over to the home dugout on his way to the umpires room between games.
And why not?
Wrigley is a long way from 44th and Haverford, the tough West Philly neighborhood known as the Bottom, across from Drexel Field where Gregg grew up. Its a long way from the prison where his brother Ernie is incarcerated again. A long way from where his sister Cheryl died of a drug overdose. A long way from West Philly High, where a baseball coach broke Greggs heart by telling him he would never be good enough to make the Phillies.
So far this Chicago weekend, its been easy going for Gregg, who had no tough calls and suffered no barrage of insults working third base during the first game of the Friday doubleheader (yet another uninspired Cubby loss).
As Gregg waxes eloquent about the wonders of Wrigley, several Cubs who had been loitering in the relief pitchers warm-up area behind third base jog by and pat him on the back.
"Hang in there," says Cubs reliever Felix Heredia. "Good luck," says pitcher Scott Sanders. Gregg turns around and acknowledges the good wishes.
Then he makes plans to hook up for an interview.
"Meet me at the Big Bar at the Hyatt Regency after the game," he says.
With that, he ambles over to the dugout and walks gingerly down the cement steps and into the tunnel leading to the umpires room, a wood-paneled refuge a few steps from a hot dog stand.
The Big Bar at the Hyatt Regency on Wacker Avenue is packed with middle-aged men in suits and slim, sexy women in revealing dresses. It is a power crowd of Board of Trade brokers and out-of-town big wheels.
Into this noisy milieu saunters Gregg, a large, stark contrast in black pants, black shirt and big, white straw hat, with a fine Dominican cigar in his mouth.
On his left wrist are a gold chain and a gold watch. On his right, a silver bracelet, engraved with the words "Big John #10" testament to "my best friend, Big John McSherry," another very overweight ump, who collapsed in Cincinnati on opening day 1996 and was dead of a massive coronary before he hit the ground.
Gregg heads straight for the bar, orders a beer and chitchats with some folks who, instantly recognizing him, slap him on the back and invite him to join them. Business cards are exchanged. Then Gregg excuses himself to sit down and talk about life on what may be his last trip to Chi-Town.
Gregg is anything but apologetic about the stance he and his union brethren took on July 14 at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott when the umpires, fearing they would be locked out when their contracts expire on the last day of the year, opted for a mass resignation.
The move has been blasted by the national media, by major league officials and by the fans.
Pshaw, says Gregg, staunchly defending the action.
"I have great confidence in Richie Phillips," says Gregg, quaffing his beer and taking a pull off his torpedo of a cigar. "I think we had a good move that backfired on us because 24 American League guys went south on us. If they had stayed with us, wed have no problem."
Greggs confidence in Phillips, the umpire unions lawyer, goes back to 1979, the first time the umpires went on strike. There was labor strife again in 1984, and in 1995, when the umps were locked out by the major leagues and the replacements were lambasted by players and managers alike. Each time, the umpires earned hefty raises.
The rationale this time around, according to Gregg, was that baseball, faced with shelling out more than $15 million in severance pay to the resigning umps, would change its tune and deal with the umpires union, headed by Greggs crew chief and fellow native Philadelphian, Jerry Crawford.
Contrary to the plan, which was hatched by Phillips, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney, the baseball commissioners office told Gregg and the others to pound sand. That it was worth the money and effort to get rid of bad umps and take control of this rogue group of officials.
Gregg, who was rated the second worst umpire in a poll of major league ball players and managers, for all intents and purposes, was fired.
But not for incompetence, he says.
(Even though he is still reviled by many especially the Atlanta Braves for his wide strike zone. Many Braves say they lost the seventh game of the 1997 National League Championship Series because Gregg gave Florida Marlins rookie Livan Hernandez too much of the outside part of the plate. Hernandez struck out 15 that night, still a playoff record.)
Sitting at the Big Bar, puffing his cigar, Gregg admits that he would take back his call on Hernandezs last strikeout. But he denies that the way umpires call balls and strikes these days has contributed to the massive increase in offensive output, particularly home runs. And he strongly objects to the poll.
"Its cruel, without a question," he says. "And who rated us? What do players know about umpiring? I cannot rate players. I can say Ozzie Smith was the best shortstop Ive ever seen, but I cant say exactly."
"Its cruel, without a question," Gregg says of the players and managers poll that rated him the second worst umpire. "And who rated us? What do players know about umpiring?"
Girth, says Gregg, is one of the real reasons the league wants him gone.
"There is no doubt that they are discriminating against me because of my weight," says the gargantuan Gregg, who by now is working on his second beer. "Ive been in the league 23 years and Ive never once been called to the office about my ability. Its always, Eric, youve got to lose weight. Youve got to lose weight. You look too fat on national television. Youre too fat."
As for the complaint that umpires are out of control, Gregg says his weight battles are a perfect example of league oversight.
"They say were too strong and they say we have to be held accountable," says Gregg, his already booming voice ratcheting up a few decibels. "Were accountable. I just got fined $5,000 for being overweight so dont tell me Im not accountable. I mean, my kids are in college this semester. In September, they probably wont go because [National League President Len] Coleman fined me $5,000, took it out of my check, and now Im a little short."
Gregg adds that the other reason for his demise is money.
"If they replace myself, Frank Pulli, Terry Tata, they can hire 10 guys for what we make," says Gregg. "First-year guys, they make $75,000. Guys like ourselves make $225,000. So you figure it out. Its not the new math."
Initially, Gregg considered suing baseball for discrimination. But his lawyers told him he couldnt.
Besides, Gregg whose neighborhood nickname is Hub, because he was caught stealing hubcaps as a kid is truly grateful for the lifestyle baseball has given him.
"To be honest with you, baseball has been berry, berry good to me," says Gregg, imitating the infamous Saturday Night Live Latin ballplayer Chico Esquella. "Ive got four kids. We just bought our dream house in Narberth. I got two in college and without baseball, I couldnt have done that."
Without baseball, Eric Gregg couldnt have a reporter call the concierge to make last-minute dinner reservations at Mortons of Chicago.
"My favorite place is Mortons," Gregg says. "Its awesome. Awesome. Pick up the house phone and make us a reservation. They know me very well. Tell them its for Eric Gregg, party of three. Lets say nine oclock. And ask for Rocco."
Gregg cant make the reservations himself because at the moment hes on my cell phone, talking to an ESPN radio reporter about his gig on The Young and the Restless, his favorite soap opera. "The producer is a good friend of mine. My next role [he plays himself] will be on August 25. Im at the bus station, buying a ticket to Cooperstown. Heres my line. Ah, what a busmans holiday. Then I board the bus."
As we sit in the Big Bar, Gregg downing another beer, me sipping on a Jim Beam, Gregg peels off story after story, many poking fun at his weight and digestive problems.
The funniest story takes place about six years ago in Shea Stadium, where limited facilities forced Gregg to use the fans bathroom.
"I get there and theres a fan in the next stall. And he says, Thats Eric Gregg. And he turned around to shake my hand and he pees all over my legs. Un-bee-lievable. And thats a true story. Im soaking wet now and I have to go back on the field. Unbelievable."
Eric Gregg disappears on a trip to the bathroom, emerging out onto the hotel driveway moments later with some bad news.
"There is no more prime rib," says Gregg, holding his half-full beer glass out on the sidewalk on a nearly nippy night. Gregg still talks excitedly about the feast that awaits.
"Whats great about this restaurant is that they bring you the trays out and show you the food," he says with a giddy lilt in his voice. "They show you the meat they have. They always have a live lobster I call Willy. About a four-pounder and he moves around. Then they have fish. It is one of my favorite places."
On the way to the restaurant, Gregg talks about the celebrity-studded hot spots that he likes to hit.
"Usually, I go to a place called Jillys, thats my spot," says Gregg. "Its a big-league club that has jazz and disco downstairs. Its where a lot of the players go. Jordan hangs out there. Its a nice spot."
Gregg is confident that he too will get the A-List treatment there.
"My friend Kim Hefner is the manager," he says. "I am sure I will get a call from her asking for tickets."
If Eric Gregg is a pariah at Wrigley, the bad vibes do not filter into Mortons subterranean dining room.
Gregg doesnt get three steps down the steakhouse stairwell before he is stopped by a balding man in pinstripes.
"Its unbelievable whats happening to you guys," says the man.
"Its just not fair," Gregg agrees.
"No, it isnt," says the man. "I hope things work out for you.
"I am a big baseball fan," the man in the pinstripes tells me. "I enjoy watching Gregg work. I think he is colorful, a good guy and he was good for the game. Its a shame."
The man departs and Gregg walks into the open arms of Rocco aka Mortons maître d, Raki Mehra, a gregarious, salt-and-pepper-haired man in a tuxedo.
"I have known him for about 10 or 12 years now, back when he was a skinny guy," says Mehra, patting Gregg on his ample belly. "He is the most funniest guy I have ever met in my life."
Mehra leads us to our table, at the front of the room, but before we even sit, Gregg is greeted by more well-wishers.
"Well, were hoping the judge rules in our favor," Gregg tells a 60ish bald guy, who is dining with a comely young blonde in a little black dress. "We have nine guys in the American League with us. Forty-four all together. Now theyre trying to recruit guys from the other side, to get rid of Richie Phillips."
The waiter arrives. I order another Jim Beam and Gregg shifts gears a bit in the alcohol department.
"Give me a vodka martini, dry," he says. "Make it Stoli, with three olives."
The players and managers, says Gregg, are operating under an unofficial gag order concerning the labor strife, a worldview in part borne out a month earlier at the Vet when several Phillies and Braves apologetically said they could not comment about the umps.
The uniformed guys, however, are not mere bystanders, says Gregg. Baseball is trying to bust the umpires union. The Major League Baseball Players Association is next on baseballs hit list, says Gregg.
Story Continued Here