SI Vault
Edited by Jack McCallum and Richard O'Brien
April 08, 1996
Tragedy Behind the Plate
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April 08, 1996


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Tragedy Behind the Plate

It is said that the best umpires go unnoticed in the games they work. But on Monday, one of the best got noticed in a way that cast a pall on baseball's opening week. Seven pitches into the Cincinnati Reds' game against the Montreal Expos at Riverfront Stadium, home plate umpire John McSherry called timeout, took a half dozen steps toward the backstop and pitched face-first and unconscious onto the warning track. Sixteen minutes later—after efforts by Reds team doctors, trainers from both dugouts and at least three doctors who came out of the stands failed to revive the 51-year-old McSherry—a stunned crowd of more than 50,000 saw him taken off the field on a stretcher. He was rushed by ambulance to nearby University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. As SI went to press, the presumed cause of death was a massive heart attack. "He never regained consciousness," said first base umpire Jerry Crawford, who canceled the game at the behest of both teams. "I don't think he heard me talking to him."

The 6'2½" McSherry was listed at 328 pounds when he died, and his girth had put him at risk of a heart attack ever since he entered the National League in 1971. (Chillingly, he was promoted from the minors as a replacement for Tony Venzon, who had left the game because of a cardiac condition.) Before his rookie season he was told by Fred Fleig, the league's secretary-treasurer, to lose 50 pounds, which he did, briefly cutting down to about 250. Thereafter he battled unsuccessfully to control his weight.

On at least three occasions before Monday, McSherry—who in a second somber parallel was promoted to crew chief in 1988 as a replacement for Lee Weyer, who had died of a heart attack—left games because of physical distress. In the most notable incident, during Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates, dizziness forced McSherry to exit, leaving the less experienced Randy Marsh to make the pennant-deciding call at the plate. In recent years McSherry increasingly had difficulty moving around the field. And on Monday he told two people that he was scheduled to undergo treatment for arrhythmia the following day.

"You can only roll the dice so many times," said veteran National League umpire Terry Tata, a friend of McSherry's since they worked together in Triple A. "He was a big man carrying a lot of weight. And there's a lot of pressure and stress in this job."

Yet it was a job that McSherry clearly loved. Despite his ailments he never showed any sign that he was ready to give up the game. As Tata recalled on Monday: "We used to say that they'd have to rip his uniform off his back before he'd retire."

The Pitino Factor

The Southeastern Conference coaching ranks are beginning to look like the Rick Pitino family tree. Before this season Georgia hired Pitino protégé Tubby Smith, who led the underrated Bulldogs to the Sweet 16. And last week, after Lon Kruger left Florida to go to Illinois, another Pitino offspring, Billy Donovan, got the call to Gainesville. The hire raised a few eyebrows because the 30-year-old Donovan had been at Marshall for only two seasons, the second of which ended with a 17-11 record and a third-place finish in the North Division of the Southern Conference. For that, Florida rewarded him with a five-year deal worth about $375,000 per annum.

Clearly Donovan—who played for Pitino at Providence and coached under him at Kentucky—was given the Gators job at least partly because his mentor recommended him to Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. Another fairly well-known coach, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, had talked up one of his assistants, Tommy Amaker, for the job. But after interviewing both candidates, Foley went with the Pitino blue blood. "Once, you had to get into the NCAA tournament or win 20 games for a few years," says Southwestern Louisiana coach Marty Fletcher. "Now, if you worked for the right guy, you can finish one game behind VMI in the Southern Conference [as Donovan's Thundering Herd did] and make $400,000 the next year."

The Coach Carries On

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