Son: Former ump Gregg fighting for life after stroke

Updated: June 5, 2006, 8:33 PM ET
Associated Prress

PHILADELPHIA -- Former major-league umpire Eric Gregg was fighting for his life Monday, a day after a stroke that left him with little hope of any significant recovery, his son said.

Eric Gregg
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesGregg, whose battle with weight problems became quite public, was one of baseball's most recognizable umpires.

"I think we're running out of time right now," Kevin Gregg said.

The 55-year-old Gregg, who spent his career trying to overcome weight problems that saw him reach almost 400 pounds, was in critical condition at Lankenau Hospital.

"Physically, his body is with us. The brain is almost gone," Gregg said. "The damage to the brain is so severe, we're just waiting to see how long he can fight. We're still waiting to see if it's two hours or two days.

"The family has come to grips that we're going to lose this one eventually," he said.

Kevin Gregg said his father complained to family members on Sunday morning at his home in Ardmore, Pa., that he couldn't feel anything on his left side.

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

"I always worried about him because, you know, his weight and everything," Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona said Monday night. "I know it was a real battle for him. He is one of the all-time good guys, boy. And you say that before somebody asks you about him having a stroke."

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 popular fixture in town. He worked at the 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.

Manager Michael Herron saw Gregg on Saturday night and said the former ump was looking and feeling great. Herron said Gregg had lost some weight because of the knee rehabilitation, had changed his diet (from chicken cutlets to grilled chicken) and had stopped drinking.

"He looked as good as I've seen him," Herron said. "He always talked about how he was rehabbing and things were great. He was doing well."

Gregg was also a longtime commissioner of Wing Bowl, a decadent binge-eating event.

Larry Bowa was a coach for the Phillies in the 1990s and remembered a steamy day in Florida when Lenny Dykstra became agitated. The leadoff man argued balls and strikes with Gregg, hoping an ejection would give him an extra day off.

"Eric said, 'Lenny, I know exactly what you want me to do. You want me to run you out of this game.' And he says, 'If I got to stay in this heat, you got to stay in this heat, so it doesn't matter what you call me, how many times you call me, I'm not running you out of this game,'" said Bowa, now a coach with the New York Yankees.

Yankees manager Joe Torre, who also managed the Mets, Atlanta and St. Louis, said Gregg was a fun-loving umpire who never held a grudge against the ones he ejected.

"That's what I admired about him, the fact that he -- I try to be the same way -- if you have a problem with an umpire, the next day it's over with," Torre 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.

He was plagued by financial woes soon after he left baseball. Gregg said he borrowed money from Phillips, umpire Jerry 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.

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.

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

The 6-foot-3 Gregg, once fined $5,000 for failing to report at 300 pounds, was widely criticized for having a wide strike zone as Florida's Livan Hernandez struck out a record 15 in Game 5 of the 1997 NL Championship Series against Atlanta.

"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 that 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."

ALSO SEE