Sawchuk came off the sandlots to work Jays games

Poof! He’s a MLB umpire    


By Scott Langdon
Canadian Baseball Network

Spring training is a time for memories, dreams and thoughts of sunny days and warm, summer evenings at a ballpark. Joe Sawchuk’s memories are different than most.

On Aug. 24, 1978 Sawchuk went to bed as a graphic illustrator for Ontario Hydro. He awoke the next morning a big league umpire.

Now 77, Sawchuk was one of three Toronto-area amateur umpires hurriedly called on by Major League Baseball when the MLB Umpires Association staged a one-day strike in Aug. 1978. The big league umpires went on strike again in 1979, thrusting Sawchuk and amateur colleagues Rich Panas and Al Contant back into the spotlight.

“In 1978, I got the call about 11 at night that they would need us the next day. I ended up taking a cab into the CNE grounds to find Al Contant because I knew he was working there. I couldn’t reach Rich by phone at that time of night,” he recalled. 

Sawchuk, 40 at the time, and Contant, 24, were on hand at the start of the Jays-Twins game the next afternoon. Panas, 22, didn’t arrive until after the first inning. A coach from each team filled out the umpiring crew until he was able to take his position in the infield alongside Contant. Sawchuk called balls and strikes.

“During the anthem, my heart was pounding and pounding and pounding. Rod Carew, a Hall of Famer, was the first Twins’ hitter. He had kind words to say that relaxed me. From that point on it was just making the calls once the ball hit the mitt,” Sawchuk said.

Dave McKay, a Canadian playing in the infield for the Blue Jays, said after the game that big league umpires typically miss five or six ball/strike calls a game. “There weren’t that many today,” McKay told a Toronto newspaper. 

In 1979, Sawchuk, Panas and Contant umpired Blue Jays’ home games from the start of the season until mid-May when the umpires strike ended. Two memorable moments, among many, stand out for Sawchuk.

“I called Darrell Porter of the Royals out on a play at the plate. Whitey Herzog, the Royals manager, and I went face to face over that call. The play stood. He was out, despite Herzog trying everything including calling me a homer,” Sawchuk said with a chuckle.

The second involved a lesson Sawchuk said he never forgot.

“The Jays were beating the Tigers 10-1 late in the ballgame. We would expand the strike zone in amateur baseball in those situations to get it over with faster. I called a strike on Alan Trammell, the Tigers’ shortstop, on a 2-1 count. It was probably a ball. Trammell took me aside and reminded me that baseball was his livelihood, that he takes it seriously and never do that again. I never did,” Sawchuk related.

Sawchuk played amateur baseball into the senior level, coached on Toronto sandlots for many years, umpired and was one of the Blue Jays official scorers for 25 years after his MLB umpiring stint. He was asked what he enjoyed most.

“Coaching was the most fun for sure. Watching kids improve and having fun, win or lose,” he said. After a pause, he added “But then again, there’s nothing like the big leagues.”

Sawchuk thinks back to those days in 1978 and 1979 when spring training rolls around each year. He recalls a story from the evening of that first MLB game in 1978.

“I umpired an amateur game that night after the Jays played in the afternoon. My wife, Fran, and son, Jeff, and I went out for dinner. It was late, probably after midnight when we headed for home. Jeff, who was about 10 or 11 at the time, told me I was like Cinderella. Poof! Now, you’re just Joe Sawchuk again.”