UMPS CARE Charities usually has a golf tournament this time of the year to raise money for hospital programs, college scholarships and youth programs. But the tournament was cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. But it wasn’t a total loss.
On Sunday night, UMPS CARE hosted a virtual get-together featuring Hall of Famer Joe Torre, former manager Ron Gardenhire and former umpires Gary Darling, who is the president of UMPS CARE, and John Hirschbeck. Former Major Leaguer Harold Reynolds of MLB Network moderated the event. Current umpire Jim Reynolds paid a brief visit and talked about the many hospital visits the umpires typically make during a season.
But most of the talk was about baseball. There was Gardenhire talking about how much he learned about the game while playing for Torre when both were with the Mets in 1981, while Torre reminisced about his eight years playing with Hank Aaron, who passed away on Jan. 22.
Torre remembered how Aaron had difficulty hitting former Cardinals left-hander Curt Simmons, who was known to throw an eephus pitch. But one day in St. Louis, Aaron hit a home run on the Busch Stadium roof but was later called out because catcher Bob Uecker noticed Aaron was out of the batter’s box. The umpire, Chris Pelekoudas, agreed and called Aaron out. Aaron didn’t argue and smiled all the way back to the dugout.
“He was always hitting doubles, triples and homers,” Torre said about Aaron. “I hit behind him for eight years. It was unbelievable. He and Willie Mays were on that [high] level of great players.”
During the virtual session, Darling and Hirschbeck showed that umpires are, indeed, human. During his first year as an umpire in 1986, Darling admitted he was in awe of then-Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan.
“Nolan Ryan was a little intimidating. … He was tough to work with, especially when he had Andy Ashby catching,” Darling said.
Hirschbeck, who was an umpire for 34 years, talked about how he and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson never got along, dating back to when Robinson was managing in the Puerto Rican Winter League in the 1970s. Former umpire Wally Bell used to wonder what was up between the two of them. But when Robinson became vice president of on-field operations for MLB in the early 2000s, he became Hirschbeck’s boss. The relationship became friendly.
“He was like my uncle coming in the locker room,” Hirschbeck said. “He was trying to be on the umpires' side. He treated me great. OK, we’re buddies now.”
Hirschbeck also talked about losing his two sons to a rare genetic brain disease. He was playing golf on Saturday when someone asked him how many children he had. Hirschbeck replied, “I have two daughters and two angels.”
Hirschbeck remembered how then-American League president Bobby Brown had allowed Hirschbeck to take time off to be with his ailing children.
“[Brown] just said, ‘John, you take care of your [wife] and kids. When you are ready to come back to work, your job will be here.’ I thank God every day that I have been so fortunate to be in that unique family, the baseball family,” Hirschbeck said. “We argue like family, but yet when push comes to shove, it is a family.”
Hirschbeck’s tragedy helped him understand why UMPS CARE is needed.
“You go through that period where you think, ‘dear God, why me? Why us,’" he said. "But then you come to terms and say, ‘Why not me. What makes me or the Hirschbecks any special to not have to go through what these poor families have to go through?’ So we know first hand. … UMPS Care program is fantastic. I hope you guys keep doing what you are doing forever.”