This Cowboy ain’t easy to love: Baseball’s complicated relationship with Joe West

MLB

White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson was furious with umpire Joe West, as many have been these past 44 years. On this day in 2010, West had called a second balk of the game on Mark Buehrle, and Hawk was so outraged he said on the air, “Joe West should retire!”

Two years later, after West had beaten larynx cancer, which had forced him to miss 18 games, West said, “Hawk comes barging into the umpires’ room after a game, screaming, ‘Where is that son of a b—-?’ Then he comes into the shower. I’ve got soap all over me. He says to me, ‘Look, we can fight each other and we can hate each other, but don’t you f—ing die on me, damn it!’

“We’ve been best friends ever since.”

Joe West told that story in February over an unsweetened iced tea at his gated country club outside of Orlando, Florida. He had just gotten his 67-year-old knees injected with StemEx. His knees are bone-on-bone, and that biannual treatment allows him to work, to crouch behind the plate, without pain. He told many stories that day; he laughed relentlessly, mostly at himself, and most of his stories, such as that exchange with Hawk Harrelson, included elements of love and hate.

“If murder was legal,” one former player said, “some days I would kill Joe. I mean it. One day he’s arrogant, vindictive, a jerk, a guy who really believes that 50,000 people came to the park to see him. But he’s a different person every time you see him. The next day he is joking with you on the field, he is charming … you want to go have a beer with him.”

Joe West has had beers with lots of people. He is, in every way, “Cowboy Joe” West. He is a former football player. He plays golf. He is a singer-songwriter of country music and the husband of Rita, a former racquetball national champion. That day in February, she met him at the country club on her motorcycle. Joe West doesn’t ride a motorcycle. When asked if he could ride a horse, given his Cowboy Joe nickname, he offered this:

“I once rode a horse all afternoon. A professional photographer took a picture of me on the horse. He said, ‘Look at the p—k on that horse.’ I said, ‘It’s a mare.’ He said, ‘I know. Look at the p—k on that horse.'”

Joe West laughed his hardest at that one.

He is also a very serious man. He takes off a series to visit a sick friend. He helps widows of former umpires. He donates heavily to charities and loves children.

“I always carry a box of Rawlings baseballs in my truck, just in case I meet a young kid,” West said. “I give them away. I don’t sign them. These kids have no idea who I am. It really tickles them.”

Mostly, players and managers will argue, West is a good umpire. No one can remember him losing control of an important game because the situation was too big. Still, the questions always linger when he works.

Is he too big for the game? Can his loud personality, his arrogance get in the way?

Managers and players will tell you that there’s a side of him that screams: How dare you question me! Who are you to speak in my presence? I’m Joe West!

One manager said, “Sometimes Joe likes the villain role a little too much.”

West says he has never missed a call.

“My fourth year, [then-Padres manager] Dick Williams came out of the dugout to argue a play and said, ‘Just tell me you missed it and I’ll go away,'” West said. “I said, ‘I’ve never missed one.’ He said, ‘You can’t be that arrogant.’ I said, ‘That’s not arrogance. I don’t call them all right, but I’ve been out here for all of them. And that just blew his mind.'”

How does West answer those who say he is arrogant?

“I don’t have to answer,” he said. “Most of them don’t have the guts to say it to your face.”

Not two weeks ago, West ejected Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo from a game against the Braves. Rizzo was high up in a luxury suite when he got tossed. It didn’t matter how far away he was, West and his crew could hear Rizzo yelling at the umpires. And West was having none of it.

“I wouldn’t take that from a player. I wouldn’t take that from a manager,” West told The Associated Press. “If it was Donald Trump, I’d eject him too. But I’d still vote for him.”

In 2017, he was suspended three games for calling Adrian Beltre the biggest complainer in the majors.

That’s the thing about Joe West. He says what is on his mind and doesn’t care how people take it or the trouble it might cause. West took some heat for comments he made in March about the coronavirus, saying the number of cases and deaths were overstated.

“Those statistics aren’t accurate, I don’t care who’s counting them,” West told USA Today. “When country music [singer] Joe Diffie died, they said he died of the coronavirus. He had Stage 4 lung cancer. The coronavirus may have accelerated his death, but let’s be realistic.

“Our system is so messed up they have emptied hospitals because there’s no elective surgery. The government has been giving these hospitals extra money if someone dies of the coronavirus. So everybody that dies is because of coronavirus. I don’t care if you get hit by a car, it’s coronavirus.”

What got less attention was this:

“I’m being cautious, just like everyone else,” West also told USA Today. “It’s not like I’m going to go out in a crowd of people. Baseball is doing the right thing looking out for those guys and giving them a choice. If you’re not comfortable, and remotely concerned, you’re doing the right thing by opting out.

“This isn’t the kind of job you can do while worrying about everything else happening around you.”

He also talked about concerns and worries and the fact that, well, he doesn’t consider himself old.

“The scary thing about all of this is a good athlete can get this virus, never get sick and pass it on without knowing he had it,” West said in that interview. “So, I do worry about the elderly.

“I just don’t consider myself elderly.”

Still, the backlash was severe.

“What I said was taken out of context,” West said two weeks ago when we spoke again. “I never said it wasn’t important. Health and safety is all that matters. I just said that some of the people could have died from something else. I took a little heat from that, from the league office. But I never said it wasn’t serious. It is serious. I can take it. I’m a big boy. People take shots at me a lot.”

Earlier this week, he celebrated his 44th year in the big leagues. And once he works 29 more games, he will surpass Hall of Famer Bill Klem, who died in 1951, for the most games ever worked by a major league umpire (5,259).

“It was a big deal [in 2017] when I got to 5,000,” West said. “We were in Minneapolis. So we went to Manny’s [a famous steakhouse]. Four umpires and these two guys [former football players Dave Casper and Paul Krause] and their wives. So they give us our menus. They are huge menus, but they bring me a spiral-ringed notebook. I open it up. All the waiters and waitresses are watching. This menu was in Braille. I see what it is, I say, ‘I’ll have a ribeye, medium-rare with a baked potato.’ I didn’t blink. They all start laughing. So I send the book to Paul Krause. His eyesight was so bad, he couldn’t see the bumps on the page.”

Say to anyone in uniform, “I’m writing a profile on Joe West,” and you’ll get the same reaction.

First, a sly laugh, as if to say, “Hey, good luck.” Yet most players were not reticent to talk about West.

“Joe has his own style,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “Once you understand that, everything is OK. He is from the old school. Sometimes, some guys just do what they’ve done their whole career. I respect him. When I got fired in Arizona, one of the first people who called me was Joe West. I was not expecting that. This is the guy who threw me out of a game when I brought the lineup card to the plate. Joe is Joe. You can’t fight him.”

Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said this: “His strike zone is as consistent as any umpire in the game. There are a few umpires who make you think, ‘What is going on in that head of yours?’ But that’s not Joe. He deserves a lot of credit. And in the field, he is consistently consistent about consistently making sure that every rule is consistently followed.”

But what about the contention that West thinks 50,000 people are there to watch him?

“Totally not true,” he said. “A manager told me that one time. He said, ‘Oh, you want everyone to know you are here.’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been here for 40 years. They already knew I was here when I walked out on the field.'”

“A manager told me, ‘Oh, you want everyone to know you are here.’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been here for 40 years. They already knew I was here when I walked out on the field.'”

Joe West

Former manager Buck Showalter said of West: “When he wants to umpire, his judgment is really good. He’s a good umpire. If it’s a big game, especially on the road, big crowd and he’s behind the plate, I’m OK with it. He’ll turn the emotion on and concentrate from 60 feet.”

But is West vindictive?

“No,” West insisted. “I used to have this argument with [veteran umpire] Paul Runge all the time. If you want to be vindictive, you are cheating the game. If someone does something to you that makes you feel like you have to do something back to him, you should have kicked him out. You are the official authority of baseball on the field. And you are the only official authority of baseball when the game starts.

“Here’s another thing: I don’t put people in jail. The judge is sitting in the room, he gives his ruling, you say, ‘You’re an a–hole.’ The judge is going to put you in jail. I can’t put you in jail. But I can kick you out of the game. And that’s part of the fabric of baseball. You have certain rules and regulations that you have to go by. But to be vindictive, because you didn’t like what somebody did, that’s being dishonest to the game.”

Does it bother West if someone hates him?

“No,” he said, “because if you get into this job to be liked, you picked the wrong profession. The guys who say ‘I hate Joe West’ are the ones who want you to work their playoff game because they know that I don’t have any favorites out there. I am going to do what I think is right.

“I say this to every young umpire: As an umpire, you have three responsibilities. First is to the game of baseball. Second is to your profession. Third, make a call that is morally honest. If you do everything in that order, nothing you do will be wrong.”

That is how Joe West works.

But does everyone agree with him?

“Still, some people are going to hate you for what you do,” he said. “There are people who say, ‘I hate him.’ That’s too bad. I don’t think [former player and manager] Buddy Bell and I ever got along. Then again, Dick Williams and I … I would kick him out of a game every year over something. When he retired, you would have thought he was my best friend.”

What does Buddy Bell really think?

“I don’t like him,” Bell said. “He doesn’t like me. He threw me out three times in one season, and he threw out David [Buddy’s son and Reds manager] twice. I think it’s personal to me.”

In 1999, West was suspended for throwing pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground during a brawl.

“Cook was beating a kid half to death on the ground,” West said. “I pulled him off the kid. I had him from behind. He took a swing at me. He didn’t know it was me. When he did, I just threw him. He went head over teakettle. When he went down, I went right over and said, ‘I’m the guy who threw you down. Now calm down. I’m going to have to throw you out of the game because of what you were doing to that kid.’ And that was it.”

In 1982, West was suspended for shoving then-Braves manager Joe Torre.

“He followed us off the field,” West said. “A young umpire made a call. [Torre] and [Chris] Chambliss followed us off the field. When Joe stepped off the field, I pushed him and said, ‘You can’t follow us here.’ He turned right around and went away, then told the media that I had pushed him. He didn’t belong where he was going.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 2010, West ranks 94th out of 120 plate umpires in correct call rate at 87.7%. During that stretch, he has made 45,112 correct calls and missed 6,345. Despite those numbers, there are those who defend him.

“On his good days, he’s one of the best ball-strike umpires in the league,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

Catcher Erik Kratz, for one, likes it when West is behind the plate.

“The nuance of catching, working with the umpire, and the nuance of umpiring, working with the catcher, is one and the same,” he said. “His persona is that he’s not a guy you want to work with, but it’s not like that. He’s funny. I enjoy his dry sense of humor. With some guys it’s like [sarcastically], ‘Oh, great, we get him today.’ But he knows what he’s doing given all his experience. He can slow the game down, and doesn’t speed up the game and let it get away. What he is doing is pretty cool. He’s umpired in, what, six different decades.”

Said catcher Chris Iannetta: “I have a good time when he’s behind the plate. He has a big personality. And he puts his personality into it. It creates the umpire-player-manager interaction. He is a throwback. He is old school. You know the rules with Joe. You know what you can say and what you can’t say. If you have little service time, you should keep your mouth shut. But if you’re a veteran, you can bust him up — respectfully.

“It’s true, [West] likes to talk. He’s controversial. He shines in the biggest arena, for better or for worse. But no one thinks he’s a bad guy. He’s a fair guy. And he’s not out to get people.”

West, in 2015, complained that the Red Sox and Yankees played games that were too long.

“The plate umpire didn’t give a Red Sox hitter timeout when he asked for it because the pitcher was in his delivery,” West said. “So this writer came to the locker room and asked, ‘Why aren’t you giving him timeout?’ So not to give a young umpire some trouble, I was the crew chief, I said, ‘Wait a minute. Both of these teams take too long to play. And they refuse to follow the edict of the commissioner. In fact, it’s embarrassing. So don’t blame the umpire for doing his job. They play too slow.’ It goes viral. The office called and said, ‘We wish you hadn’t said that even though we agree with you.'”

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle: “His ball-strike calls take some time to develop. And when there’s a bang-bang play at first base, he just kind of pimps it. But he can do that because he’s been around so long, and he usually gets it right. What he’s doing, that’s wild, with all the changes that have been made in baseball, all the progressive things the game has done. There aren’t a lot of things I’ve done 5,000 times in my life, so that’s pretty cool.”

One former player said: “When he decides to be impartial, he’s a great umpire. But he has screwed players just to screw players. My first year in the big leagues, he struck me out on a pitch that was a foot outside. I looked at him as if to say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ My manager told me, ‘He’s just testing you to see how you’re going to react.’ My thinking was, ‘Why is he testing young players? Can’t he just call balls and strikes?'”

“He’s a good umpire; he’s one of the best on balls and strikes,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s a fast game now. I’ll say that as nicely as I can. We expect our umpires to be perfect, but there’s no way they can be. When an umpire misses a call, the player does what every player does today: He runs into the clubhouse to look at the video, then he comes back out and yells at the umpire for missing a call. But Joe doesn’t care. He’s going to make the next call however the hell he wants.

“Let’s take [Cubs pitcher] Jon Lester, who doesn’t get a call that’s this far [4 inches] off the plate, then he stares in at the umpire. Some umpires will make some changes after that. Joe just stares right back at him. I appreciate that about Joe. He has a presence on the field. It starts with the public opinion of him. That’s not what he, any umpire, is supposed to be. But he is. I appreciate that too about Joe.”

West threw former Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon out of a game for grabbing his crotch after an out.

“He made an obscene gesture to the fans,” West said. “It’s somebody’s job to throw him out there. You can’t do that to the spectators. It’s disrespectful to the game. To the sport. To the fans who see you play.”

But West made contact with Papelbon and had to serve a one-game suspension for grabbing him by the jersey during the argument.

“Joe has great judgment,” former player Eduardo Perez said. “Joe would be the best judge. He finds you guilty, and even though you are a friend, he sentences you to 10 years because that’s what the crime calls for. He always follows the rules. He draws the line. He walks the line. But the day you get out after 10 years, he comes to pick you up at the prison.”

Does West lose sleep when he makes an incorrect call?

“This is what people don’t understand: When an umpire has a bad night, he goes back and looks at it,” he said. “There has to be a reason you missed the call. Three ways you can miss a call: lack of concentration, lack of positioning, lack of timing. The Denkinger play at first base [in 1985 when the] Cardinals lost the World Series to the Royals. Don Denkinger overhustled on that play. He took himself out of position to see that play. Is that a bad thing that he hustled? No. But he put himself in the wrong spot. He’s one of the best umpires the American League has ever had. He’s remembered for that call. That’s not fair. There’s no batting average for performance for an umpire. They grade you, yes. But when you miss some, you can’t go out and hit a homer. You have no recourse to get that back.”

Former pitcher Rick Sutcliffe said: “His ears don’t work. People are bitching at him, calling him a jerk, and he can’t hear them — and that’s a compliment. In a World Series game, on the road, against the Yankees, when it’s really loud, some umpires can get intimidated. Not Joe. He doesn’t give a damn. He doesn’t hear the crowd. He’s a great umpire. If you get him mad, he’s going to give it back. That’s the player’s mentality, and he has it. If you hit a home run off me and watch it instead of running, I’m going to drill you.

“If you show him up, he’s going to show you up.”

In 1976, West umpired his first major league game. Since then, he has been on the field for Willie McCovey’s 500th home run, Felix Hernandez’s perfect game and Clay Buchholz‘s no-hitter. He was behind the plate when Orel Hershiser broke Don Drysdale’s record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched. West’s crew threw Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell out of a playoff game in 1988 for having pine tar on his glove.

And the greatest misconception about umpiring?

“People don’t understand that umpires are human beings,” West said. “Their feelings are just like normal people. When they fail in what they’re trying to do, they’re hurt more than anybody. Do you think Jimmy Joyce enjoyed that call at first base [in 2010] when he cost that kid [Armando Galarraga] a perfect game? That killed him. That broke his spirit. Whenever I see something that an umpire missed that we can’t fix, I feel for him. I hurt for him because we’ve all been there.”

There used to be a lot of umpires with big personalities similar to West’s. Hall of Famer Doug Harvey’s nickname was “God.”

West said that Malcolm Sykes, his first supervisor, “told me it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. That has always stuck with me. It’s like f— you or f— you! Sometimes it’s just the inflection in your voice that determines what happens on the field.”

And, of course, the situation dictates everything.

“Garth Brooks was with the Padres in spring training [in 1999],” West said. “They were playing the Cubs. [Then-Padres manager Bruce] Bochy put Garth in to run. This left-handed pitcher picked him off first. He was out from here to the TV set. [First-base umpire] Eddie Montague called him safe. Mark Grace started laughing. Garth got up and hugged Eddie. After the game, four or five reporters came to talk to Eddie. He said, ‘I can call Barry Bonds out. I can call Mark Grace out. If I call Garth Brooks out, I can’t go home.'”

West laughed and said, “When [Carlos] Beltran was with the Yankees, he slid into second and I called him out, and he called me Grandpa. I told him, ‘Well, Carlos, I was in Puerto Rico in 1976, so I might be your grandpa.’ I thought [Robinson] Cano and [Derek] Jeter were going to piss their pants. Ever since then, he calls me Grandpa. I call him Grandson.”

The average fan, West said, wouldn’t last even 15 pitches behind the plate before giving up.

“The average person thinks that umpiring a game behind the plate is easy because the umpires make it look easy,” West said. “It’s like golf. The first time I saw Ben Hogan or Sam Snead swing a golf club, I thought, ‘That looks easy.’ My dad said, ‘Don’t you ever believe that.’ That’s like people saying, ‘I can ride that horse like Clint Eastwood.’ You can’t. That’s Clint Eastwood, and you’re never going to ride that horse like Clint Eastwood, I don’t care who you are.”

Joe West can’t read or write music. But he writes songs and sings. He has made two CDs — “Blue Cowboy” and “Diamond Dreams” — and has done the single “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” with Julie Richardson. West has sung at the Grand Ole Opry, with the “Hee Haw” band behind him.

“Singing is harder than umpiring,” West said. “They’re all polished musicians. I can’t make a mistake. I wasn’t scared at the Grand Ole Opry. I was scared doing ‘Nashville Now’ — that’s a live television show. I finished a song, I sat down and said, ‘You know, I’ve worked playoffs and World Series, but I’ve never been that nervous. I had to perform.'”

“Joe is a great guy, but he is a horrible singer,” Sutcliffe said.

That’s easy to say now when West isn’t behind the plate for Sutcliffe.

“He said that because he’s not pitching anymore,” West said.

Sutcliffe has heard enough to know.

“We’ve been at The Lodge together in Chicago, and Joe wants his songs played on the jukebox, and I hit the button to stop them, and we ended up wrestling out in the alley,” Sutcliffe said.

Did they?

“No, we didn’t wrestle in the alley,” West insisted.

West said that whenever he retires as an umpire, he will concentrate more on his singing career. There are more songs to be written and sung — and more CDs to be made. But first, there’s a record to break: most games worked by an umpire in major league history.

And when that record falls, surely there will be more moments like the one he had with Seattle’s Nelson Cruz at the 2017 All-Star Game in Miami.

“He came to bat, said something in Spanish to [catcher] Yadier Molina, and the next thing I knew, he put an arm around me,” West said. “Molina turned around with a cellphone to take a picture. I had a microphone, so I can’t tell him to get the hell away from me. I don’t know if it made me look good, I was just trying not to make a scene. I was afraid to say anything.”

So what was that all about?

“I respect Joe,” Cruz said.

In 2006, Cruz came into second base on a play, and “I think I was out, but there was no replay back then,” he said. “[West] gave me a break. He said, ‘Hey, rookie, next time slide!’ I like the way he calls a game. He’s great behind the plate. A lot of umpires have different strike zones, but with Joe, you know what to expect. You know he’ll call it right. He has been a great ambassador of the game. And he has umpired a lot of games, so I decided to take his picture. He looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He was surprised.”

That’s one of the only times Joe West has ever been afraid to say or do anything. He has done it his way for 44 years.

“When I look back at everything that I’ve done, I’ve worked with 150 umpires and worked in six different decades for six different commissioners, and there have been ups and downs, things I disagree with, things that I did that they disagree with, but my first responsibility is to protect the game of baseball,” West said. “And I think I always have. And all the umpires I’ve worked with will tell you I always looked after them too. The fact that some people will say ‘I want Joe West behind the plate’ means that they know that I’m going to do what’s honest and morally correct in my heart. That’s all that matters.”

And with that, West, dragging his aching knees out of the golf club outside Orlando, headed for his truck. On the way in was a father, his two sons — ages 7 and 5 — and their grandmother. They were from Philadelphia. West went to his truck, grabbed two baseballs, then crouched down, as he does behind the plate, and presented the young boys with baseballs — unsigned. They were thrilled, and so was Joe West.

“The only three Phillie fans who will like me all year,” he said as he smiled and drove off.

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