CINCINNATI - It was snowing when the Tri-State woke up on Opening Day on April 1, 1996, and many Reds fans must have thought Mother Nature was playing an April Fools' Day joke on them.
The snow, wintry cold and biting winds continued through the dark, gray morning into the Findlay Market Parade. Still, Reds fans bundled up and headed downtown. No one wanted to miss Opening Day, especially when Sparky Anderson was going to be the parade grand marshal. The new Reds manager, Ray Knight, had asked Sparky to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Umpire John McSherry hadn't been feeling well, but he was determined to be there, too. McSherry, who weighed 328 pounds (some suspected more), had health problems that forced him to leave five games in the previous five years. He had planned to see a doctor the next day – a scheduled off-day for the Reds and Expos – about an irregular heartbeat, according to Knight.
"John was supposed to have his arrhythmia (checked) and he didn't do it," Knight was quoted in The Cincinnati Post. "He made the statement that, 'I'm going to be here Opening Day and go get that tomorrow.'"
"I wish he had done it," Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee said.
By game time at 2:05 p.m., the sun was shining. The sold-out crowd could feel the warmth of spring. But seven pitches into the game, there was tragedy, and shock and sadness covered Riverfront Stadium.
The 53,000 fans and a TV audience watched in horror as McSherry, the home-plate umpire, collapsed on the field.
McSherry had called a timeout, raised his right hand and waved it toward the second base. The Reds pitcher, Pete Schourek, stared in from the mound and patted his glove on his chest, as if to say, "Are you talking to me?'"
Then McSherry silently turned and walked toward the gate behind home plate, apparently trying to get to the umpires' room.
"I thought he pulled a muscle," Taubensee said. "I asked, 'John, are you all right?' He didn't answer. We had just been joking around. He said, 'Eddie, you call the first two innings,' and I said, 'Great, let's go.'"
McSherry wobbled on his rubbery legs and got about 10 feet from the gate when he dropped to his knees and fell face first on the field. He raised his head briefly and seemed to gasp for breath.
The Reds and Expos trainers immediately rushed to him, with the other umpires and team physicians. They worked frantically to resuscitate him. Other doctors climbed out of the stands to help as McSherry's fellow umpires and concerned players, managers and coaches stood around them.
Umpire Tom Hallion was crying. Knight put his arm around him and tried to console him.
"We just didn't have a chance (to revive him). It was a massive coronary," said Reds physician Dr. Scott Jolson.
An ambulance quickly took McSherry to University Hospital, but doctors said they were never able to get his heart beating again. He was pronounced dead of "sudden cardiac death" at 3:01 p.m. – about 50 minutes after he collapsed. The next day, the coroner said he died of clogged arteries and an enlarged heart.
Although they were distraught, the remaining two umpires (Hallion had gone to the hospital) called the managers together and said they would resume the game in 30 minutes. They said McSherry would have wanted that. Reds owner Marge Schott and General Manager Jim Bowden were there, too. But when the players found out, they balked. Barry Larkin and Eric Davis told the umpires that everyone was too shaken to go on.
"Neither team wanted to play out of consideration for him and out of consideration for life," Knight said after meeting with his players.
"Barry said he had a lot of recent deaths in his family and was very shaken. He said, 'Out of good conscience, I can't go back out there.'"
Knight said many of his players were in tears.
"I don't know how anybody could have played in that situation," Knight said. "It was just really difficult and hard, right there before your eyes. The game of baseball is so insignificant to the game of life."
Meanwhile, the fans waited an hour wondering what was going on. At 2:45, they heard the PA announcer say the game would resume in 30 minutes. The next thing they heard – 36 minutes later - was the game was postponed until 2:05 Tuesday.
Some fans booed.
The crowd was never told that McSherry had died. Some said they wouldn't be able to come back Tuesday. One man said everyone was frustrated because they didn't know what happened to McSherry.
"Everybody in the crowd was on his side," he said. "It would have helped if they had said something to us."
But up in the owner's box, Schott was beside herself, the Enquirer reported.
"I feel cheated," said Schott, whose mouth got her in trouble with baseball so many times they suspended her twice for a total of three years. "This isn't supposed to happen to us, not in Cincinnati. This is our day, our tradition, our team."
Schott called the National League office and complained to Vice President Katy Feeney.
"This is screwy, I'm telling you," Schott said to Feeney. "You can't imagine the boos that are going on here. Why can't we play the game? This man wouldn't want to disappoint 50,000 fans."
"We'll never play on April Fools' Day again," Schott said later.
However, most fans seemed to agree it was the right thing to do.
"The mood of the stadium, nobody wanted … we weren't sure what happened to Mr. McSherry and I think it was the respectful thing to do," one woman said as the fans emptied out.
Reds infielder Lenny Harris was sobbing as he left the stadium.
"It hurts. It hurts so much because John McSherry was not just a great umpire, he was such a great guy. We lost a great guy. He always talked to us. We're going to miss him," Harris said.
McSherry, in his 26th year as a major league umpire, was a one of the most liked and respected umpires in all of baseball, Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman said.
"The proof of that is the fact that very rarely would you ever see him involved in any type of verbal altercation on the field," Brennaman said.
"Whether he was right or not, he was always fair," Knight said. "He was never overpowering. He never tried to get on top of you like some umpires do. He was a sensitive, hard-working, caring, good, solid umpire."
If you're wondering how McSherry could umpire at 328 pounds, the National League did not have stringent health requirements for umpires, though it did send McSherry to a weight loss center at Duke University on two occasions.
McSherry had become a crew chief in 1988 as a replacement for Lee Weyer after Weyer died of a heart attack.
"There is no specific criteria established for umpires others than all are required to pass a physical before the season starts and use their own doctor," Feeney said.
McSherry showed no signs of stress before taking the field that day, his fellow umpires said. But looking back, others reported red flags.
Expos coach Jim Tracy, who brought out the lineup card, said McSherry slurred some of his words.
Schourek, the Reds starting pitcher, said his first pitch was right down the middle and McSherry called it a ball.
"It shocked me for a second," Schourek said.
On his last pitch, McSherry made no call at all, Schourek said.
Before the Reds and Expos played the next afternoon, there was still a hush over the stadium. Knight greeted Reds players with hugs, but it was time to go back to work, they said.
"It's going to be in the back of everybody's mind," Larkin said, "but there's games to be played and life goes on."
The umpires agreed. Jerry Crawford said it was better that the crew stayed together in Cincinnati rather than take time off or be switched to another city.
"We have to go out there sooner or later. Maybe this is better that we got it out of the way," he said.
Reds great Johnny Bench, injured second baseman Bret Boone and Knight visited the umpires room before the game.
"I did not want to face those guys without having talked to them," Knight said afterward. "It was somber. I just kept reflecting back to yesterday."
Someone taped flowers to the umpires' door and left more on either side of it. Fans made signs to honor McSherry. The Reds asked for a moment of silence and a prayer was said.
The umpires - Rick Riecker took McSherry's place - did not take the field until the game was set to begin. When they did, fans gave them a standing ovation.
"It's nice to see that you're viewed as a human being," Hallion said. "I know with our profession, sometimes it's overlooked. But you are a human being, and I think yesterday was a real tough time for everybody."
The Reds beat the Expos, 4-1, with 1990 World Series hero Chris Sabo driving in three runs in his first game back since 1993. He had been gone for two seasons and back problems had limited him to 93 games with the Orioles, White Sox and Cardinals. Schourek pitched five innings and got the win.
Knight allowed himself to celebrate his first victory as a manager, bouncing out of the dugout to give high-fives to reliever Marcus Moore after the final out.
"I didn't know it would feel this good to win," Knight said. "With the situation we've had the last day or two, it makes it tough to know how you're going to feel."
He remembered being so excited Monday before the game, but he didn't feel "cheated" by McSherry's death.
"Today, coming out here, I didn't have the same excitement because I had such respect for his life," Knight said.