August 26September 2, 1999
Interview with the Umpire, part 2
story continued from here
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 items on Eric Greggs hit list are rolled to the table on a napkin-draped cart.
Raw steaks. Fresh vegetables. And of course, the lobster.
"Free Willy," Gregg says with a blast of deep-bellied laughter as he picks up the hapless, wiggling crustacean. From his expression, its clear that the title of his book, Working the Plate, refers to more than just umpiring.
Gregg orders the New York Strip, well done. I take the same, rare, and Andrew Campbell, a Chicago photographer whos shooting Gregg for City Paper, orders the chicken.
Then its back to the stories.
He has stories about being a rookie telling Johnny Bench, "Im not going to hear no more shit from you."
About Diet Pepsi commercials in London and hanging out with Eddie Murphy at Stringfellows, where he beat the $30 cover charge by giving the doorman a signed copy of his book.
About how his son Jamie, who was already afraid of the Philly Phanatic, really freaked out when he was in the locker room and the Phanatic came in and took off his head.
Mehra the maître d brings us a special order of garlic bread from the chef.
Somehow, between drinks, the conversation turns to race.
Gregg says that theres been progress. League President Leonard Coleman whos ridden Gregg hard is black. Henry Aaron is senior vice president for the Atlanta Braves.
But "Jackie Robinson would like to have more things happening," says Gregg. "We dont have a black crew chief in baseball and Im upset about that. I should have been the first black crew chief and I got bypassed two years ago and I am upset about that."
Gregg excuses himself to go to the bathroom. When he returns, I ask him why he got passed over.
"My weight," says Gregg, sounding a bit like Terry Malloy talking to his brother in the back of the cab in On the Waterfront. "I would have gotten an $8,000 raise. Its about prestige. Without question. Without question. Without question. I would do it for free. Thats all I want and they took it away from me. Its a sore subject. Its bullshit."
Mehra returns with another loaf.
I ask Gregg about Philly sports media.
"My favorite is [Daily News scribe] Paul Hagen," says Gregg. "He is very honest and does a good job. Also, Jayson Stark [Philadelphia Inquirer] does a good job. I have problems with Bill Conlin [Daily News]. I think he is a great baseball writer, but he tweaks me on my weight and of all people, hes as big as I am and that pisses me off.
"I really have a problem with Howard Eskin [WIP]. I think hes unfair. I listen to WIP. He treats people like shit. I dont like the way he handles himself. I think he is very unprofessional. I know he has his schtick to do and his ratings are high because he embarrasses people, but I think that is bad for the public. I think he is an embarrassment to the station and I dont know how he keeps his job."
Despite Eskin, Gregg says "I love WIP. My favorite probably is Jody Mack [McDonald]. I think he is the most knowledgeable, the most fair. If he doesnt know the answer, he doesnt bullshit you, where Howard thinks he knows everything. I like Angelo [Cataldi]. Hes funny, extremely talented, but funny like the whole morning show. I like Conklin, I think hes great. I love the hockey guy, [Al] Morganti. I even like the brother there, G. Cobb. I think hes great."
Nationally, Gregg says he has no use for Boston Globe and ESPN analyst Peter Gammons.
"Dont like Gammons," says Gregg. "I think he says things about us that he doesnt know. I think he comes to us first and asks us first then talks to other people. You cant go by what other people say. There are always two sides to one story."
It is no secret that in more than two decades of calling balls and strikes, fairs and fouls, safes and outs, you are bound to piss people off. And they are bound to react.
Gregg has heard it all.
"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."
"Calling me Rerun," says Gregg, who does not like being compared to the "hey-hey-hey" chubby chump in the 70s sitcom Whats Happening!!
Gregg has one particularly vivid Rerun rerun. It was back in the 80s and hardass Dallas Green was managing the Phillies.
"Dallas Green one time came out on me and said, Come on now, Rerun, bear down. I said, Dont ever call me Rerun again. If you do, Im going to throw you out of the game."
After that encounter, Gregg got into it with Mike Schmidt. "There was a bang-bang play at first base and Mikes yelling and I walk away," says Gregg, pausing between each sentence for effect. "So I listen. Then nobody says a word. I turn around and Dallas Green says Hey-hey-hey and I toss him out of the game."
Gregg breaks out in gales of laughter. He likes Dallas Green.
"Dallas is always fair," Gregg says. "Next day, he comes back and its all over. No grudges."
Besides, Gregg jokes that his ambition, once hes out of the business, is to join the boo birds.
"When Im done," he says, "I want to sit in the bleachers, drink some beers and yell kill the umpire."
As massive plates of good Midwestern beef and poultry are set in front of us, Gregg says that this is a rare treat of late.
"I dont party as much as I used to because of my situation with the weight," he says. "Ive been working out. This is the first time Ive had a beer in three weeks. Ive really been watching my drink. I just weighed myself. I lost six and a half pounds. I cant tell you what I weigh, but Im good."
Regardless of Greggs strict regimen, I have finally met a man who can outeat me.
The meal finished and no room left for dessert, Mehra the maître d pours us a round of tawny port. Then he invites us to the bar and pours us another.
Before departing, Gregg points to an autographed picture of him going at it with then-Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, which hangs on Mortons Wall of Fame.
"Thats my favorite," says Gregg, who downs his last port and urges me to do the same.
"If you want to keep up with the umps, you have to drink like an ump," he says.
It is just after 11 and Rush Street is crawling with the very hip and the very rich.
Jillys, the swank piano bar, is stuffed. Anxiously, Gregg walks up the stairs, creating a path through the crowd like a fullback. He surveys the crowd, looking for his friend Kim Hefner, but finds only a skeezy sharkskin suit guy with a headset.
No Kim tonight, he tells Gregg. Shes in Las Vegas for a week.
"No wonder I didnt get a phone call looking for tickets," he says, before looking over the crowd and deciding to leave.
"Lets go," he says, somewhat dejectedly.
We descend the stairs, which are as crowded as they were on our way up, and reconnoiter on the sidewalk, trying to figure our next course of action.
We settle on Gibsons, another swank piano bar across Rush from Jillys, favorite of good old Chicago crook Dan Rostenkowski, who used to ring up huge bills there on the taxpayers dime.
Haunt of the haute couture horny and middle-aged men of desperation, Gibsons has a fuck-me atmosphere that is perfect for midnight with a load on.
Somehow, we score three seats by the piano, where the piano man is tinkling some soft-belly blues.
"See that guy over there," says Gregg, pointing to a dapper gentleman with the entourage of foxes walking out the door. "Thats Marion Barry."
Gregg, in his element, takes a big puff off his cigar and gets philosophical.
"I remember J.R. Richard," says Gregg, recalling the great Astros righty. "He was great. He had a great slider. One day Im working the plate, the next day he had a stroke."
"You never know," I tell Gregg.
"You never know."
It is after midnight.
Gregg has to be at the ballpark by 11 to work first base on a game to be televised nationally by Fox. He is well aware of the pressure that awaits.
We finish our drinks, stumble out and cab it back to our respective hotels.
story continued here