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Umpire receives offer of a lifetime
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07/23/2004 11:06 PM ET
Umpire receives offer of a lifetime
McCardle makes umpiring debut in emergency
tickets for any Major League Baseball game
Substitute umpire John McArdle, right, greets umpire crew chief Joe West in the second inning of the Cubs-Phillies game Friday. (George Widman/AP)
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PHILADELPHIA -- A cancelled flight at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport set off a weird chain of events that culminated in John McArdle's unexpected debut as a Major League umpire Friday.

McArdle, 49, a health and gym teacher at Chestnut Hill Academy, got a call from a friend with the offer of a lifetime -- umpiring in a Major League game.

It seemed unbelievable when Frank Sylvester explained the situation. Apparently, Joe West's crew -- scheduled to work Friday's Phillies/Cubs game -- had worked the night before in Cleveland and couldn't get out of the city. They eventually got on a plane to Baltimore, and motored up from there. They'd be there eventually, but not in time to start the game. Fill-in umpire Darren Spagnardi had escaped on an earlier flight and was scheduled to work third base. He moved behind the plate.

But three more umps were needed. In addition to Sylvester and McArdle, Scott Graham filled out the temporary squad.

It took some mild convincing, but McArdle -- who by a strange coincidence was a college baseball teammate of general manager Ed Wade's at Temple and a basketball coach of assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. -- agreed.

"Originally, I thought [Sylvester] was [fooling with] me," said a chuckling McArdle, who received the call at about 4:45 p.m, while working a high school sports camp. "After a couple of quick calls, I met at Sylvester's house, we met at my house in Cheltenham, threw all of our stuff in the car and went to Citizens Bank. It was neat, I never experienced anything like it before. But I wasn't nervous, I umpired a million games."

Just not at a Major League field, in front of 44,060 people, the 29th sellout at the team's new home.

The first few innings went by without incident, but not without a few barbs from players.

"Derrek Lee asked me if I was OK," said Graham, who by day works at Chester County Prison. "I said, 'Yeah, I've been around this before. Thanks for asking.'"

Two weeks earlier, Graham had umped in the College World Series.

"That was going to be it," said Graham, whose umpiring career started in 1975. "My uniform was hung in the closet. My equipment was up in the attic. I had to hurry up during Friday rush hour traffic."

By 7:15 p.m., West and his crew took over in the middle of the second inning. None of the substitutes had to endure any earfuls from fiery Phillies skipper Larry Bowa.

"We have to have a contingency plan for these types of things," said assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who began making the calls at around 4 p.m.


"It's definitely something you tell the kids and grandkids about. It's unforgettable, all of my friends were probably watching."
-- John McArdle

Jim McKean, supervisor of Major League umpires, found out about the situation two hours before the game. McKean scrambled, looking for a new crew to assist Spagnardi. McKean himself experienced a similar situation in 2001, coming from Cleveland and heading towards, of all places, Philadelphia.

McArdle was so tuned in to what he was doing, he almost ignored a friend sitting in the front row of Citizens Bank Park, because he had his "umpire ears" on as he was walking off the field.

"Luckily, we did well tonight," said McKean, who retired from umpiring during the All-Star break in 2001. "The difference between what these guys might have been used to and this level is that everything is much faster. But, sure, we were pleased with what they did tonight."

McKean left it up to the Phillies to cull the umpiring crew. They pulled from the college ranks, since the area minor league teams were all playing.

"We tried to get the best we could," McKean said. "The priority is that we just have to make sure the game, especially a game like this between the Phillies and Cubs, is officiated as best as we can. It was a little tense. We had to start scrambling once we heard the regular crew wasn't going to be able to make it. But we did fine."

"It's definitely something you tell the kids and grandkids about," said McArdle, who has umpired since 1978 and started umpiring at the college level in 1981. "It's unforgettable, all of my friends were probably watching."

West and his crew will be on time for the Saturday matinee, with a travel nightmare behind them. It went like this:

After Thursday's game, they were informed that their morning flight was cancelled, and they could leave at 7:55 p.m. That was no good. All the other flights were booked, but somehow they found one seat at 7:15 a.m., so Spagnardi -- the rookie -- got on that flight.

The others found a flight at 11:25 a.m., but by 3 p.m., they still hadn't left the runway. They tried alternate routes like Allentown, Pa., Richmond, Va. Nothing.

Finally, they got to Baltimore.

"Just get me out of here," West said. "We got on the (other) plane without our bags. "We're trying to find them now."

They left the Baltimore airport at 5:30 p.m. and arrived at 7:15. Cubs outfielder Moises Alou had a quip waiting for West.

"He said, 'Were you in Atlantic City?'" said West. "'How much did you win?'"

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. Joe Santoliquito, a freelance writer to MLB.com, contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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