Gregg answers wake-up call, loses 60 pounds

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Eric Gregg returns to baseball healthier and wealthier. Now, when the National League umpire drops a quarter on the floor, he is no longer afraid to retrieve it.

Used to be, when Gregg fumbled some change, he would pretend it belonged to someone else. He didn't want to risk ripping his pants for the sake of a few cents, and he lacked the will to work on his waistline.

That was about 60 pounds ago, before John McSherry's Opening Day death delivered a wake-up call to baseball's weighty umpires, before Gregg resolved to get a grip on his girth.

''When we broke spring training, Big John and I talked about how we had to get it together,'' Gregg said Saturday afternoon. ''We knew eventually something was going to happen to one of us. When (McSherry's death) happened, it really lit my fire. My wife said, 'How many warnings are you going to get? Do something now.' ''

In the end, John McSherry did not die in vain. Eric Gregg, for one, heard the message and heeded it. The Reds' 3-0 victory over Pittsburgh Saturday night was his first job following a three-month dietary sabbatical. Happily, he has returned to work a shadow of his former self.

Down to 315

Gregg, who was listed (generously) at 325 pounds in preseason baseball publications, has trimmed himself from the 375-pound range to about 315 at Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center. While this is not going to get him into swimsuit modeling, its impact on his daily life has been profound.

''I can tie my shoes when I get up in the morning,'' he said. ''My daughter, Ashley, can get her arms all the way around me. I used to be able to do one sit up - half when I got up, half when I went to bed. . . . Now I can do 100 in 35 seconds.''

That last claim sounds slightly outlandish. Perhaps Gregg got his situp statistics transposed. Still, his progress is plain. If a 300-pound man can look svelte, Eric Gregg looks svelte.

''I've got a long way to go,'' he said, ''but I'm on the right track. I'd like to lose another 50 pounds. I'm at 2,300 calories a day. Hopefully, I can lose a pound a week.

''The main thing is moderation. I've got to have my famous Philly cheese steaks. But I can't have three of them. And no matter what I've lost, I'm never going to put it back on.''

This is an ambitious vow for any weight-watcher, and especially so for a big-league umpire. The lifestyle these men lead is hardly conducive to dietary discipline. They work nights. They eat late. They are constantly on the road. McSherry was pushing 400 pounds when he collapsed behind home plate on Opening Day. Until his death, baseball's efforts to adopt weight restrictions had been consistently thwarted by the umpires union.

Afterward, the issue could no longer be contained to the bargaining table. Had Gregg not sought a leave of absence, baseball would have been pressured to impose one. For one of the few times in the game's recent history, reason prevailed over rights.

Line calls were tough

Though weight has little bearing on a man's ability to call balls and strikes, Gregg had to admit that it sometimes hurt his ability to get down the lines for a closer look.

''I don't really recall circumstances where he didn't get there because he was heavy or out of shape,'' said Reds manager Ray Knight, ''but when he was younger, he was a real athletic umpire. He had a big frame, but he wasn't heavy. He hustled and had a demeanor that was real easy-going.''

Knight has known Gregg since they were both in the Double-A Eastern League in the early 70s. Gregg worked his first big-league game Sept. 26, 1975, at Riverfront Stadium.

He was at third base Saturday night, wearing a bracelet on his right wrist inscribed ''Big John #10,'' in McSherry's honor.

''Whenever I pick up something to eat or drink, I'll see it,'' Eric Gregg said. ''If it's something I'm not supposed to have, Big John will remind me. I might binge. I might bend. But I won't break.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 14, 1996.