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Umpires benefit from medical policy
02/09/2004 7:18 PM ET
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Four years ago, Major League Baseball umpires didn't have the structure of a comprehensive medical program upon which to rely.

Before each season, they were given a physical exam intended for "an executive who sits behind a desk," said Mark Letendre, the director of Umpire Medical Services. "It really didn't meet the needs or the idiosyncrasies that they have."

Times have changed. Letendre was hired in October 1999, and helped establish an athletic medical program that treats the umpires "like a 31st team," he said. The medical program has been put in place where none existed before.

"This is great. In the old days there was no medical support," said Mike Winters, who joined MLB as a National League umpire in 1990 and remains active. "It has been a very positive improvement in our world. You have somebody to turn to with your health concerns. Most of the stuff is geared to what we do for a living."

In addition, MLB recently contracted Dr. Steve Erickson as a consultant to work directly with the umpires on medical issues; a psychologist, Dr. Ray Karesky, is available through the umpires' "Wellness Program," and Mackie Shilstone offers a performance enhancement program based in New Orleans that teaches umpires techniques to get the maximum out of their conditioning.

Dr, Elliot Pellman was hired last year by Major League Baseball as an advisor to oversee all of baseball's medical programs, including the umpires.

"We've made major strides in the medical support umpires receive," said Sandy Alderson, baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, who oversees the umpires as part of his Major League functions. "Particularly during the course of the season, the umpires now have significant resources available to them."

The hope was to put a system in place that could prevent tragedies such as the death of umpire John McSherry, who suffered a heart attack in 1996 and died on the job. McSherry was overweight, and Letendre has since implemented an umpires' medical program to help prevent umpires' health problems.

Letendre, the former Giants trainer, left San Francisco to join the Major League staff at the urging of Alderson. Letendre was a trainer for the Yankees and Giants for 18 years.

"We used the template of what the athletes get from the teams and then made it age specific to the population we're dealing with," said Letendre, explaining how the umpires' medical program was devised.

"We knew then that perception had become reality in baseball. A missed call happened because an umpire was fat and out of shape. The powers that be felt that to fix the game you had to deal with the integrity of the game. And the umpires are at the heart of the integrity.

"This is a multi-disciplinarian approach to medicine like we had with the Giants."

At this week's fourth annual retreat, the 68 umpires hardly are undergoing an "executive physical." The umpires have access to an optometrist, an internist, an orthopedist, a dentist and a cardiologist. Last year, each umpire was asked to fill out a form asking them to judge their cardiovascular condition. This year, the depth of their physical exams reflect the answers they gave to that questionnaire.

"When you get your arms around it, the program is designed to meet the needs as they evolve," Letendre said. "Clearly, this program isn't the same as it was even three years ago."

Up until 2000, one crew of umpires worked in the American League and another set for the National League. The groups were mixed only for the All-Star Game and the World Series.

In the past, systems like the medical program were either non-existent or archaic.

"There wasn't a functional assessment," Letendre said. "They didn't deal with the stress. I can tell you right now as I sit here that umpiring is a very stressful job. They're being asked constantly to make millisecond decisions and they are correct well over 90 percent of the time. It's a God-given talent."

Last season, in fact, the six umpire supervisors viewed about 46,000 calls made during games as part of MLB's constant internal evaluation process.

"We found only 37 that we disagreed with," said Jim McKean, one of the supervisors. "That's an incredible record."

The current umpires respect the evaluations because the supervisors -- all retired umpires -- have 108 years of combined on-field experience.

But Letendre credits much of that incredible success to an improvement in conditioning and the oversight provided by the medical program.

"You wouldn't believe the difference in the size of the uniforms from four years ago," Letendre said. "We have a multitude of umpires who request smaller belts. You can see how they hustle on the field. They have to be in shape for them to be doing what they're doing now.

"Baseball finally realized that these guys are athletes. They're not professional athletes. They're industrial athletes because they are on the field doing athletic moves."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.