Friday, February 19, 2010

Behind the Mask - Drew Coble '75

Though he retired from umpiring in Major League Baseball more than a decade ago, Drew Coble has vivid memories of his days working in the big leagues and the minors. Read on for Coble’s insights into the world of umpiring, as well as his favorite moments of his baseball career.

The umpiring life

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A standout catcher and first baseman, Drew Coble (right) led Elon in batting average, hits and RBI in 1973.

Just as it is for ballplayers, the quality of life is far different for umpires in the minor leagues compared with the majors.

After earning one of the two minor-league positions offered at the conclusion of his umpire training course in 1975, Coble started work in the long-season Class A Western Carolina League. Over the next couple of years, he moved up to the higher-level Class-A Carolina League and, in 1977, the Class AA Southern League.

“In the minors, the pay was really low,” Coble recalls. “You had to drive everywhere. You’d drive through the night, and you’d just hope you could get some sleep before you had to work the next night. That’s what the minor leagues were like.”

Coble spent 10 days working in the Southern League before he caught the eye of Barney Deary, the head of minor-league umpires at the time. Deary liked what he saw and promoted Coble to Class AAA, the last stop in minor-league play before the majors. Class AAA was an improvement in lifestyle, but still posed challenges for Coble and his family.

“In triple-A, you fly everywhere, and the money is a little bit better, but it’s not great,” he says. “I had a second job in the wintertime to get enough money for my family to get by.”

One phone call in April 1981 changed all that.

“It was opening day (of the MLB season), and I was sitting at home, watching the Cincinnati Reds on TV,” Coble recalls. “The phone rang, I picked it up, and the person said ‘Drew, this is Dick Butler (head of umpires) of the American League. I want to welcome you to the American League.’”

Though his time in the majors directly following Butler’s call lasted only a few games, Coble returned to the majors for good in June of that year.

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Former Elon baseball coach Jerry Drake (left) introduced Coble for his 2007 induction to the Elon Sports Hall of Fame.

“Once you get to the big leagues, you fly everywhere, you stay in first-class hotels, you travel first class,” he says. “It’s just a big, big difference (from the minors).”

Favorite memories in baseball

Over his nearly 20-year career as a major-league umpire, Coble witnessed some amazing moments in baseball. For example, in 1990, he became only the fifth umpire since 1901 to work two no-hitters in a single season; he was on hand for A’s pitcher Dave Stewart’s no-no against the Blue Jays on June 29, and Blue Jays pitcher Dave Steib’s against the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 2.

“When you’re working, you kind of get caught up in the game. Then you realize, ‘Hey, this guy is throwing a no-hitter, and he’s depending on me to make the calls,’” Coble says. “It’s a little bit of pressure.”

As an AL umpire, Coble worked alongside stars and hall-of-famers, including the New York Yankees’ Reggie Jackson, the Kansas City Royals’ George Brett and the Milwaukee Brewers’ Robin Yount. In his first game after being recalled to the major leagues in June 1981, Coble remembers getting to work with A’s manager Billy Martin, a man famously fired and re-hired multiple times by George Steinbrenner when Martin worked for the Yankees.

But perhaps his favorite memory of his career was working the classic 1991 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves. The series lasted the maximum seven games, three of which went to extra innings. Coble worked the plate for one of those extra-inning affairs, Game 3 in Atlanta, when Mark Lemke’s single to left scored David Justice from second for the game-winning run in the bottom of the 12th, giving the Braves a 2-1 victory. The Twins, however, prevailed in the series.

“I had more fun in that World Series than God knows what,” Coble recalls. “(The umpires) had our families with us, and it was like a 10-day vacation. All I had to do was work a couple of hours each night.”