The Thinnest of smiles spreads across Eric Gregg's round pudding of a face as he considers the butter on his room-service tray. "Each little ball of butter is 150 calories," rumbles Gregg, the heaviest umpire in the major leagues. "I used to spread four of them on a roll and make a butter sandwich. Now I realize the less of a glutton I am, the more life I can live."
Until recently this 6'3", 45-year-old butterball thought more was more. As in more than 380 pounds, his gross tonnage on Opening Day of the 1996 season. "After a game I'd have six or seven beers at the stadium, go to a bar and have a half dozen more," he says. "Then, a huge meal with a bottle of wine and after-dinner drinks. Every night was New Year's Eve." The revelry ended April 1 when fellow National League umpire John McSherry dropped dead of a heart attack as he worked behind home plate in Cincinnati. Now Gregg is strictly a club-soda man.
Gregg last saw the 370-pound McSherry the week before his death. "Hey, E," said McSherry. "How's your diet?"
"Horse——," said Gregg.
"Good. Keep up the good work."
When word of McSherry's death came, Gregg was in Miami for the Florida Marlins' opener against the Pirates. "The news footage of Big John scared the hell out of me," says Gregg. "I thought, That could have been me. How many warnings do I need?"
Two weeks later Gregg took a paid leave of absence and hauled himself to the Duke University Diet & Fitness Center for some corpulent downsizing. At the time flab hung off him in sackfuls: His bulging neck, vast belly and elephantine haunches made him look like the result of a curious breeding experiment. Gregg emerged July 6 a great deal less of a man than he was before—14% less. Today he hovers, if that's the word, at 325 pounds. "Now when I get a shoeshine," he says, "I don't have to take the guy's word for it." He hopes to continue to lose a pound a week till he's down to a svelte 285.
Moderation was never a Gregg family trait. His father, Ernest, was an alcoholic. His sister Cheryl died of an apparent drug overdose. His brother, Ernie, is in prison on a drug rap. Young Eric was a cheese-steak and soap-opera junkie. It was while watching Another World with his mother, Dorothy, that little Eric announced, "One day I'm gonna be on TV."
"Eric," said Dorothy, "the only way you're going to be on TV is if I pick you up by your big butt and put you on top of it."
Eric's ambition to someday play baseball for the Phillies was deflated too. He was cut from the West Philadelphia High team as a senior. Shortly after that, though, he saw an umpiring promo on the Game of the Week. " Curt Gowdy said you could make $30,000 for six months' work," Gregg says. "I decided, That's for me."