Ump West works 4,000th game

MILWAUKEE -- Joe West picked up his plaque behind home plate, and the ball from the first pitch was saved as a souvenir.

Then, it was back to business as usual for baseball's Cowboy Joe.

Umpiring his 4,000th major league game Thursday when Washington played Milwaukee, West ejected Nationals interim manager Jim Riggleman for arguing a check-swing strikeout in the third inning.

Interesting way to mark the milestone. Then again, West has never shied away from the spotlight.

West, who left umpiring in a contract dispute only to return two seasons later, made a cameo in the 1988 film Naked Gun and said he received a residual check in the mail earlier this week for $11.57.

He's also appeared in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and has released two country music albums since getting involved in the industry in the 1980s, leading to the nickname 'Cowboy' Joe West.

"I was lucky. You know, the dues you have to pay to get here as an umpire are long and tedious, but the music business, because I was already in the major leagues, kind of opened a lot of doors I normally wouldn't have been able to open," he said.

On the field, West, 56, worked his first major league game in Atlanta in 1976 when he was 23 after spending four years in the minors and umpiring winter ball. Thomas Gorman, Paul Pryor, John McSherry and Art Williams were on that crew.

"They've all passed away," said West, the 19th umpire to work at least 4,000 games. "When I look at my 4,000th game, I think I'm a lot closer to working with them again."

Other games stick out in West's mind such as Nolan Ryan's fifth no-hitter in 1981 and Willie McCovey's 500th home run in 1978.

"Some of the players, they don't know who Willie McCovey is. So, you look back on things like that. It's been a long and a fun road," West said.

Bruce Froemming, a former umpire and current special assistant for MLB's umpiring department, presented West with a plaque before the game.

"He's a good crew chief, he takes care of his people, he's a team player and you can't ask for more than that," said Froemming, who had West on his crew in the early 1980s. "I told him he's 1,163 games away from me."

According to Major League Baseball, West was fifth among active umpires in appearances entering Thursday's games, trailing Ed Montague (4,369), Mike Reilly (4,312), Jerry Crawford (4,226) and Derryl Cousins (4,060). Bill Klem is the career leader at 5,369.

West was elected president of the World Umpires Association in April. In 1999, he joined other colleagues in a mass resignation plan by their union that failed and was among 22 umpires who found themselves out of work when the season ended.

West was rehired for the 2002 season, but five others weren't. When he came back, umps had formed a new union as Major League Baseball merged the AL and NL staffs.

"We lost five. I relate that to kind of having a plane crash and surviving and some of your friends didn't make it," West said. "So, that really hurts and we're trying to help them through the rest of their lives to get on their feet and everything."

He'll be front and center with labor issues again soon. The umpires' five-year contract is up after this season, but West remains optimistic.

"I really don't want to talk about the negotiations, but in a down economy, that hurts everybody," West said. "Both sides are not happy the economy's down. But for the most part things are going along good, we're already talking, which is a good sign."