Former Duluth East baseball coach Don Garnett remembers getting occasional letters from Bob Davidson when Davidson was toiling away as a minor-league umpire.
Davidson, who played outfield for Garnett at Duluth East before graduating in 1970, was becoming increasingly frustrated as one umpire after another got called up to the big leagues but not him.
"The minor leagues are a tough place to be, whether you're a player, a coach or an umpire - anything," Garnett said.
Well, Garnett found another letter from Davidson, but this was one of joy, because it was from when Davidson was first called up. Davidson made his Major League Baseball umpiring debut on May 31, 1982.
Davidson will be one of six inductees into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame during a ceremony May 16 at the DECC's Horizon Room. Davidson, 66, worked 3,911 regular-season games in MLB before retiring after the 2016 season.
When asked if he missed it, Davidson didn't hesitate to answer.
"No," he said, laughing. "I do not. I worked 40 years in professional baseball - 30 in the big leagues and 10 in the minor leagues - and that was enough. In all honesty, when I was working back in the day, when my kids were little, you miss a lot because you're gone all summer."
From East to MLB
Another person enjoying retirement is the 85-year-old Garnett, who was reached by phone Saturday.
"I've always got time for Bob," Garnett said.
Davidson credits Garnett, who coached baseball at East from 1959-81, for being the first one to plant the seed that there were other aspects of baseball Davidson could be part of even after graduating, even if he "couldn't play a lick," as Davidson recalled.
Garnett drew parallels between Davidson's story and that of his former assistant, Dukes Knutson, now working with the Tampa Bay Rays.
"They both were able to live out their dreams by being involved with Major League Baseball," Garnett said. "It was just a perfect setting for both of them. Bob was one of those absolute baseball nuts. He'd give anything to go up and get another time at-bat."
Davidson went on to play at Minnesota Duluth, and in January 1974, he and his teammate, Zach Taran, went to umpiring school in St. Petersburg, Fla. The school was run by American League umpires Bill Kinnamon and Joe Linsalata.
Davidson graduated third in his class. First in the class was Joe West, who next season likely will break Bill Klem's record for most MLB games worked of 5,369. Zach's younger brother, Seth Taran, was the No. 1 student at umpiring school in 1976, but that's no big-league guarantee. The farthest both Tarans got was the minor leagues, and there were times where it was a struggle for Davidson as well as the minor-league pay for umpiring is minimal. It was at those times where Davidson would reach out to his old coach.
"Once in a while I'd hear from him, especially if he was in a situation where the umpire's locker room was almost like an outdoor biffy," Garnett said. "I became his sounding board."
A career full of memories
Davidson, who has lived since 1992 in Littleton, Colo., spent eight years in the minors, including stints in the Florida Instructional League and in a winter league in the Dominican Republic, before being promoted to the National League in 1982. Davidson was quick to credit Denise, his wife of 38 years, especially in those early years, when he was gone all summer, and their daughters, Amber and Andrea, were young.
"Denise should get a trophy for that," Davidson said. "I'm lucky my wife was a good mother and father. You miss a lot."
One of Davidson's most notable bad calls was in his only World Series, in 1992, when he missed Kelly Gruber's tag on Deion Sanders, costing the Toronto Blue Jays a triple play.
"The Blue Jays were happy to get a double play out of it, and after the game there was no media, so I'm thinking I must have been right. So after the game I get to the car and my wife's there and she says, 'You kicked the hell out of that play at second.' And I said, 'I did?' She goes, 'Yeah, they showed it. He was out by about half a foot.' And I'm like, 'great.'
"You've got to believe it when she says it, that's for sure."
Another incident he fondly recalled was a game in Texas where he ejected Angels pitcher John Lackey. Ian Kinsler, the star the previous day, was the first batter up, and Lackey, coming off an injury, was making his first start of the season. Lackey's first pitch went behind Kinsler's head. The second pitch hit him on the wrist and Lackey was promptly tossed.
"Mike Scioscia, the manager for the Angels at the time, wasn't happy about it," Davidson said. "I've known Mike forever, and I said, 'Mike, he hit two home runs last night to beat you. Now the first pitch is behind his head and the second pitch hit him in the wrist. He's gone.' And Mike said, 'Well, it's his first game back.' And I said, 'Mike, I don't think he's ready yet.' "
'Riches to rags to riches'
In all, Davidson ejected 166 managers, players, fans and even the Montreal Expos' mascot Youppi!, which he simply chalks up to "one of those nights." He admitted that some managers know they're getting tossed but request time to do their thing, to show management they'll stick up for their players, like the legendary Tommy Lasorda (who helped get Youppi! tossed, by the way).
"Baseball fans like to see arguments, and when I was an umpire, I liked to argue, too," Davidson said.
Google Davidson's name, and it isn't flattering as Davidson earned such nicknames as "Balk-a-Day Bob," but it isn't flattering for any ump. Davidson said it comes with the territory. There is talk of baseball moving to an automated strike zone, first trying it in a minor league, and Davidson hopes it fails. Davidson said calling balls and strikes is probably the toughest thing in officiating, but he said it's part of baseball.
"I once saw Ozzie Smith make two errors in one inning," Davidson said of the Hall of Fame shortstop, "so people make mistakes. I just hope they leave replay the way it is and don't add to it. If you take balls and strikes away from an umpire and give it to a computer, I think baseball is going to develop into a boring game."
Davidson's story certainly isn't boring. It's one of redemption. In 1999, he was one of nearly two dozen umpires who participated in a mass resignation as part of a union tactic. MLB simply replaced them.
"That was very humbling, that's for sure," Davidson said. "We were kind of victims of our own success, and in 1999, I certainly picked the wrong side of the fence."
Davidson eventually was rehired, but he had to earn it by working his way back up through the minors. When Davidson left in 1999, he was making about $170,000 annually. In rookie ball, he was making about $1,500 a month. He was promoted back to Major League Baseball in 2007.
"It's a riches-to-rags-to-riches story, for sure," Davidson said.
And nobody could be more proud than Garnett, who is already looking forward to attending the DECC Athlete Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He called Davidson a man of character.
"I'd like to take all the credit for Bob's success, but I don't think I can," Garnett said, laughing. "I was really pleased for him that he got to where he did, and I was probably even more pleased he made the comeback that he did.
"He had to go back to the same league he started in, and the fact he stuck it out to get back in says a lot about his determination and love of the game. He had to rate well on his comeback trail, I would think, because I can't imagine the people doing the hiring for the major leagues were thinking, 'Wow, let's get him back in there,' because of what happened. So he really had to be extra good to get that second look."
What: 27th DECC Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony
When: Thursday, May 16
Where: DECC Horizon Room
Inductees: Bob Davidson, Willard Ikola, Tom Kurvers, Lori Ogren, Mark Sertich, William Wirtanen
Schedule: Social hour, 6 p.m.; dinner, 7 p.m.; awards presentations, 7:30 p.m.
Guest speaker: Olympic ski jumper Jim Denney
Tickets: $40, DECC ticket office (218-727-4344)