09/10/2008 12:42 PM ET
Veteran ump makes a country call
Cowboy Joe sets baseball to music
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
They don't call Joe West the "Cowboy" for nothing.
Not only does this veteran Major League umpire and respected crew chief come from small-town America, having grown up in Greenville, North Carolina, but he's loved music almost as much as baseball since he was a kid.
"I grew up in the South listening to Merle Haggard and Mickey Gilley and George Jones like everybody else," West says.
"For the most part, country music is two chords and the truth. That's the way you grow up down South. I think it's a part of Americana that's been with us forever. I'm proud of my southern heritage.
"But I never really grew up. I just got older in North Carolina."
As he got older, West picked up some guitar chops to go along with his record collection. He began playing and singing songs, and as he climbed his way up the umpiring ladder, he kept on picking and grinning, performing at Texas nightclubs, Nashville honky-tonks, and even alongside some of his heroes, including Gilley, Haggard, Box Car Willie, Mel Tillis, George Jones, Lorrie Morgan and Tanya Tucker.
This musical journey has culminated with two of his own CDs, the latest of which is out now. It's called Diamond Dreams, and while his first album, Blue Cowboy, was made up of mostly cover songs, the new one is all Cowboy Joe all the time, with the umpire talking baseball over background music played and orchestrated by Kent Goodson, the album's co-producer and George Jones' piano player.
"I was in Reno Nevada, and George's band played along with Conway Twitty," West recalls. "Merle Haggard was supposed to headline, but he was sick, so we ended up sitting at the lounge.
"Kent happened to be a big baseball fan who grew up outside St. Louis. He loved the Cardinals. And I would ask him about music and he would ask about baseball. Finally, we both kind of came up with the thought that we ought to sit down and tell these baseball stories with a little music behind it."
The result is a fun, humorous and often touching collection of spoken-word gems in which the listener gets a perfect sampling of the true personality of Cowboy Joe West.
"Characters of the Game," for example, is more than 18 minutes of West sitting in a friendly watering hole and riffing about some of the hilarious baseball men he's come in contact with over the years, including legendary Baltimore Orioles manager -- and mortal enemy of umpires -- Earl Weaver.
"A Piece of History Everyday" has West describing the special thrills that go on behind the scenes of every Major League game.
"It mentions a bunch of the great announcers that call the games on radio and it tells the story of baseball being a big city where everybody has a little job to do, from the players to the ushers to the vendors to the people cooking the food. We're all a big family."
And "A Thank You To Our Military" is exactly that, a simple, solemn token of West's gratitude for America's fighting men and women.
"I'm real proud of that one," he says. "Without them and without this great country, we wouldn't have the freedoms that make this game of baseball possible to have as a form of entertainment."
One of the other new songs, "The Men in Blue," gives listeners an insight into what umpires go through on a daily basis, and who would know better than a man who has umpired in multiple World Series, League Championship Series, Division Series and All-Star Games.
If you're looking for the essence or a greater message behind these seven unique recordings, all you have to do is look at the cover of Diamond Dreams. It's a photograph of a little boy sleeping with his baseball glove on his hand and two tickets to the next day's game right by his side.
"That's what it's all about," West says. "His heart's pounding because his dad or grandpa is taking him to the ballgame and he can't imagine anything better.
"I'm telling you, if you don't think those baseballs are made of gold, just bring a kid to a game."
Doug Miller is a Senior Writer for MLB.com/Entertainment. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.