Duluth East graduate Davidson is back umpiring today's All-Star Game
Bob Davidson made the rounds during his first few years umpiring on the minor-league baseball circuit.
But when, in 1982, Davidson reached the big leagues — “the Show” as its termed by up-and- comers — that meant all those long distances traveled by automobile to Podunk City was long in the past.
Or so he thought.
Davidson, who officiated one World Series, three National League Championship Series and a pair of All-Star Games, was one of 50 umpires who followed then-Major League Umpires Association head Richie Phillips’ ill-advised plan to resign and force Major League Baseball’s hand during collective bargaining talks in 1999.
That backfired on many umpires involved, including Davidson who was not rehired.
Davidson pursued other avenues — he even worked as a Denver radio-show host with former NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth — but the desire to be back on a diamond was still there. So Davidson, already in his early 50s, returned to those same grass-roots level leagues he was umpiring in decades earlier, driving to those same small towns with co-workers half his age while his wife of 30-plus years, Denise, worked two jobs to help support two daughters.
But the dedication paid off as Davidson, now 61, eventually worked his way back up to the majors in 2007 and will be at second base for tonight’s All-Star Game at Target Field in Minneapolis.
“I give him a lot of credit. Bob was out of baseball for quite some time and then fought his way back,” Zach Taran of Proctor said. “He was in the low-level Pioneer League, which is the lowest of the low, and stuck to it. Lo and behold, he got back (to the majors). It’s a great story of persevering.”
Taran played at East and UMD with Davidson before both packed up and left together for umpiring school in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Bob graduated No. 1 from our class,” Taran said. “He had the perfect personality for it, the size and, obviously, the skill because he’s been there for quite some time.”
Davidson was handed his first major-league assignment in May 1982 and became known as a quality balls-and-strikes umpire. But he also became known as Balkin’ Bob because of his inclination to call more balks than any other umpire.
“He was renowned for calling balks on pitchers that nobody else saw,” Taran said.
Then came the labor fiasco in the late 90’s and Davidson was out of a job that pays veteran umps between $300,000-$400,000 annually.
Even Davidson, who was traveling from his home in Littleton, Colo., and could not be reached for comment, agreed in an earlier interview with the News Tribune that resigning was not a smart move.
“I went from being cocky, to just being plain dumb, to realizing I’m lucky I have a job,” Davidson said in 2010 when he was inducted into the UMD Athletic Hall of Fame. “What we did in 1999 was just asinine. We were victims of our own success. Richie had always beaten baseball, but baseball had enough. They called our bluff. It was a huge wake-up call.”
So it was back to the minors for Davidson.
“For guys like Bob, there were not a lot of alternatives,” said Hermantown resident Seth Taran, Zach’s brother, who graduated with Davidson from East and also umpired in the minors. “He loved baseball. He had the skills, had the confidence, cockiness, whatever you want to call it. As he still says today, ‘What would I do to make that kind of money?’ ”
One of the reasons Davidson has lasted so long, according to Zach Taran, is he is as unflappable on the field now as he was starting out.
“You couldn’t shake him, he was pretty steadfast,” recalled Zach Taran, who spent four years umpiring in the Penn League, the Midwest League, the Eastern League and in the western Carolinas. “Stick to your guns, make the call and be emphatic. Bob would not let anything bother him. You could not embarrass or intimidate Bob.”
That attribute hasn’t played well at times with managers, fans or members of the media. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist and radio host Bernie Miklasz once ripped into Davidson in print, writing, “Davidson has a history of grandstanding to draw attention to himself, whether it be his incessant balk calls, his meddling into other umpires’ calls, his rabbit ears, thin skin and quick ejections. Baseball players, managers and coaches have come to expect Davidson to hot-dog his way through games. … He’s a disgrace to the game and has been for many, many years. Baseball people laugh at him.”
Two seasons ago, he was suspended for a game after going toe-to-toe with Philadelphia Philles manager Charlie Manuel in a verbal altercation where Davidson could be heard from the stands swearing at Manuel, who also was suspended.
“He should be a crew chief by now but he’s a little too controversial,” Seth Taran said. “He has that one side of him that doesn’t mind getting into an argument, and that’s not what (major-league officials) want.
“He’s a free-spirited guy. If he gets in a big argument, he doesn’t let it bother him. If he blows a call, he doesn’t let it bother him. He’s the right personality for living on the road and not letting anything eat at him very much.”
Don Garnett, who coached baseball at East from 1959-81, recently talked to Davidson and his former player said he had a hunch he might get the All-Star assignment.
“The word was they wanted a person from Minnesota with the game being played in Minnesota,” Garnett said. “And he was fortunate enough to be the one they selected.”
Garnett, 80, still talks to Davidson several times a year and has talked his way into a few complimentary Twins tickets.
“I always say, ‘Just remember your coach when you get those tickets,’ ” Garnett said. “I’ve seen quite a few games at Target Field, compliments of Bob Davidson.”
- St. Paul native Jeff Nelson will be at first base tonight. Behind the plate will be Gary Cederstrom, a crew chief with 21 years of major-league experience.