|(Excerpted in part from the book, IF THESE LIPS COULD TALK) How did I become pals with Cowboy Joe West, the man who will set the major league record for most games umpired in baseball history (5,376) tonight (5/25) in Chicago? The man of whom someone once said, “This is a guy who will walk into a blast furnace with two gasoline buckets, he doesn’t give a damn.” |
Racquetball. That’s right, racquetball. You remember racquetball. It was the fastest growing sport in the 70’s and 80’s. Now, not so much. I was going around the country promoting pro racquetball for our client, Ektelon, in 1978 when I met a player on the circuit named Rita Hoff.
Rita had been a great basketball player in college and later would be voted into the Missouri Hall of Fame for her efforts. A terrific all-around athlete, Rita was a pretty fine racquetball player who was trying to excel in a new sport. At the time, women’s racquetball was dominated by two players, Jennifer Harding and Shannon Wright. Rita could never beat those two in the same tournament but she was good enough to rank in the top six nationally and be voted into the Racquetball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Rita and I stayed friends in the intervening years.
Several years ago Rita met Cowboy Joe West, the dean of major league umpires, a lively enigmatic character to say the least. Check the player’s poll of the best and worst umpires in MLB and Joe’s name tops both lists. You love Joe or you hate him. There is no middle ground.
People often say I am an acquired taste. So is Joe. Rita met Joe in 2013, acquired that taste and in 2018 they were married.
My wife Karen and I started spending time with Joe and Rita in Pebble Beach in 2015. After each season Joe would come to Pebble Beach, where we have a home, to play the famed Pebble Beach golf links in the tournament, The World Series of Golf. Rita, of course a terrific golfer herself, would travel with him. We would also see Joe and Rita on their trips to LA and NYC when I was there for Murphy Brown in 2018.
As an umpire, Joe obviously knew Johnny Bench and Rod Carew so we became fast friends. Like Johnny, Joe is a raconteur and got his nickname, Cowboy Joe because he is a fine country singer. He has even hosted his own show on Sirius radio. Hell, he has even performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the holy grail for country singers.
Once he puts on the umpire’s blue uniform, however, all the singing and the fun stops. Joe is all business and arguably the finest caller of balls and strikes in the game. Tonight, in Chicago, he will break the record set by Hall of Fame umpire Bill Kelm in the 1940’s. There will be a party after the game and 130 of Joe’s friends will be flying in to share the day with Joe and Rita. I won’t make it having been temporarily sidelined by minor surgery. But one thing I can tell you, come the week after Thanksgiving, the good lord willing, the raucous foursome in the corner booth of the Tap Room at Pebble Beach will be the Pace’s and the West’s.