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Umpire Dies After Heart Attack at Opening Game

Baseball: Colleagues, players mourn veteran John McSherry. Cincinnati contest postponed until today.

April 02, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The start of the National League baseball season was clouded Monday when veteran umpire John McSherry, 51, collapsed in the first inning of a game between the Cincinnati Reds and Montreal Expos at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium and died of a heart attack.

McSherry, beginning his 25th National League season, was working behind the plate when he called time, waved for umpire Steve Rippley at first base, then turned and began walking toward a gate behind the plate.

He collapsed on the dirt track that borders the field and never regained consciousness as paramedics and trainers from both teams administered CPR, another umpire, Jerry Crawford, said.

The 6-foot-2, 328-pound McSherry was pronounced dead at University of Cincinnati Hospital.

A hospital spokesperson said McSherry was a victim of "sudden cardiac death," in which the heart beats out of control.

Cincinnati Manager Ray Knight said that Tom Hallion, one of McSherry's umpiring crew, had told him that McSherry was to have been examined today for arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat, after canceling an earlier appointment because he didn't want to miss the opening game.

The game, which was initially set to resume with two umpires after Hallion accompanied McSherry to the hospital, was canceled at the insistence of players on both teams and will be replayed from the start today, a scheduled day off for both teams.

"There was no way we could have gone out and played," Cincinnati catcher Eddie Taubensee said.

"Whether it's an umpire or not, we're still a community. It wouldn't have been fair to the other umpires, and it certainly wouldn't have been fair to John. I mean, we may yell and scream about certain calls, but we still love each other. It was the same as if it had happened to one of us."

Said Crawford, fighting tears: "We're brokenhearted. We've lost a comrade. He was a great guy, a great umpire."

Popular and highly regarded by players and managers, McSherry had a history of medical problems but had passed a physical required of all major league umpires in February.

"The health and weight of our umpires is always a concern," National League Vice President Katy Feeney said.

"We can encourage and recommend that they try to keep themselves in the best shape possible, but as for weight restrictions or limits, there's nothing we can do legally.

"John admittedly has struggled with his weight over the years, but there was no indication in his February physical that he shouldn't go back on the field.

"Every time he's had a problem, he's been thoroughly examined and cleared to resume umpiring."

McSherry was forced out of a game between the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs last August by heat exhaustion, and left a 1993 game between the Dodgers and Reds for the same reason.

He also had to leave Game 7 of the 1992 National League playoffs between Atlanta and the Pittsburgh Pirates because of dizziness, and collapsed from dehydration during a 1991 game between Atlanta and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Catcher Taubensee said McSherry had been in good spirits and had joked "with me before the first pitch and said I could go ahead and call [balls and strikes during] the first two innings."

In Houston, where the Dodgers defeated the Astros, 4-3, home-plate umpire Paul Runge, 55, went back to the umpires' room, opened his equipment trunk, and displayed pictures of three men who died while still active as major league umpires: Lee Weyer, Nick Bremigan and Dick Stello.

An emotional Runge said he will have to make room for a picture of McSherry, believed to be the first major league umpire to die on the field.

"You always think you have something you can say that makes sense, but I'm lost for words," he said. "You don't realize how much we loved the man.

"We all knew that John was overweight. John knew he was overweight. We all hoped that John would have helped himself more, but we never think it's going to happen to one of us."

Said Dodger center fielder Brett Butler: "Two years ago, I was talking to John and we were talking about his health problems, when he told me, 'You know something? I'd just as soon die out here than anywhere else.'

"When I heard about [the death] today, I said, 'Wow, what a way to go. Opening day. All of the festivities.' I mean, he loved the game so much, that's the way he wanted it. It was the first thing I thought of when I heard the news. I never heard anybody say anything bad about John McSherry."

Said Dodger bench coach Bill Russell: "We started [major league ball] together. He gave me my first fine. I struck out five times, threw my bat and he fined me $100. He was a special man."

McSherry was hired by the National League in 1971 and became a crew chief in 1988, two weeks after Weyer died of a heart attack after umpiring a game in San Francisco.

"John was a superb human being, an excellent umpire," league President Len Coleman said. "He had the respect of everyone in baseball, and his death is a great loss."

Coleman said league umpires will probably wear black armbands in memory of McSherry. Funeral arrangements were pending.

Times staff writer Bob Nightengale contributed to this story from Houston.

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