Joe West has heard the words “Ump, you stink” in more variations, more languages and more octaves than any active major-league umpire.
All of which should make Friday night a rare respite. As West put it, “It’s nice to hear applause, be in some friendly confines.”
West will be inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame on Friday, joining a large class honored at the Raleigh Convention Center. But it won’t be long before he pulls on the chest protector, positions the cap and becomes a king of diamonds, the ultimate authority figure on the field.
West has done that for more than 5,000 games since he first umpired in the big leagues in 1976 — at 23 the youngest in history — and is approaching the all-time record for MLB games worked.
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That’s a lot of innings, a lot of calls. A lot of cat-calls.
West doesn't claim the line, saying he heard another ump use it, but he remembers a lady in the crowd being particularly loud one day in addressing the home-plate umpire.
“She yelled, ‘If you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee,’” West said. “He stopped the game and walked right over to her and said, ‘If you were my wife, I’d drink it.’ ”
Such repartee is not the norm. Umpires at every level just want to work the game, get the calls right, let things run smoothly and try to have thick skin.
West said Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey once told him: “Don’t let them ruin your day.” If someone gets unruly or gets out of line, toss ‘em. Throw them out of the game. Don’t let them ruin your day
“That’s the greatest piece of advice I was given by any umpire,” West said. And advice he has passed along.
Years ago, former Chicago Cubs star Andre Dawson once got upset after a called third strike. West tossed him. A furious Dawson tossed his helmet and bat in West’s direction as he was being pulled away, but West held his ground.
West, 65, is a big man. The former Elon quarterback, who was born in Asheville but grew up in Greenville, now more resembles an offensive guard, with the heft to be imposing and add to his authoritative nature.
Former North Carolina pitcher Scott Bankhead, another 2018 Hall inductee, said he did not play in many games worked by West in the big leagues but said he got the “word” on West.
“They made it known to me pretty quickly do not cross Joe West,” Bankhead said.
The ump some call “Cowboy Joe” has worked games with more than 50 players later selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He worked Nolan Ryan’s fifth career no-hitter and the game when former Giants star Willie McCovey socked his 500th career homer.
West has worked six World Series, nine league championship series and three All-Star games in his 40-plus years. In terms of longevity, he has worked under six baseball commissioners: Bowie Kuhn, Peter Ueberroth, Bart Giamatti, Fay Vincent, Bud Selig and Rob Manfred.
“And it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down any, either,” Bankhead said.
Ask him about changes in baseball through the years and West mentions one the umps liked: many teams halting beer and alcohol sales after the seventh inning.
“That’s been a big help,” West said. “The games are lasting longer and longer because the players are trying to be as perfect as they can.”
Why Cowboy Joe? West has this thing for country music. He has written some songs and put out two CDs, “Blue Cowboy” and “Diamond Dreams.”
West said he has met three presidents along the way and once sent flowers to former first lady Barbara Bush when she was in the hospital, saying, “From your favorite umpire.” West said she sent a thank-you card that said, ’You are my favorite umpire.” Still has it. It’s special.
Like every ump, West has had things go awry, turn ugly. In a 2014 game, relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon, then with the Philadelphia Phillies, made a lewd gesture toward the fans as he left the field. Tossed from the game, Papelbon found himself face-to-face and chest-to-chest with West, who at one point grabbed Papelbon by his uniform.
West was suspended one game by Major League Baseball. Papelbon was suspended seven games.
In terms of records, West trails only Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem (5,375) and Bruce Froemming (5,163 ) in games worked in the big leagues. He plans on staying at it a few more years — the money is pretty good, too, he said — and wonders if his knees will hold up.
“My doctor tells me every year I’m a good candidate for knee replacement,” West said, smiling. “I just say give me a couple of more years.”