The game couldn't go on


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The doctors could do nothing for John McSherry, and his fellow umpires were also stumped.

They did not know whether to proceed with Opening Day or to postpone it. They were not sure whether to go on with the game or to grieve. Their sense of duty and their sense of loss were both profound and profoundly conflicted. In their hour of need, they needed a nudge.

Seven pitches into Cincinnati's 1996 baseball season, McSherry collapsed as he walked wobbily from the playing field at Riverfront Stadium. Within an hour, he was pronounced dead.

Third base umpire Tom Hallion followed his friend to University Hospital, leaving Jerry Crawford and Steve Rippley to sort things out at the stadium.

Their first plan was to play ball, and you sort of expected this. Umpires are brought up to believe that they are not as big as the game they officiate and that they should always subordinate their own interests to the greater good. They would have to be convinced that there was no reason to resume.

On an afternoon when the umpires were incapable of dispassionate opinions, it fell to the players and managers to provide perspective.

''I want you to know that right now, you do not have to worry about not playing this game,'' Reds manager Ray Knight told Crawford. ''And I'll support you 100 percent.''

Crawford told Knight that he planned to go with two umpires and to play the game when the starting pitchers were prepared. Knight returned to the clubhouse to find his team was in no condition to continue.

''Barry (Larkin) told me very quietly and with very much emotion: 'Ray, I've had a lot of deaths in my family. In good conscience, out of respect for life, I can't go out there.' ''

Larkin and outfielder Eric Davis then went to the umpires' room behind home plate to offer their condolences and express their concerns.

A few minutes later, Crawford called the game off, citing the emotions of all involved. ''It's probably a little too traumatic,'' he said.

Said Davis: ''Players and umpires are at each other's throats all the time. But unity is more important now than balls and strikes. This is a situation we're in together.''

On this one day in baseball history, the people in uniform generally understood that the right thing to do was to defer to the umpires' decision. If they were determined to play, out of a sense of obligation or as a means of coping, Pete Schourek was prepared to pitch.

''It would have been extremely hard,'' Schourek said. ''I was kind of torn between what was right and what was wrong. If the umpires wanted to go out in his honor, I was ready to go back out there. But I thought they made the right decision.''

Schourek threw the first pitch of the season at 2:09 p.m. and was stunned that McSherry did not call it a strike.

''It was right down the middle, and he called it a ball, and it was like he didn't react to it,'' Schourek said. ''But he seemed fine after that.''

Montreal's Mark Grudziellanek subsequently flied out to right field. Mike Lansing struck out swinging. The count on Rondell White stood at 1-1 when McSherry stepped away from the plate and signaled that something was wrong.

''He just said, 'Hold on, timeout for a second,' '' Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee recalled. ''I turned around and said, 'Are you all right, John?' He didn't say anything. I thought maybe he pulled something by the way he was walking.''

In the Reds' dugout, pitching coach Don Gullett guessed McSherry had hurt his back. But then the huge umpire's legs buckled beneath him and everyone in the ballpark knew that it was much worse than that.

''Once we rolled John over, John never was conscious,'' Crawford said. ''I don't think he ever heard me when I got to him, when I was talking to him.''

When a tragedy unfolds in full view of thousands of spectators, it is bound to affect everyone in attendance. The umpires might have felt John McSherry's loss more deeply, but no one with a shred of compassion could have cared to continue.

''I watched a man die today,'' Schourek said, ''and it hits home in a hurry.''

Published April 1, 1996.