Eric Gregg, a Major League Baseball umpire from 1975 to 1999, died last night after a stroke. He was 55.
Gregg, whose struggles with weight problems saw him reach almost 400 pounds, told family members Sunday morning at his home in Ardmore, Pa., that he couldn’t feel anything on his left side. He was hospitalized and died at 6:45 p.m. Monday.
Gregg called his first game in 1975 and became a member of the NL staff in 1978. He worked the 1989
World Series, four championship series, two division series and one All-Star game.
In 1999, Gregg was among 22 umpires who lost their jobs when their plan to use mass resignations as a way to force early contract negotiations backfired. He was given $400,000 in 2004 when he and five other umpires were given severance pay and benefits. “When he realized he couldn’t go back to work, it took a lot out of him,” Kevin Gregg said. “To this day, I think it was sometimes painful for him to watch games.”
Kevin Gregg recalled his father’s days as a high school catcher, when a coach told him he was too big to play and wasn’t ever going to be good enough. “He had the mentality of, ‘Damn that, I’m still going to be involved,” Gregg said. Gregg said his dad saw a commercial for umpiring school and decided that’s how he would make it to the major leagues.
“He was my friend, and I’ll miss him,” umpire Jerry Crawford, in tears, said before working the Marlins-Giants game in San Francisco. “He was a very good umpire. He loved the game. He was a funny guy. He had a great time at it. He was a terrific partner. He loved his kids. I loved the guy.”
The 6-foot-3 Gregg was often criticized for calling strikes too wide. In Game 5 of the 1997 NL championship series against Atlanta, Florida’s Livan Hernandez struck out 15 batters and the Braves’ Greg Maddux fanned nine as the teams combined to set a championship series record with 25 in the Marlins’ 2-1 win. Eight players were called out and several more fell behind in the count as Gregg appeared to make the plate wider than its usual 17 inches. “Eric will be ever known for one game, but I don’t think that’s fair,” Braves pitcher John Smoltz said.
Larry Bowa, a coach for the Phillies in the 1990s, remembered a steamy day in Florida when Lenny Dykstra argued balls and strikes with Gregg, hoping an ejection would give him an extra day off. “Eric said, ‘Lenny, I know exactly what you want me to do. You want me to run you out of this game.’ And he says, ‘If I got to stay in this heat, you got to stay in this heat, so it doesn’t matter what you call me, how many times you call me, I’m not running you out of this game,’” Bowa said.
In 1996, shortly after his friend and fellow umpire John McSherry died, Gregg entered a weight-loss program at Duke University. By adjusting his diet and exercise program, he lost 100 pounds from his former frame of nearly 400.
“We feel very blessed that he’s been able to do what he did in his career and his life,” Kevin Gregg said. Gregg is survived by his wife, Ramona, and three other children: Eric, Ashley and Jamie.
A damn shame. As a Braves fan, I do mostly remember him from that one game. But all indications are that he was a really good guy whose major fault was an inability to control his weight. Dying at 55 is far too high a price to pay for that sin.
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