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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Joe West, an arbitration legend in the USA

Por Fidel Orihuela

Being an umpire in professional sports requires maximum dedication. The decisions of the referees in the main basketball, soccer or baseball leagues travel the world and sometimes are even more criticized than the worst mistake of a player. That is why to spend many years in elite tournaments requires hard work and seriousness from the referees’ side, which decisions are being closely judged at all times. If someone can presume of professionalism and constancy is Joseph Henry West, a man that has more than 5 thousand games as an umpire, specifically in the MLB in the USA.

Joe West nicknamed "Cowboy Joe" or "Country Joe", is the oldest umpire of the MLB and the third one to have participated in more than 5 thousand games in the same league, only surpassed by Bill Klem (5375) y Bruce Froemming (5163), both in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame. Being only 23 Joe West umpired his first game, a duel between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros, in the Fulton County Stadium.

“It tickled me to be there, but at the end I just had one, a long fly by Bob Watson that was a foul by very little. That was all in that game. Three days later I was in the home plate and it was different, because the pitchers were Joaquin Andujar and Phil Niekro, the first one throw 100 miles and the other one throw butterflies with his knuckleball”, said West in an homage material published in MLB’s official website.

Among his achievements, “Cowboy Joe” has the honor of being the youngest umpire that has ever been in a championship game of the National League and the second with more post seasons’ appearances, only surpassed by Gerry Davis. Besides, he has been in the field at the same time as baseball players that are in the Hall of Fame or that at least received votes during their eligibility time and in his 40 years of service he has seen six out of the ten commissioners of the history of the MLB.

His career as an umpire came almost by chance into his life, because West, who was born in Asheville, North Carline, practiced baseball and American football as a student. However, between the years of 1971 and 1973, while he was quarterback for the Elon College team, he could not stay active in the baseball game. He then decided to just play football while at the same time he umpired baseball in his free time. He took it seriously and inscribed himself in a specialized school, in which he was the best graduate and started working in the Minor Leagues in Caroline, Puerto Rico and Florida.

The truth is that Joe West had the possibility to participate in important games since the early beginnings of his career. In his first season as a full-time MLB umpire, West umpired the game in which Willie McCovey (a member of the Cooperstown Hall of Fame and one of the most powerful sluggers of his time) hit his 500th career home run. In the same year, he was at first base when Pete Rose tied the NL record for most consecutive games with a hit, and he was the home plate umpire when Rose broke it the following day. He was also elected president of the World Umpires Association (WUA), a position in which he is still active. West and the union's governing board negotiated the largest umpiring contract in the history of MLB. The contract ran from 2010 through the 2014 season.

For four decades West has had all kind of different experiences in the baseball fields. He has had very rightful decisions and others that have not been that accepted. Sometimes he has even been suspended for inappropriate behavior, but there is a consensual opinion about how good he is at what he does. “Joe was infamous, or famous, for testing the pitchers when the games started. He could say ball to a what it was undoubtedly a strike just to see if you were relaxed, just to see what your reaction was”, said the great John Smoltz, a pitcher currently in the Hall of Fame.

“I just go out and do my job in the way that I am supposed to do it. Sometimes it creates a confrontation, but I don’t think that an umpire should step back or run away from a situation. For example, if you see a rattlesnake, you don’t turn your back to it. That is how I like to represent this: you cannot back off as an umpire, you cannot be scared, you have to do what is right”, explained West in a brief lesson about his what his job is.

“You have to do what you know in your heart that is right, ethic and correct. If you do it in that order, you won’t have problems no matter how much you argue in the field”, said also the veteran umpire, who in 1981, worked first base for Nolan Ryan’s fifth career no-hitter. In 2012 West was the first base umpire for Félix Hernández's August 15 perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays. On August 26, 2010, West was the plate umpire for Albert Pujols’ 400th career home run, all of them living legends of the MLB, just like him.