Longtime umpire Tim Welke retiring: 'It went like a snap'

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The first time Tim Welke stepped onto a ballfield as a professional umpire, he was a teenager hoping he wouldn't get yelled at too much.

As the years turned to decades, sure, he got an earful. All umps do. But by the time he walked off at PNC Park last October on wobbly knees that would need surgery, he'd gotten quite an eyeful too.

Reggie and Yaz, Earl Weaver and Billy Martin. Opening Day in Australia, the World Series at Yankee Stadium. More than 4,200 games in the big leagues, spread over 33 seasons.

"It went like a snap," he told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Now at 58, Welke is calling it a career. He had his left knee replaced in January; his right one will undergo the same procedure in June.

"I know my body couldn't go any farther. It's a young person's job," he said. "It's the circle of life."

Played out on a diamond, that is.

Welke worked the World Series four times, including the harrowing, rain-suspended matchup between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia in 2008, plus a bevy of playoffs. He did three All-Star Games, handling home plate last year.

"That was one thing I always wanted to do," he said. "That kind of filled out the checklist."

In all, he called 4,216 games in the regular season -- Joe West is the active leader in the majors with about 600 more.

Welke worked nearly half his games as a crew chief. For a while, younger brother Bill was on those crews. Next year, Bill might switch his uniform number from 52 to 3, the one Tim wore.

Managers, players and fellow umpires often praised Welke for his even-tempered demeanor and ability to control a game without letting emotions escalate.

Welke is the last umpire to toss a manager in the World Series, that being all-time ejection leader Bobby Cox in 1996.

True to his nature, Welke's last ejection came in 2012. In 2014, however, he threw out a fan in Atlanta who was heckling Bryce Harper in a profane manner.

"You have to treat everybody fairly, at every level," he said.

No surprise, as Welke spoke in the concourse at Ed Smith Stadium before Pittsburgh played Baltimore on Wednesday, a parade of familiar faces strolled by to wish him well. There was Pirates president Frank Coonelly, a clubhouse worker and a local police officer.

"I'll miss wearing the uniform and the guys," he said. "I'm going to miss Opening Day."

Minnesota manager Paul Molitor was among those Welke said he enjoyed on the field. The admiration was mutual.

"I remember guys that always gave me an opportunity to voice an opinion as long as it was respectful and they would reciprocate, and he was one of those guys for me. He took a lot of pride in his job. He wasn't confrontational, and very professional," Molitor said.

"I wish him well. And it's meaningful because you just don't expect to hear that kind of compliment from umpires who have to step down from the game," he said.

Not that the future Hall of Famer and umpire always agreed.

"I remember one time he called a pitch on me, and I said, 'Timmy, where'd you have that?' He says, 'Borderline, borderline.' I said, 'Well, it's either a strike or a ball.' He goes, 'You know what, you're right,'" Molitor said.

In 2012, Welke had a miss that pained him. He called Jerry Hairston Jr. out when Colorado first baseman Todd Helton was well off the bag. That was two years before replay covered such plays. The next time Welke saw Hairston, he apologized.

"You learn more from those mistakes, but I wish I'd been able to change that," Welke said.

Welke got his first pro job at 19 in 1977 in the minors, made it to the majors in 1983 and kept working.

"I wish my career is half as good as Tim Welke's," longtime umpire Bob Davidson said.

Welke's final game was a Reds-Pirates matchup last season, with Pittsburgh trying to lock up home field for the National League wild-card playoff.

"It was a meaningful game, I had the plate, I knew it was my last time," he said. "I walked off the field, I felt great."

Welke will officially be on MLB disability until Dec. 31. In the meantime, he's looking forward to quality time at home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with his wife, Patti, sons Ben and Greg, and daughter Lauren, along with four grandchildren. And his dog, a rescue lab-pit bull mix.

"We call her Chief," he said. "We knew this day was coming when I wouldn't be umpiring. So we needed a Chief Welke in the house."

He's already planning for this summer, up on Beaver Island in northern Michigan.

"I want to see the Fourth of July fireworks from a boat in the lake," he said. "I haven't gotten to do that, you know."