Welcome to Better Know An Umpire, an effort to educate ourselves on the human elements who have ultimate decision-making power over some 2,500 Major League Baseball games a year. (All cumulative statistics are through the 2011 season, unless otherwise stated.)
Name: John Hirschbeck
Uniform number: 17 (crew chief, although he will miss this season due to illness)
Height/weight: 6 feet, 180 pounds
First year as MLB umpire: 1983
Total MLB games worked through 2011: 3,246 (home plate: 833)
Previous experience: Florida State League, Eastern League, Instructional League, Puerto Rican Winter League, International League
Career ejections: 88
No-hitters called: One (Roy Halladay's NLDS no-hitter, 2010)
Over/under record (1999-2011): 119-174
Hated in: Baltimore, Cincinnati
Claim to fame: Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar spit in Hirschbeck's face during a September 1996 game in Toronto. Alomar was upset over a called third strike, spit in the ump's face during a heated argument, and was suspended for five games. (For years, there has been speculation that Hirschbeck called Alomar either a "faggot" or "fucking spic" before the actual spitting, though that has never been confirmed by either man.) What is known for sure is that after the game, Alomar said Hirschbeck's performance as an umpire had suffered after the death of his eight-year-old son from a genetic disorder. Alomar and the Orioles later donated $100,000 to fight the disease that afflicted Hirschbeck's son, prompting Hirschbeck to say that if that money is what helps find the cure, "yeah, sure, what the hell, Alomar can spit on me again."
A Baltimore Sun profile of Hirschbeck, written after the Alomar incident, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Here's an excerpt:
John and Denise never stopped trying to save little John. To respect his dignity, they kept him shielded from gawking well-wishers. But he never missed an appointment with his tutor, even when his father had to pick him up and carry him to her office. John had been working with Patti Preston since first grade; for months they'd sung his favorite songs and read stories and colored pictures. Preston never gave up on little John, either. But eventually he could no longer sing, and he could only make a few strokes with the crayon before dropping it. One day his father called Preston in tears; they weren't coming anymore.
"John was disappearing," said Preston. "It was like his whole person just disappeared. John would say to little John, 'I love you. Your daddy loves you.' I would say it, too. 'I love you, John.'" Sometimes, there was nothing else to say.
John Drew Hirschbeck died on March 7, 1993, 11 months after being diagnosed with ALD, a week after his parents took him to their Florida condo for the family's annual spring-training trip. His father had been scheduled to work a baseball game that day, but little John's fever spiked and his breath slowed and his parents could do nothing but cradle him in their arms until he was gone. He was 8 years old.