Wednesday, April 3, 1996
Bless John, but it's OK to boo umpire

The Cincinnati Enquirer

It took four innings for the crowd to get up the nerve to boo the ump.

There was a man on second. One out. The Reds ahead, 2-1, at Tuesday's Opening Day II in Riverfront Stadium.

Eric Davis stood at the plate. Bat at the ready, but not ready to swing, he took a called third strike. The crowd got mad. And let out a healthy boo that said, ''Get outta here, you meathead.''

The sound of protest started in the red seats overlooking the ever-green carpet of AstroTurf blanketing left field. Beginning with a tiny peep of a boo, it evolved into a full-fledged: BOOOOOOO!

It was music to the ears of everyone. Especially, the umpires. They were still grieving over Monday's sudden death of popular home plate ump John McSherry. The boo welcomed them back to the game. Just as the cheers did when they stood at home plate after a moment of silence for their fallen crew chief.

The boo was the first rowdy sign of life from a crowd that was about as noisy as a still life titled, ''Riverfront Stadium With Thousands of Empty Seats.''

The mood of the day was so quiet that even the street musicians on the stadium's footbridges over Fort Washington Way toned down their playing.

''There is a definite stillness in the air,'' said Jeremy Aker, his fingers softly tapping the head of his West African drum. As the Over-the-Rhine musician played out an easy-paced, tuneless song, the small pregame crowd noiselessly passed his way.

''It's almost like they're saying: 'Don't forget what happened yesterday. Pay your respects.' ''

Rick Dunn did just that Monday afternoon. Sitting in the last row in deepest center field, the disabled truck driver from Blue Ash saw the umpire collapse.

When the man in blue went down, Rick Dunn said a prayer.

''I asked God to have mercy on his soul,'' he said. Then, he turned and discussed ''how precious life is'' with his 13 year-old son, Andy.

Rick Dunn knows. He injured his back and ribs while working on his truck. He also realizes ''as much pain as I'm in, it's nothing compared to what that umpire's family is going through.''

Tuesday afternoon, the trucker was back in his last-row seats. ''I would not miss this,'' he said as batting practice unfolded on the field below and lunch of microwave popcorn, graham crackers and homemade sandwiches was spread out on a neighboring seat.

''I'm 42 and never been to Opening Day,'' he added. ''After what I saw yesterday, you never know when you're going to get a chance to see another game.''

He offered that chance to 30 people. And had no takers.

''I had an extra ticket for today. I made 30 calls trying to give it away. Free! No one wanted it.''

Rick Dunn worked hard for his ticket. ''To bring in some extra money, I've been stitching bunnies together out of yarn and canvas with my wife,'' he said. ''I asked God to give us some orders so we could put food on the table and treat the family to Opening Day.''

He thanked God for the orders. Then, he scanned the rows of empty seats.

''Where is everybody? More people should be here. This is a special game. It's still Opening Day.''

Late in the game, the red-seat crowd tried to stir things up by doing the wave. Crossing no more than three sections of seats, it was little more than a ripple.

After the wave fizzled, a late afternoon wind blew in from the river. In the upper decks, it kicked up peanut shells, hot-dog wrappers and a lone banner.

Tim Devine, a cook from Anderson Township, made up that banner. Leaving Monday's tragedy, he heard unfeeling fans griping about ''losing their day off' and ''Why did they call a game for just an umpire?''

That steamed the cook. When he got home, he grabbed a sheet and two cans of spray paint. This is what he wrote:

''God Bless and keep you and yours John McSherry.''

Then he went to Opening Game II, tied up his banner and yelled: ''Play Ball!''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.