August 26September 2, 1999
Interview with the Umpire, part 3
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
Im feeling great," Eric Gregg says as he gets ready for what will prove to be a very controversial day of umpiring.
It is about 11 a.m. on a wet Chicago Saturday and Gregg and the boys are milling about the Wrigley Field umpires room, a combination locker and frat house.
The room is maintained by Jimmy Farrell, a thin, doddering 60-something who for years has ministered to the various needs of the visiting umps. Farrell, a hugely devout Catholic, has over the years decorated the wood-paneled walls with several religiously themed posters and prints, my personal favorite being the picture of Jesus teaching a young boy how to hit.
As Gregg peels off his clothes in the locker room, looking not unlike the Michelin Tire guy, crew chief Jerry Crawford sits down at the desk and talks about stress.
Crawfords not just responsible for his crew Gregg, Brian Gorman (son of former ump Tom Gorman) and rookie Paul Nauert, who will also lose his job in September.
As union president, Crawford has to stand up for all the umpires, or at least those members of the warring factions still loyal to him and Richie Phillips.
"Right now it is wearing on me," says Crawford, a wiry straight-shooter with a sarcastic sense of humor whose father, Shag, was also an ump. "Its been very steady since we announced our decision in Philadelphia. Its been nearly four weeks of constant on-the-phone, waking up early in the morning, conference calls. When I go out to lunch with the fellas, when I get back, I have nine messages. Its very intense."
Umps are not the only ones calling with questions about the labor strife.
"I have talked to different wives, about umpires in general. They want to be assured we are doing everything we can to get this resolved."
The families, says Crawford, "are taking it very good, as long as they understand what we are doing, or what we are trying to do."
(Gregg says his wife Conchita, whom he calls "The Warden," is also starting to worry. "She has good reason to," he says.")
So whos to blame for this mess?
"I dont really blame the owners," he says. "I think it is a [Commissioner] Bud Selig-[vice president of baseball operations] Sandy Alderson deal. They are trying to exert their power. They dont like my attorney. They have made an issue of my attorney, but my attorney is not the issue. I dont like their attorneys, but I have to deal with that."
Crawford says the whole situation would be a lot better if the commissioners office dealt with the umps directly.
"Sandy Alderson has negotiated in the newspaper," says Crawford. "He gave a synopsis of what he was offering in USA Today yesterday and he never gave it to me. Thats very unfair."
Jimmy Farrell pops his head out of the locker room.
"You fellas have any more work that needs to be done?" he asks.
"You fellas?" he says. "You mean, You pricks, what do you need now? Any more work. Like hes concerned."
Crawford joins in on Farrell, complaining about the laundry, which Farrell is supposed to wash.
"Wheres my jock?" Crawford jokingly bellows. "Where the hell is my jacket? I have a half a sock, its soaked from here up."
Crawford, Gorman, Gregg and Nauert, the youngest member of the crew who is stretching on the floor, wail with laughter.
Quietly, Farrell shoots back.
"Ill miss you now," he says to Gregg.
"Why," Gregg responds quickly. "Are you retiring?"
Cubs GM Ed Lynch, other team officials and representatives from Fox arrive in the locker room to talk about forecast showers in the area.
"No problem," says Crawford, who agrees to delay the start of the game."
"How are you guys doing?" Lynch asks the umps. "You guys OK ticketwise?"
Gregg not one to pass up any freebie has a request for Lynch. "Can you leave us some Beanie Babies?"
"I think we can find some," Lynch says. (Ty Beanie Babies is headquartered in Chicago.)
After Lynch leaves, Gregg ever the opportunist notes that the Bammer Bears Beanie Babies given out by the Phillies to honor Scott Rolen "are going for $500 each."
As the rain subsides and the parched Wrigley turf soaks up most of the moisture, the Cubs finally take on the Astros.
It is the busiest game of the series for Eric Gregg, who puts on a little show, playfully punching out Sammy Sosa, who cant beat the throw on his grounder to shortstop. It is a tough series for Sosa, too, who manages a mere single in 18 at-bats against Houston.
Later, Astro firstbase coach Jose Cruz gets into the act, mimicking Greggs fist pump as Astro right fielder Derek Bell grounds out to short.
But the comedy ceases in the sixth.
With two outs, nobody on and the home team down 5-2, Cubs first baseman Mark Grace smacks a low, low line drive that touches down somewhere near the first base bag.
Gregg watches the play and doubles his massive body over, index fingers pointing toward the stands, indicating a foul ball.
The huge crowd bellows in unison.
"Rerun you fat fuck!" people shout. "Hey-hey-hey!"
Cubs manager Jim Riggleman, one of the games most mild-mannered people, storms out of the dugout and gets into it with Gregg, who, after several minutes, ejects Riggleman from the ball game.
More abuse rains down from the stands as Grace resumes his at-bat. Popping up to the center fielder, Grace runs towards first and, upon seeing the ball land in Carl Everetts mitt, explodes in a highly uncharacteristic burst of fury, charging toward Gregg and muttering invectives.
With a big sweep of his right arm, Gregg tosses Grace, the crowd growing apoplectic.
"Eric Gregg was voted by the major league baseball players and managers as the second-worst umpire in the National League," says one fan seated a few rows behind me in the box seats back of first base. "He is so pathetic. This was so clearly fair, and on top of this he ruined it for the Braves against the Marlins in the 1997 Championship Series. His strike zone moves per inning. The guy is the worst. He might be a nice guy, but this is completely awful."
As the anger in the stands spills out onto the field, Eric Gregg, target of the venom, turns his back and kicks his right foot toward the crowd as if to say, "Ah, fuck you guys too."
The Cubs would go on to lose 10-2, another miserable night in a long and miserable season.
In the Cubs locker room, Riggleman wades into a throng of reporters, explaining for the record that he was in the wrong.
"I always get along with umpires," he says in a soft and quiet voice. "I still get along with umpires. It was a play in the game that could have gone either way. He probably got it right. I dont know."
As Riggleman talks, Mark Grace walks out of the trainers room, puffing a butt and wearing a "Get Hard, Go Yard" T-shirt. The reporters watch Grace walk by, then return to interrogating Riggleman.
A Chicago reporter asks Riggleman if maybe Gregg made the ejection "because he was sensitive" about the labor situation.
"No," Riggleman says flatly. "He let me say plenty."
When Riggleman finishes, our little pack of reporters moves over to Grace, now standing in front of his locker awaiting the questions.
"I disagreed with his call," says Grace, stoically. "I thought he missed it. He thought he got it right and we argued and he threw me out of the game."
Another local reporter points out that until today, no Cubs player had been thrown out of a game all season.
"We were overdue," says Grace, forcing what may be a wry smile. "Its about time. I just, I saw the ball go over the bag, he saw it differently. I was upset, I was frustrated, I got myself run. Pretty simplistic. I get along with Eric. We were fine up until that point. Its just part of the game."
"Was it anything you said?" I ask Grace.
"You cant print it," he answers.
"Oh, I can print it."
"No you cant," he says with a smile, the other reporters cracking up.
"He must be from the Chicago Reader [an alternative weekly]," says one, who then asks Grace if Greggs judgment was affected by the labor troubles.
"Oh, I dont know. Whether hes pro-union or not didnt have any effect on what he said to me or what I said to him. I got pissed off and got run."
No one is allowed in the umps room after this game, says a Cubs locker room attendant.
"They even turned away Gormans brother," says the attendant.
Not deterred, I wait for Greggs comment.
After a half hour, the door opens, but it is only Farrell, who scurries up to the concession stand and returns with a six-pack of beer.
Eventually, Gregg emerges, a little bit haggard.
"I really cant talk about it until I make my report to the league," says Gregg, who eventually warms up enough to say that even some Cubs admitted he got the play right and that apologies would be forthcoming.
"Did you hear the fans screaming at you?" I ask Gregg.
"Sure I hear it."
"So what do you think?"
"Its part of the game," says Gregg, matter-of-factly, showing not a tinge of bitterness or dismay. "As long as they dont get personal, it doesnt bother me. We get no respect. But its over, and well be back here tomorrow."
"You going out with the boys tonight?" I ask him as we walk out to the crews green minivan in the parking lot.
"No, Im staying in tonight," he says, hopping into the van.
The autumnally cold wind is not the only thing that is frosty before Sunday nights game at Wrigley. Even under the best of circumstances, Gregg says he doesnt converse with anyone before working home plate, including his crewmates; he prefers to sit in a chair by himself, rocking and watching TV, usually his favorite soaps. He is in no mood to talk about Grace. Crawford, who has been patient and gentlemanly, politely asks me to leave the umps room.
No matter. I walk back onto the field, where I hook up with Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan.
"I think it is very difficult what they are going through," says Morgan, looking dapper in a brown suit as he sits on the home dugouts pine bench. "I feel some compassion for the umpires, because, like the players, they have dedicated their lives to become major league umpires. And you shouldnt just throw that away or push that aside."
For the most part, the current umpire corps is serving the game well, says Morgan, once the elbow-pumping spark plug of the Big Red Machine who is in town to call tonights game for ESPN.
"I happen to think most of the umpires have done a good job of doing their job," says Morgan, who, nevertheless, is not letting every ump off the hook.
"Make no mistake about it," he says, trying hard not to notice that his cell phone is ringing again. "There are some guys who have become arrogant. There are some guys who are not doing their jobs [and] most of the other guys get hurt by that. Most of the umpires work hard, are very competent and do their job. And they have some guys who I think at this stage of their lives dont care anymore."
I ask Morgan which category Eric Gregg fits into.
"I dont rate the players," Morgan says very quickly. "I dont do that. I dont rate the umpires. All I do is call the game, and if an umpire has a good game, I say he has a good game. If he has a bad game, I point that out."
What does the public think?
"They dont really care," says Morgan. "They have been brainwashed to the point that umpires are bad people, or are not people."
Did they make a mistake?
"Oh, theres no doubt they made a mistake," says Morgan. "But they were in a box already in my opinion, so maybe it wasnt as big a mistake as people think. "
Wrigley Field is not the only place on earth where people are wondering about what the umpires are thinking.
Halfway across the globe, baseball people in Japan are questioning the bargaining strategy.
"They screwed up," says Yasuhiko Tanaka, assistant cameraman and the English-speaking member of a Japanese TV crew that flew from Los Angeles to Chicago to follow doomed rookie ump Paul Nauert. "Yah, they screwed up."
James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, knows from trouble.
And Lovell, here to lead the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," says the umpires bought a world of trouble.
Eric, we have a problem.
"I think they made a basic mistake of just handing in their resignations," says Lovell, who is the first to admit he is no expert on this subject. "There is a beautiful cartoon in one of the news magazines, You ejected yourself, but now you are calling the shots. "Its a really bad thing."
Speaking of astros, Craig Biggio, the Houston Astros second baseman, is one of baseballs classier acts. Deep in the labyrinthine innards of Wrigley, Biggio stops on his way to the field and empathizes with Gregg and the others.
"Its just a bad situation right now," says Biggio. "The way I look at it you are talking about peoples lives. They have families. Rent to pay. Kids to feed. This is a very, very bad situation. I want to wish them luck and hope they get it all rectified because you never want to see something like this happen. Imagine doing something for 25 to 30 years then all of a sudden being kicked out of your job? I dont like it. Hopefully well get things all worked out."
Is Biggio bothered by the strike zones that change between each umpire?
"Some guys are high ball, some guys are low ball," says Biggio, scoffing at the notion that umpires are ruining baseball. "It doesnt matter. The umps do a tremendous job. Everyone has their own strike zone. Everyone is different. It is up to you as a professional hitter to adjust to it."
The only thing Biggio asks is that the umps be consistent.
And Eric Gregg is consistent, Biggio says.
"Eric is fine," says Biggio. "Ive known him for 12 years."
As fate would have it, Craig Biggio is the first batter of the ballgame. Micah Bowie, the big left-hander the Cubs picked up in a deadline-day trade with Atlanta, grooves a fastball on the extreme outside of the plate, the living edge of Eric Greggs notoriously wide strike zone.
Strike one, Gregg motions with his little fist punch.
Biggio, one of the games best hitters and a league leader in walks, works the count full.
Bowie throws another fastball, hits that edge once again.
Biggio looks at the pitch and takes a step toward first.
"Strike," calls Gregg. Who, like Biggio asks, is nothing if not consistent.
In the bottom of the second, Mark Grace steps out of the dugout and the crowd buzzes in anticipation of the first meeting between these two men since the great ejection, which was played over and over again on Chicago and national TV.
Grace steps up to the plate. Gregg steps over home, his back toward Grace and sweeps the plate. It is the first move in a four-step ballet that would see the combatants eventually make up, the two getting closer with each graceful Grace at-bat.
Gregg might have made peace with Grace, but he sure doesnt impress Astro shortstop Tim Bogar in the top of the fifth.
With two men on, two men out and a two-run Astro lead, Bowie throws a ball that is so low it falls out of the catchers mitt. Gregg calls it strike three.
For a long few seconds, Bogar just stands there, showing his displeasure with the call. Gregg holds his fire and the inning ends without further incident.
Except in the stands, where the Wrigleyites are merciless.
Umpire Brian Gorman, working third base tonight, can hear the onslaught of fat jokes.
He turns to the crowd, sticks out his belly and pats it, to great roars from the stands.
For Eric Gregg, the final insult would come in the bottom of the eighth.
With a man on first and nobody out, the Cubs losing again, this time 6-2, Gary Gaetti fouls a fastball off Greggs mask, sending him reeling several steps backward, like he was hit in the face by an uppercut.
As Gregg stumbles toward the brick wall behind home plate, yelps of approval cascade all around.
"That was a wake-up call!" screams one particularly emotional fan whos had too many beers. "Remember it, asshole."
One inning later, Cubs second baseman Jeff Blauser pops up to the second baseman. The game is all over.
And so is Greggs trip to Chicago.
After a long cooling-off period, after his colleagues depart for their flights to New York, where the crew will work Shea Stadium, a very weary Eric Gregg emerges from the umps room and walks toward the parking lot.
"What did Grace say to you?" I ask.
"He apologized," says Gregg, his prophecy apparently fulfilled.
"Is it really the last time in Chicago?" I ask him, wondering if he is as confident as he was when he arrived three days ago.
"I hope not," says Gregg, softly, without his earlier bravado. "I hope not."
Tough night? I ask him.
"Its no tougher than normal," says Gregg, walking out the doorway and into the night. "Im a little shaky, but Im all right."
Gregg and his 21 fellow doomed umps are awaiting a National Labor Relations Board ruling on their unions request for a preliminary injunction against the firings. A spokesman for the umps said on Aug. 23 that no decision is likely before Aug. 30.