Former MLB ump Gregg dies after suffering stroke

PHILADELPHIA -- Former major-league umpire Eric Gregg, known for his big personality, extra-wide strike zone and oversized frame, died Monday night, a day after a massive stroke. He was 55.

"I want him to be remembered as someone who loved the game of baseball, someone who was determined to make it no matter what," his son, Kevin Gregg, told The Associated Press.

Gregg, whose struggles with weight problems saw him reach almost 400 pounds, told family members Sunday morning at his home in Ardmore, Pa., that he couldn't feel anything on his left side. He was hospitalized and died at 6:45 p.m. Monday.

Gregg was among 22 umpires who lost their jobs in 1999 when their labor plan of mass resignations backfired. He worked the 1989 World Series, four championship series, two division series and one All-Star Game.

"He was so determined to be in the game and he got there," Kevin Gregg said.

Gregg called his first game in 1975 and became a member of the NL staff in 1978. He was left jobless after union head Richie Phillips called for mass resignations as a way of forcing an early start to contract negotiations.

In December 2004, Gregg and five other umpires whose resignations were accepted in 1999 received severance pay and health benefits for themselves and their families. Gregg received $400,000 under the deal.

"It was his dream to be in baseball," Kevin Gregg said. "When he realized he couldn't go back to work, it took a lot out of him. To this day, I think it was sometimes painful for him to watch games."

Kevin Gregg recalled a story about when his dad was a high school catcher, a coach told him he was too big to play and was never going to be good enough.

"He had the mentality of, 'Damn that, I'm still going to be involved,'" Gregg said.

Gregg said his dad saw a commercial for umpiring school and decided that's how he would make it to the major leagues.

"He was my friend, and I'll miss him," umpire Jerry Crawford, in tears, said before working the Marlins-Giants game in San Francisco. "He was a very good umpire. He loved the game. He was a funny guy. He had a great time at it. He was a terrific partner. He loved his kids. I loved the guy."

In early March, the former umpire had his right knee replaced. Kevin Gregg said his father was taking blood thinners to prevent clots.

With his wide smile, gregarious personality and lively stories from his days in the majors, Gregg remained a fixture in town. He worked at a popular sports bar Chickie's and Pete's in northeast Philadelphia as a jack-of-all trades bartender, host or waiter and
also poured beers at their concessions stand at Citizens Bank Park.

He was plagued by financial woes soon after he left baseball. Kevin Gregg said he borrowed money from Phillips, Crawford and former umpire Terry Tata just to pay the mortgage.

Though Gregg once earned a six-figure salary, he complained in 2000 that he could not afford college tuition for his sons or braces for his daughter.

"He got squeezed in that umpire thing and then it seemed like from then on, things didn't really roll his way after that," Yankees coach Larry Bowa said.

The 6-foot-3 Gregg, once fined $5,000 for failing to report at 300 pounds, was often criticized for calling strikes too wide.

In Game 5 of the 1997 NL Championship Series against Atlanta, Florida's Livan Hernandez struck out 15 batters and the Braves' Greg Maddux fanned nine as the teams combined to set a championship series record with 25 in the Marlins's 2-1 win. Eight players were called out and several more fell behind in the count as Gregg appeared to make the plate wider than its usual 17 inches.

"Eric will be ever known for one game, but I don't think that's fair," Braves pitcher John Smoltz said.

In 1996, shortly after his friend and fellow umpire John McSherry died, Gregg entered a weight-loss program at Duke University. By adjusting his diet and exercise program, he lost 100 pounds from his former frame of nearly 400.

"We feel very blessed that he's been able to do what he did in his career and his life," Kevin Gregg said.

Umpire crew chief Tim McClelland recalled when Gregg was one of his instructors at umpire school in 1976.

"Probably one of the most well-liked umpires, because he had a great personality, a great sense of humor," McClelland said. "I think he was well-liked amongst umpires, amongst players, because he had such an extroverted, bubbly personality."

Gregg is survived by his wife, Ramona, and three other children: Eric, Ashley and Jamie.