Originally created 03/05/02

Five rehired umps resume careers at spring training



HAINES CITY, Fla. -- Bill Hohn joked with Kansas City manager Tony Muser at home plate, jogged past the pitcher's mound and took his position in the green grass just beyond second base.

With that simple trot in a spring training game Monday, Hohn was back in baseball, 2 1/2 years after losing his job as an umpire.

"It always feels good when you're on a big league field," he said.

Hohn was among 22 umps let go on Sept. 2, 1999, after a mass resignation plan by their union failed. Last week, after lengthy legal proceedings, baseball rehired Hohn, Joe West, Larry Poncino, Gary Darling and Larry Vanover.

Poncino and West worked their first games Sunday.

"I'm just happy to be back umpiring," Poncino said following the Giants-Rockies game in Tucson, Ariz. "Maybe down the line I will have a little something to say."

A year ago, Hohn, 46, was at home with his wife and two children, installing fire alarms and security systems in Blue Bell, Pa.

On a cold, windy day in central Florida, he resumed his real career, the one he'd spent half his life doing.

"I never dreamed it would take this long," Hohn said.

Hohn's first day was pretty easy. He rotated on the bases with Jerry Layne and newcomer Darren Spagnardi while veteran Randy Marsh worked the plate in the Royals' 16-6 romp over Cincinnati's split squad.

There were no close calls. In fact, Hohn's first play came in the top of the first inning on a stolen base where the runner was so safe there wasn't a tag.

Hohn's toughest chance came in the bottom of the eighth. He fielded a soft foul grounder and flipped it to a young fan sitting in the front row behind third base.

But Hohn didn't toss the ball hard enough, and it wedged between the rolled-up tarpaulin and a concrete wall. When the inning ended, he stretched headfirst over the tarp to retrieve the souvenir and give it to the boy.

"Those skills will come back to him," Muser kidded.

In-between innings, Hohn chatted with Layne, a former NL colleague, and Spagnardi.

"We were just talking about how we do some things now, like rotations," Layne said.

Along with the sage green uniforms they wear these days, instead of dark blue and gray in the past, the returning umpires will find other changes.

The NL and AL umpiring staffs have been merged and are run by the commissioner's office, and there's a new umpires' union.

There's a focus on calling higher strikes and an emphasis on preventing beanball battles. Even the technology has changed - reports on ejections are e-mailed, not mailed.

"There are a lot of things that are different," Hohn said.

Baseball also is aware there's bound to be acrimony. The split among umpires in 1999 caused harsh feelings that may never heal, especially after several umps who lost their jobs went through severe financial and personal problems.

While baseball hopes those troubles do not spill onto the field, former umpires' union president Jerry Crawford acknowledged, "It'll never be the same way as it was before."

Hohn's first regular-season game will be April 1 at Busch Stadium when Colorado plays St. Louis. His crew will include Larry Young, a longtime acquaintance, and two umpires he has not yet met, Bill Miller and Fieldin Culbreth.

And there are legal battles ahead, particularly over the back pay the umpires are trying to regain. Plus, there are continuing efforts on behalf of Richie Garcia, Eric Gregg and the other umps who are still out of jobs.

On this afternoon, a sparse crowd of 1,298 had no reason to notice the umpires. But Reds catcher Kelly Stinnett, who began his major league career in 1994 and has played only in the NL, thought he spotted someone familiar.

"A lot of the umpires, you know them by face and not by name," he said. "I was looking at one guy, thinking I knew him, but I wasn't sure. Then Marsh said it was Bill Hohn.

"I'm glad those guys are back. They're part of the game and they belong," Stinnett said. "You feel bad for an Eric Gregg, a Joe West."

Part of Stinnett's confusion was caused because Hohn had grown a bushy, black mustache. Muser, who knew Hohn long ago in Triple-A, jibed the umpire during the exchange of lineup cards.

"I said to him, 'Are you coloring that thing?"' Muser said. "He laughed and said, 'Yes, I am!"'