On April 2, 1996, The New York Times Sports section lead with the following story line: “John McSherry, working the first inning of his 26th season as a major league umpire, collapsed and died in Cincinnati yesterday on the opening day of the baseball season. He was believed to be the first person to be stricken fatally on the field during a major league baseball game since 1920.”
At the time of the incident, “McSherry, working behind home plate at Riverfront Stadium, called just seven pitches before walking back toward the stands and collapsing.” University Hospital in Cincinnati said the 51 year-old McSherry had suffered sudden cardiac death.
In the winter of 1999 when the National & American leagues merged under the auspices of the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, a decision was made to establish the 68 umpires (now 74 with video replay), as a team unto itself — creating their own support system and medical staff.
Mark Letendre, former head athletic trainer for the San Francisco Giants, and the man who gave me my start in 1989 to consult for the Giants, was named to head Umpire Medical Services. My sports medicine and lifestyle management program, which is now based at St. Charles Parish Hospital, was eventually named as an approved site for MLB umpires to come during the offseason for fitness, nutrition, and wellness participation and counseling.
During the season, injured MLB umpires were afforded rehabilitation and reconditioning in my program, due to the fact that New Orleans had a triple A designation with the Zephyrs. Umpires would rehab in the morning and work the Zephyrs games at night or the afternoon, as part of their work hardening program to return to “the big leagues.”
For the last 16 years, I have also participated in the annual Umpire Retreat in Scottsdale, Arizona – the same location where I spent ten years in spring training with the Giants, as their performance conditioning and nutrition consultant.
The retreat, which is orchestrated by Letendre, provides umpires with complete medical evaluations and screening, along with uniform and equipment fitting, dietary counseling by my dietitian, physical therapy evaluation for injury prevention, and on-field functional assessments, which I administer, along with a team that I bring from New Orleans and Los Angeles.
The Commissioner’s office also reviews any rule or regulation updates, strike zone issues, video replay review, pace of the game changes, as well as, offer financial lectures.
As for the functional evaluations, each umpire (without gear) must complete two game simulation events: the Home Plate Assessment and a Timed Functional Activity.
For the Home Plate Assessment, each umpire must perform eighteen sets of 16 “squats” (umpire’s normal ball/strike stance behind home plate) with not more than 30 seconds rest between repetitions and not more than two minutes and five seconds of rest between sets.
In 2015, Umpire Adam Hamari recorded the highest number of plate squats – 10,355 during 38 plate jobs – calling 272.5 pitches per game. Veteran umpire Joe West was second with 10,331 squats in 35 plate jobs.
The Timed Functional Activity – the Running Matrix – requires the umpire to complete six timed activities – which simulates an umpire moving up the line to cover a play at both first and third base, drop-stepping, turning and running to cover an outfield fly ball, curling in and covering a play at second base, checking an outfield play then curling in for a play at second base, and moving from second base to cover a play at third base.
The umpire’s running and rest time for all six legs of the matrix must not be greater than 256 seconds. All umpires tested passed this year.
I can already smell the ballpark popcorn. All that’s left is – play ball.
Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently a fitness consultant to Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He is St. Charles Parish Hospital’s fitness and wellness expert. Contact him at mackieshilstone.com