AT FIRST, it sounds like one of those hard-luck stories you hear down at the end of the bar. The big man grips his glass and sadly recounts how he was on top of the world, only to lose it all in a cruel twist of fate.
“Twenty-three years old – I was the youngest major league umpire ever,” he says, taking a slug from his black & tan. “Man, I loved that job.
“But they broke our union, that’s what killed us. If only we had stuck together. ”
Eric Gregg should be crying into his beer.
Instead, he’s pouring it.
In a mouth-watering irony that would embarrass Major League Baseball if it weren’t so obsessed with grubbing money, the XL ump from West Philly – banned from the game in a labor dispute – is serving beer at Phillies home games at the Vet.
Bud Selig be damned, Eric Gregg is back in baseball!
You’ll find him with his hand on a Budweiser tap handle at Chickie’s & Pete’s, down the third base line behind the 200 level. Predictably, the crowd is three deep, waiting for a draft from baseball’s biggest smile.
“You know that old saying, ‘Kill the ump! ‘ Well, the fans here show me so much love,” Gregg says. “People stop in and wish me luck, just to say hi.
“Young guys come in, they say, ‘I saw you when I was 6 years old, dancing with the Phanatic. ‘
“I had one guy, he says, ‘Here’s 20 bucks. Tell me a Pete Rose story. ‘ ”
Calling the umps out
After 23 big league seasons behind the plate, Gregg has plenty to share. He tells his stories from the heart.
Which only makes this story sadder.
To Gregg and his supporters, baseball – the game he loves so much he named his dog “Fenway” – has turned its back on him.
Gregg, 50, was one of 22 major league umpires who lost their jobs during a 1999 labor showdown in which they submitted their resignations to force management to the bargaining table. The strategy, cooked up by their union chief, Philadelphia lawyer Richie Phillips, backfired when Major League Baseball accepted the offer.
The umps were out on the streets without medical benefits or severance pay.
“We never intended to retire,” Gregg says. “That was the furthest thing from my mind. ”
The last two years have been a legal nightmare. Though the game has been plagued by bad calls from inexperienced replacements, Major League Baseball has resisted every effort to return the experienced umps to their jobs. Meanwhile, an arbitrator ruled about half of the umps had been wrongfully dismissed, but Gregg was not among that group.
His only apparent option is to retire with benefits (he estimates he’s owed $400,000 in severance pay). But the commissioner’s office is holding up even retirement, demanding that Phillips first drop a lawsuit against Major League Baseball.
(Phillips did not return a telephone call seeking comment about the dispute and Gregg’s predicament. )
In July, 25 members of Congress petitioned Selig to return Gregg to his job. His family, a congressmen wrote, is “destitute. ”
Gregg doesn’t want this to sound like a sob story, but he concedes that life without his hefty, $195,000 salary has been rough.
“It’s killed my family,” he says. “My oldest son got kicked out of Gettysburg [College] because I can’t afford the $32,000 tuition. I had to file for bankruptcy. ”
Gregg says most of his savings from his six-figure salary went to private school tuition for his four kids. They all went to Episcopal Academy, though the two youngest are now enrolled at Lower Merion High.
“It may seem like a lot of money, but my kids are well-educated,” Gregg says.
For the past year, he’s earned spare bucks writing a column for the freebie Metro. His wife sews party dresses for friends.
He makes extra cash in rare personal appearances. He was a judge earlier this year at the annual Wing Bowl, for example, a raucous event that saw one contestant dump a glass of water on Gregg’s suit.
Chicago attorney Howard Pearl, who represents Gregg and other umpires, blames the financial problems on Major League Baseball’s refusal to rehire all the umps.
In an e-mail reply to my questions, Pearl wrote, “The human suffering caused by this strategy has been devastating to the lives and families of these umpires. ”
Though Gregg appears to be the worst off of the umps, Pearl says others have had their share of troubles. Without identifying them, he says one umpire recently had premature twins but has no insurance to cover their serious medical needs. Another, stripped of his medical coverage, cannot afford the medications needed to control his diabetes
When I met Gregg recently at a Bryn Mawr pizza joint, he was taking a break from moving out of a home in Penn Valley and into an apartment in Ardmore.
Money’s tight, so the gig at the Vet is not just a celebrity appearance – it’s a paying job. (After baseball season, Gregg will continue to pour beer at Eagles home games. )
Gregg first met Chickie’s & Pete’s owner Pete Ciarrocchi earlier this year at Ciarrocchi’s Roosevelt Boulevard restaurant, after 610-AM WIP host Angelo Cataldi hooked them up.
“I got the ideal spot for you – selling beer down at the Vet,” Ciarrocchi tells Gregg.
“What, I’m going to vend in the seats?” says Gregg.
“No, no – at my bar.”
“Pete, I don’t know how to bartend. ”
“No problem, you just pull the tap handle. ”
No problem, except the Phillies haven’t exactly welcomed Gregg with open arms.
This should be a no-brainer.
Here’s a guy who’s a fan favorite, a man with neighborhood roots, an ambassador for the national pastime. And here’s a team that can’t sell tickets, even in the middle of a pennant chase.
Promote the guy, attract more fans.
They do it down in Baltimore, where a big part of the ballpark experience is a visit to Boog Powell’s barbecue pit. The Orioles even mention their former slugger – a guy who hasn’t swung the bat in more than two decades – on their Web site.
At the Vet, only a single sign in the bar advertises the presence of one of baseball’s most recognizable personalities. No radio ads, nothing in the game-day scorecard to tell fans about this celebrity bartender.
When I ask Phillies spokesman Larry Shenk about the failure to promote Gregg, he replies, “I don’t think that would draw more fans. It’s not the same as a former player. ”
Shenk adds, “Everybody wishes Eric could get back on the field where he belongs. ”
Cataldi believes the Phillies are in “an impossible position. On one hand, Gregg connects with fans better than any of their players or any of their front office people. But Eric Gregg, in the eyes of baseball, is an outsider. So for the Phillies to endorse him would be to turn their back on [Major League Baseball]. They understand what he brings to the table, but they can’t endorse his presence. ”
With that kind of chilly reception, it’s a wonder Gregg even got a job at the stadium.
Ciarrocchi didn’t warn the Phillies he was hiring Gregg. “I didn’t want to give them a chance to say no,” he says.
So why did Ciarrocchi, who has a year-to-year deal to sell beer and wings at the Vet, go out on a limb for Gregg?
“He’s a Philly guy, I’m a Philly guy,” Ciarrocchi replies. “It’s what you do for each other.”
Beer, balls and strikes
It turns out that being an umpire is a perfect job qualification for tending bar.
“Umpires are not afraid to say no, they can take criticism, and, obviously, they’re honest,” says Ciarrocchi.
Throwing out drunks? Hell, Gregg once tossed Dallas Green from a game in the middle of the 1980 pennant race.
“Umpiring is much harder,” Gregg says. “And I truly, truly miss it.
“You know, I didn’t want to go out like this. I always wanted to make a last round of the cities. I wasn’t looking for anything special, like what they’re doing for Cal Ripken. I just wanted to say my goodbyes. ”
There’s sadness in his eyes, so I change the subject from baseball to our other mutual passion.
“Beer, oh, man, I love beer. There’s nothing better than an ice-cold brew,” he says, waiting for a barmaid to refill his frosty glass of Yuengling.
“This is what I want to do,” says Gregg. “Pour draft beer. I never dreamt I’d have so much fun bartending.
“I feel like I belong. ”
ERIC EUGENE GREGG
Raised: In “The Bottom” section of West Philadelphia.
High school: Overbrook.
Family: Wife, Ramona; sons Eric, 22, Kevin, 21, Ashley, 15, Jamie, 14.
Major league experience: 22 1/2 years.
Favorite cigar: Torpedo.
Favorite beer: An ice-cold Bass Ale.
Did you know? He has occasional bit parts in “The Young and the Restless.”