The Atlanta Braves sat in their dugout last Friday evening and quietly observed the Opening Day ceremonies. A choir sang, a former hostage in Iran threw out the first ball, fireworks exploded and Umpire Eric Gregg, 106 pounds lighter than he was at the end of the 1980 season, walked onto the field. Only that last spectacle astonished the Braves. "Hey, where's the rest of you?" called Jerry Royster. "You're looking good. Eric," said Gaylord Perry. The young umpire was startled for a moment. "I couldn't believe it," he said later. " Perry actually called me by my real name." When the Braves last saw Gregg, the 6'3" umpire weighed 357 pounds. "We have a lot of fun with him," said Perry. "He has a great sense of humor. He can take a lot and still do a serious job."
At 29, Gregg is the second-youngest umpire in the major leagues. "Managers and players always are on young guys like me," he says. "They're trying to test our ability to stay in charge of the game. They look for weaknesses, sensitive spots. In my case, the Achilles' heel was pretty obvious. Hell, I was so fat I couldn't even tie my shoes without calling time."
Gregg became known to the Braves as "Rerun," a nickname based on a tubby character in the TV sitcom What's Happening!! The Cincinnati Reds called him Fat Albert, after Bill Cosby's jovial creation. The Montreal Expos sent a ball boy out to Gregg with a high-rise sandwich stacked with pounds of cold cuts. The New York Mets put batting helmets in the seats of their pants, stuffed their shirts with towels and paced up and down yelling, "You're out!"
"The kidding never got to me," says Gregg. "If it had, I would have been buried. I cracked up over that sandwich. I wanted to eat it, but it wouldn't even fit in my mouth.
"I stopped the tons-of-fun stuff if it got mean. When that happened, the guy was gone." Last year Gregg had a run-in with Philadelphia Manager Dallas Green. "He called me Rerun, and then he threw in a Fat Albert 'Hey hey hey.' So far, so good. But then he started saying I was too fat to umpire. I'm cleaning this up, you understand. Then he bumped my belly. That was a no-no." Gregg responded with an epic rejection move: he crouched, spun around, jumped out and fired his arm at the sky. "It was great," he says. "The only problem was the button that flew off my jacket. I'm glad Green didn't notice. It would have spoiled the effect."
But Gregg came to realize last season that his weight was endangering something far more important than a flamboyant gesture. "My wife had been on me to reduce," he says. "So had the league. But I just wasn't mentally ready to do it. The weight wasn't affecting my work, so why worry. Then one day Umpire Harry Wendelstedt made the comment that I had two beautiful boys and that I had better do something about myself if I wanted to live long enough to raise them. Harry woke me up."
After the season Gregg decided to cancel Rerun. His shrink was Gus Hoefling, strength and flexibility expert for the Phillies. Hoefling put his patient on a regimen that included situps, 1�-mile jogs, runs up the steps of Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, where Gregg lives, and frequent purchases of bottled water and fresh vegetables. Gregg said to Hoefling, "Look, let's not overdo this. I'm an umpire, remember? I only have to call the bases, I don't have to steal them."
Gregg lost the argument and. during the next 14 weeks, more than 100 pounds. He dramatized his new look by gathering his wife, his sons (one aged two, the other 10 months) and himself inside one of his old uniforms. Now Gregg had a new nickname. He had become The Incredible Shrinking Umpire.
Gregg grew up on Philadelphia's west side. "Even cheating, I was a C-minus student," he says. "All I dreamed about was playing professional sports." But success in athletics was not to be. Asthma ended Gregg's football career after three days, and in baseball all he achieved was three junior varsity seasons. He graduated from high school in 1968, when he was 17, and went to work as a printer's apprentice. One day he was watching NBC's Game of the Week when Curt Gowdy read a promo for the Baseball Umpires Development Program. "If you think you have the stomach and guts for the job, call...." Gregg phoned Barney Deary, head of the development program, who told him he had to be 19 before he could enter, but that in the meantime he could test his interest by working American Legion and high school games.
Gregg did, and in the winter of 1971, now 19, he arrived at the umpire school in St. Petersburg, where he proceeded to dazzle his teachers. "We were given lots of abuse," he says, "to show us what we were getting into. Some kids folded when they were called obscene names, but for me it was just like being back in the ghetto." He graduated near the top of his class and received a trophy from none other than Dallas Green. He began working that season in the Class A New York-Penn league for $250 a month, plus another $250 for expenses, and by 1974 was a Pacific Coast League umpire. He felt sure that he would get a job in the National League. "There were four jobs open in 1976," he said. "I was told to report to spring training. I weighed 190 pounds. I was in the best shape ever. But I was passed over. At first, being black helped me get the shot—people knew me, I was seen—but in the long run I think it slowed my progress."