The first pitch of the game is outside for ball one. Dennis Martinez, the Montreal Expos’ veteran pitcher, steps off the mound and glares in at the ump.
The next batter draws a walk on a few close calls. The ump draws more glares from Martinez.
The third batter steps up to the plate, and the first pitch is just inside for ball one. Martinez stomps off the mound, mumbling in disgust as 35,000 fans howl their support for him. The umpire yells to the pitcher to “knock it off.”
The ensuing pitch is outside for ball two, and Martinez goes wild. The ump takes off his mask and steps out from behind the plate, yelling for the disgruntled pitcher to get back into the game. Martinez ignores the warnings. The umpire sends the enraged pitcher to an early shower.
Larry Vanover, rookie umpire, was behind the plate for the first time in the ’93 season. The honeymoon ended in just 12 pitches. Vanover was glad to be there at all.
Larry Vanover, a Nashville resident, had gotten the call in early May 1992. He had been working as a professional umpire for 12 years, four of which he’d spent at the AAA level, but this was his chance to make it in the majors. Ed Vargo, executive director of Major League Umpires, instructed him to show up at Wrigley Field on the next Tuesday. After that, Vanover was assured, he could expect to spend the better part of the remaining season in the majors.
Sometimes, fate doesn’t agree with our plans. While running errands that Monday, Vanover was involved in an automobile accident. The day he was supposed to be on a plane heading for Chicago, he was in a Denver hospital instead, clinging to life.
“It was pretty rough,” Vanover recalls. “The first night, they told my wife they didn’t think I would make it through the night. When I did, they told her they didn’t think I would ever walk again. By the time I left the hospital, they were saying that I might walk again but that, certainly, I would not get to a level of being able to perform as an umpire at a major-league level.”
Three weeks after leaving the hospital, Larry Vanover and his wife, Dianne, flew back to their home in Nashville, where they began a grueling rehabilitation schedule both at home and at a local hospital.
“I got to where I could move forward pretty well, but with my pelvis broken in three places and most of my ribs broken in the back, turning from side to side was a nightmare,” Vanover recalls. “By fall, I was beginning to feel like a real person again.”
Vanover was sent to Arizona to umpire in the Arizona fall league, to see if he could withstand the rigors of umping a ball game again.
“They weren’t sure I was going to be physically strong enough to call a ball game,” Vanover says with a hint of a smile. “It was everything I could do just to smile without letting on to the excruciating pain. I felt like an old man out there, but it felt so great to be out on the field again and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.”
Back in Nashville for the winter, he continued his intensive exercise program and was full of enthusiasm when he reported for the most important spring training of his career.
Spring training 1993 offered a unique opportunity for the men in blue. With new expansion teams, the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins, and the retirement of Doug Harvey and Dutch Rennert, Vargo was facing the challenge of having to fill six positions on the major-league umpire crews.
“Once you make it to AAA, you can wait years for one or two positions to open up in the majors,” Vanover says. “Coming into spring training with six positions up for grabs was really unheard of.”
Fifteen AAA umpires with some limited major league experience were brought together and were told they would be competing for the six open positions during the spring.
On March 31 Vanover learned he was one of the six who would be assigned to a major league crew. Still, he didn’t take to the field until the second week of the season, in Montreal, with a crew led by veteran Harry Wendlestedt. It was during the third game of the series that the infamous Martinez incident occurred.
“I don’t know of any umpire who takes pleasure in throwing someone out of the game. Our job is to control the flow of the game. When you throw someone out of the game, you break up the flow and create an atmosphere of chaos, which is exactly what an umpire wants to avoid. ”
Vanover certainly made a strong first impression on that night. With all the media attention that was focused on the Martinez ejection, Vanover established himself as an umpire who would not hesitate to take control of any given situation.
His years in the minor leagues made his rookie year easier. “I had already worked with many of the ballplayers and coaches before, so I wasn’t that overwhelmed about working with them now in the majors,” Vanover says.
The familiar faces were welcome. “Most people aren’t aware of the pressures of being a major-league umpire,” Vanover explains. “If you are a rookie player, you can afford to take a few years to establish yourself at the major-league level. A rookie umpire, on the other hand, is expected to be perfect on the first night and improve every day thereafter. ”
But Vanover survived his rookie year without causing much chaos. He made all his flight reservations, was in the right position on most every call and seemed to gain respect from most of the players and coaches.
Vanover had come a long way from his beginnings as an Owensboro, Ky., kid standing on the field in Riverfront Stadium alongside his dad. Now he was a major-league umpire standing on the tradition-rich soil of Wrigley Field. In his first season, he had been there the night St. Louis’ Mark Whiten hit four home runs in one game. He had called the plays from first base the night the Phillies clinched their division. He had made it through those 12 stormy pitches in Montreal to the last pitch of the season in Miami.
“Overall, I’m very pleased with how my first year turned out. To think that, 13 years ago, I was just one of hundreds of others starting out in umpire school on the quest to become a major-league umpire. The odds are slim to none, yet here I sit as a major-league umpire. So much of it is just pure luck.”
Maybe so, but then we are talking about a guy who doctors weren’t sure was going to make it through the night.