DENVER >> Umpire Joe West worked his 5,000th regular season game tonight at Coors Field, and he vividly remembers his first more than 40 years ago.
“It was in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium and Bob Watson hit this long fly ball down the left field line, and at the last second I called it foul and I was praying, ‘I hope I’m right,’” he said before today’s game. “I remember all those things.”
West was behind the plate for a matchup between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies for his milestone game. The 64-year-old, nicknamed “Cowboy” Joe, is the third umpire to work at least 5,000 games, joining Hall of Famer Bill Klem (5,375) and Bruce Froemming (5,163).
West arrived at Coors Field with his brother, John. He got a congratulatory pat at home plate from his crew just before the game started and then called a strike on Gregor Blanco to start a key NL West matchup.
The milestone was recognized with a short video in the middle of the fifth inning, and West waved to the fans who cheered him.
West made his major league debut as a 23-year-old on Sept. 14, 1976, in a game between the Braves and Houston Astros. He joined the NL staff full time in 1978. His 40 seasons umpiring in the majors are the most by any umpire, but he will need to keep working for a few more years to umpire the most games.
“I’ve been here more years, but you’ve got to realize when Bill Klem worked, they didn’t have a week off at a time, he didn’t go to replay and he didn’t have those luxuries that the smart union chief has gotten for the umpires now,” West said.
West has also worked two All-Star Games, 123 postseason games and six World Series, including 2016.
He was on the crew during the historic 2004 AL Championship Series when the Boston Red Sox rallied to beat the New York Yankees after losing the first three games of the series. Among the most memorable plays was during Game 6, when New York’s Alex Rodriguez slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove as the pitcher tried to tag him on the first base line.
The umpires called Rodriguez out.
“When we called it, we knew we were right and we knew we’d get killed,” West said. “The crazy thing was the next day when we walked out to work the game, they gave us a standing ovation. It wasn’t a happy standing ovation because the Yankees lost, but they respected what we did.”
West also has a rich history with both of today’s managers. He was friends with the father of Arizona skipper Torey Lovullo.
“Joe popped up in my dad’s life from time to time,” Lovullo said. “Probably the most touching thing was he came to my dad’s funeral arrangement in Nashville. Joe got up and spoke about my father in a very endearing way that I will never forget.”
Colorado’s Bud Black said his first ejection as a manager was by West when he was a rookie manager with San Diego 10 years ago. West changed a home run by Padres catcher Josh Bard to a ground-rule double, and Black didn’t agree with the call.
“Josh Bard charged out of the dugout in full equipment, went out to second base, to the umpires,” Black said. “So I followed him out there. And then from there, without getting overly verbal, I was ejected.”
West remembered the game after some reflection.
“He followed me around the infield until I kicked him out,” West said. “He wanted me to kick him out.”
West has worked multiple no-hitters and witnessed the 400th career home run of Albert Pujols and Willie McCovey’s 500th homer. He said the best games are the ones without controversy.
“I had Nolan Ryan’s fifth no-hitter at first base and I had Clay Buchholz’s first no-hitter. You look back on all those things and you’re a piece of history every day,” he said. “I always like it when we come off the field and we didn’t leave a missed play out there.”