(This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Referee Magazine.)
MLB Umpire Gerry Davis is known for his Plate stance, his officiating gear business and his professionalism — and he’s worked the most postseason games of any current umpire.
By John Oehser
The honor hardly could be more fitting.
OK, perhaps having a behind-the-plate stance named after you — as Gerry Davis does — isn’t technically an honor. But it certainly speaks volumes about one of Major League Baseball’s most tenured, respected and decorated umpires.
To have a technique you designed named after you …
To know you designed that technique because you believe it’s the right way to do things …
To know that fundamental — and the Gerry Davis “Lockbox” stance indeed has become a fundamental — says a lot about your approach to your profession …
Put those things together and you have something fitting, something lasting. And to someone as dedicated to his profession as Davis is to umpiring, it’s not only fitting, it’s humbling and a whole lot more.
“It’s rewarding,” Davis said. “I’m very proud of it.”
This is Gerry Davis’ umpiring story, and the story isn’t just about a stance. It’s a story about achievement, consistency and commitment. It’s also a story of longevity, but more than anything, it’s a story of a guy who found the career he loved pretty much by chance, then turned it into a more successful career on and off the field than he ever dreamed possible.
Davis, 62, at his core is an umpire’s umpire and all that implies.
“He’s the consummate professional,” said MLB umpire Phil Cuzzi, a longtime member of Davis’ crew.
He’s about loyalty, and doing his job in a calm way that calms others. He’s about doing things the same way, every day.
“He takes a lot of pride in everything he does and everything his business does,” said Pat Miles, a longtime football and basketball official who worked at Appleton, Wis., based Gerry Davis Sports for nearly a decade.
He’s about the sport, first and foremost.
“He loves what he does and he’s good at it,” longtime MLB umpire Greg Gibson said. “He’s a teacher. He’s a mentor. He’s everything you’re looking for. I guess he’d be the poster boy for what a major league umpire should be.”
He’s MLB’s longest-tenured crew chief, and as MLB Director of Umpire Administration Matt McKendry said, he’s a “stabilizing force, on the field and off.”
“If we had 76 people with Gerry Davis’ skills and his abilities, we would be a very good staff,” McKendry said.
All of those things are about more than a stance — and as for that stance, we’ll get to it. Soon. Because the stance is absolutely and fittingly part of the story. It’s just not the whole story.
• • •
Before we cover stance, we’ll cover resume, and before the resume, we must explore his beginnings. Because while Davis’ career is one of accomplishment, he didn’t start out dreaming of an umpiring career.
In the mid-1970s, as Davis’ best friend tells it, Davis wasn’t dreaming of much of anything. At least not seriously. He wasn’t a bad guy. He just wasn’t a particularly motivated guy. And while he and his buddies were still playing semipro baseball in St. Louis in the mid-’70s, Davis never talked about umpiring. So it surprised Don Dill when Davis told people he was heading to umpire school.
“He never really talked about it,” said Dill, Davis’ best friend since age nine.
He never much thought about it, either. Not until 1975. The manager of Davis’ semipro team at the time was responsible for providing one of two umpires for each game. When Davis injured his arm, his manager found a way to save $8 to $10 a game.
“The manager told me, ‘You’re going to be the umpire,” Davis said.
After Davis umpired a couple of games, his manager told him something else: “You should think about going to umpire school.”
Davis recalled the story with a laugh. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as umpire school,” he said. “I grew up like every red-blooded American kid wanting to be a baseball player.”
Davis, working at Thurmer’s Tavern in St. Louis, saw a Sporting News ad for the Al Somers Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Fla. Davis mentioned the ad to his manager, who sent for the application. Davis applied, was accepted and entered Somers’ school in 1976, a year before Harry Wendelstedt purchased the school.
“It came at a time in my life where I said, ‘Why not? I’m 22 years old,’’’ he said. “If I didn’t follow this, I didn’t want to have to look back and say, ‘What if?’’’
Davis took to umpiring. Fast. He graduated second in his class at Somers’ school, then worked the Midwest League in 1976-77 and the Eastern League in 1978. He worked the Florida Instructional League in 1977-78 and the Puerto Rico Winter League in 1979 while working the American Association from 1978-82. He was in MLB by 1984.
“At 18 or 19, he had no direction,” Dill said with a laugh. “But he was never afraid of a challenge and never afraid to try something. Out of the clear blue, he decided he was going down there. He decided he wanted to do it. He had played ball all his life, so it all went hand in hand and it turned out to be perfect.”
Davis said he doesn’t know where life would have led had he not applied to the school, but he knows his message when he tells young umpires his story.
“I tell them, ‘Follow those dreams, because you don’t want to look back and be sorry you didn’t take the chance,’’’ Davis said.
(From top) Gerry Davis uses his hands-on-knees stance during a Cubs-Giants game in 2013. Davis visits a patient at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange, Calif., in 2012 for the Umps Care charity. Davis works the NLCS in 2014.
– Photos By Bill Nichols, John Cordes –
• • •
Now, we can talk resume. That’s fun when you’re talking about Davis, because his resume moves quickly past impressive and into staggering:
- Twenty-one postseasons, including the last 17 in succession.
- Five World Series.
- Ten League Championship Series.
- Eleven League Division Series.
- Four All-Star games.
If that sounds impressive, it’s because it is impressive. Add up the number of games in each series and it’s not surprising it totals a record for postseason games umpired — 128. Not surprising to anyone but Davis, anyway.
“It’s a little mind-boggling,” he said. “The postseason events are really what I’m most proud of. We’ve had, I’d say, seven or eight different regimes since I’ve been involved. For all of them to have the confidence in me to work postseason, it’s very rewarding.”
Cuzzi called the postseason the “litmus test,” adding, “If it was people playing favorites, it wouldn’t mean as much.
“He’s so respected not only by the league office, but the teams,” Cuzzi said.
You don’t fluke into respect. Is Davis good fundamentally? Can he call balls, strikes, safes and outs? No doubt. MLB umpires are the best of the best, and therefore, make the difficult look easy. Davis? “He makes it look really easy,” Gibson said.
But in umpiring, there’s calling the game, then there’s controlling the game — and baseball people will tell you if Davis makes the first look easy, he makes the second look doubly so.
“Things get heated between the lines,” McKendry said. “You’re supposed to be able to settle that down whenever you can. Gerry has an innate ability to do that. That calming approach he takes along with the respect clubs have for him helps him control volatile situations when they arise.
“He’s a calming influence. He’s well-respected by the clubs and his peers. He is an upstanding member of our group and we’re glad to have him.”
To hear Gibson tell it, to work a game with Davis is not only to work a game with an umpire at the height of his onfield skill, but also in control of his crew. It’s also to work a game in which the umpires are subjected to strikingly little yelling.
“They know him and respect him enough to know we’re just not going to listen to it,” Gibson said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements. He’ll let people have their say, but when that’s it, that’s it. They know that. They know what to expect as far as his ability.”
We’ve addressed the resume, the respect. What we haven’t covered are the whys and hows behind the respect. His fellow umpires say it’s about his demeanor and calmness.
Davis said his demeanor didn’t come immediately or naturally.
“It came over time,” he said with a laugh. “I was a little bit of a redass when I first started. I did my share of yelling and had my share of nose-to-nose arguments, but if you talk to players and managers now, most would say if you approach me in a professional manner, that’s the way you’ll be treated.”
The nose-to-nose stuff works for some umpires. As for Davis, he doesn’t see the job about showmanship or flash, which is why polls outlining the best/worst/favorite/least-favorite MLB umpires of players, coaches and fans rarely include Davis’ name.
That’s OK with Davis, and when he talks to people about best- and worst-umpire lists, his attitude is pretty clear.
“He says, ‘You don’t want to be on either one,’’’ Miles said.
Consistency. Talk to Davis about his approach to umpiring, you hear it. Talk to him a while longer, you hear it a lot.
So, if lists are what Davis doesn’t want to be on, and arguments are what he doesn’t want to be involved in, what does Davis want? How does he want to be known? Postseason appearances are one way, and the stance is another, of course. But mostly, it’s about a word.
“I think I’m really consistent,” he said.
Consistency. Talk to Davis about his approach to umpiring, you hear it. Talk to him a while longer, you hear it a lot.
“When people talk about umpires, they think about consistency in balls and strikes and consistently doing a good job with that,” Davis said. “But I think it’s more important to be consistent with your demeanor. I don’t get overly excited when things call for that. I think I’m very level-headed and handle situations well, which is one of the major attributes an umpire has to have.”
Consistency. Calmness. Respect from peers, from players and coaches. A staggering resume. As if those weren’t enough to leave a lasting impression on a sport and a profession, consider another part of Davis’ resume.
Davis has mentored many younger umpires, including call-ups from Triple A. Brian Knight, Quinn Wolcott, Todd Tichenor, Will Little — each is a current MLB umpire who worked on Davis’ crew before his full-time hire.
“He takes just as much pride for his crewmates to be selected for the postseason as the pride he takes in himself being selected,” Cuzzi said.
McKendry said Davis’ success with young umpires is no fluke, stemming from Davis’ approach of protecting them when they need protection and knowing when to let them “handle their own business.”
“He has a good sense for those two parts,” McKendry said. “He makes an effort to teach and lead by example.”
Gibson said life for a young umpire under Davis is rewarding. “He has a different way of teaching,” Gibson said. “Sometimes he’ll let you fall on your face and say, ‘OK, do you want to talk about it?’ But he has a way of going about his business that everybody respects. He’s not perfect by any means, but everybody knows he’s working hard toward it. And he does work hard at it.
“He leads by example. You know what to expect when you work for him. You have a good time working with him and if you don’t have a good time working for him, it’s your fault,” Gibson said.
It could be said that Davis’ work with younger umpires is leaving a legacy. While Davis is hesitant to say it that way, he said without question it’s rewarding.
“That’s the interesting thing about this profession,” Davis said. “A lot of people who have never umpired talk about how thankless the job is. That’s not really true. There are a lot of things that happen that make you proud to be an umpire.”
• • •
The legacy? The consistency? All of that also is notable when telling Davis’ story.
Something else notable is that about 15 years into his MLB career, these traits — the caring about the profession, the desire to make things better, the attention to detail, the doing things right — somehow all of that became the foundation for a profession outside his profession and intertwined with it all at the same time. And that’s pretty much how Gerry Davis Sports was born.
Davis wasn’t thrilled with plate shoes in the 1990s and had an idea for a shoe that combined safety and comfort. A market of 2,000-3,000 was too niche for larger shoe companies, so Davis approached Cove Shoe Company.
The Gerry Davis stance. the lockbox stance. the hands-on-knees stance … it is part of Davis’ legacy, but it didn’t come overnight.
Together, they designed and produced the shoe.
“They sold immediately,” Miles said, and as they did, umpires calling for shoes began asking for shin guards, chest protectors and indicators. At first, Davis didn’t have those items.
“I told them, ‘I’ll call you back,” Davis said with a laugh.
Nearly two decades later, Gerry Davis Sports supplies officials in baseball, basketball, football and softball, and Miles said the same traits that have made Davis successful on the field translate off of it.
“He believes you get one good first impression,” Miles said. “Gerry’s very much on board with that. He wants the umpire to look the best he can.”
So, now you know about Davis the businessman, and Davis the umpire. Davis the umpire is not only about doing things right, but giving back to the profession, which led to a whole lot of Gerry Davis Umpire Clinics for young umpires. And from those umpire clinics came … the stance.
The Gerry Davis Stance. The Lockbox Stance. The Hands-on-Knees Stance. It has been called all three. And it is part of Davis’ legacy, but it didn’t come overnight.
It evolved from a desire to be as consistent as possible, and it evolved from years of teaching clinics, from years of trying to help young umpires be as consistent as possible, Davis said.
“One of the things that’s most important (as an umpire) is you look at every pitch exactly the same way,” Davis said. “The way to do that is to have head height exactly the same every time. The only way you can ensure your head height is exactly the same is to have it locked in, by arms being locked on knees. That way, your head is the same height all the time. Your arms lock your head in a certain height. Those are the most important things to being a consistent plate umpire, so that’s what I started doing.”
Davis first worked with the technique in clinics, putting young umpires in their base stance, hands on knees. That achieved the objective of keeping the umpire’s head still, and also gave the umpire a consistent view from pitch to pitch. Davis soon began using it. Now, a quick Google search reveals pages upon pages of instruction, discussion and debate about the stance.
“It’s really rewarding when you hear from people who have adapted the stance, who didn’t use it before and now talk about how much more comfortable they are and how much they feel they have improved because of it,” Davis said.
Cuzzi said while its use is limited in MLB because umpires at that level grew up using a lower-crouched stance, the Davis stance has increased in popularity at other levels.
“His philosophy is very simple,” Cuzzi said. “You have to be very still in order to have the most accuracy when you call a pitch. When you talk about umpiring, you talk about consistency. To be consistent, you have to be consistent in what you’re doing to get to that point. He feels that by working with both hands on his knees, his head is at the same spot every time. We all have our own little ways, but the best way is the way that works for you. That certainly is the best way for him.”
And while the stance is best known for its effectiveness behind the plate, Cuzzi added, “If you watch him work the bases, you’ll see him do the same thing. Before he makes a call, whether it’s a play at first base, a steal at second or a trap in the outfield, he’s taking the same position: both hands on his knees, feet shoulder-length apart. It’s a very mechanical approach, but to show how consistent he is with that, he doesn’t just do it behind the plate, he does it on the bases as well.
“It may not be for everybody, but it certainly is for him,” Cuzzi said.
• • •
That’s the story of the stance, and while we’ve discussed it all — the stance, the resume, the approach, the beginnings — summing up a man so intertwined with the profession is still difficult. Maybe it’s a number we haven’t mentioned. Maybe it’s “40.”
Yes, 40. That’s the number of spring trainings for Davis.
“That’s a mindboggling number,” Davis said. “There are days, most of them actually, where it feels like 10 to 12 years ago since I started. It really has been a dream. To stay involved in a sport you love — I grew up listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck doing Cardinal games and fell in love with the sport — to be able to stay involved with it and have that be my career is really, really special.”
And as for the inevitable question: How long? When will one of MLB’s most respected presences no longer be present? Davis said he doesn’t know, but he believes he will know when he needs to know.
“It goes in cycles,” he said. “You get rejuvenated all the time. Once the holidays are over, you count the days to spring training. Obviously, when it’s September, I’m counting the days until the season is over. The thing that’s fortunate about a baseball season is there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. When you’re starting to drag, the light is the end of the season. When you’re ready to get started, the light is the beginning of the season.
“You’re constantly rejuvenated. I guess when that’s not the case, that’s when I’ll retire.”
And when that time comes, the numbers will matter less than the approach, and the stance will still be really meaningful and pretty cool. And what will matter most is he became successful by doing things his way — consistently — and by doing so, he became the poster boy for a profession he fell in love with sort of by chance.
And you can’t tell this story without mentioning that.
John Oehser is a freelance writer from Jacksonville, Fla.
Inside Access on Gerry Davis
Favorite baseball city: St. Louis, his hometown. (Current residence: Huntington Beach, Calif.)
Best ballpark to work a game: “With so many new ones, they’re all very, very good. One of my least favorite ballparks is Wrigley Field. The dugouts are right on top of you and it’s not always good that we hear every comment in the dugout. The same reasons the fans love that ballpark are what make it difficult as an umpire’s ballpark.”
Best advice for a new official: “Work hard every day. Regardless of the score, regardless of the game, everyone sees you working. You have to work as hard in a freshman game as you would if you’re working in the seventh game of the World Series.”
Best baseball decision: “To go to umpire school in the first place. That would be what I would recommend to anyone who’s thinking about it. The worst thing to do is wonder, ‘What if?’ Because of the journey I’ve been on, the phrase is true: ‘If I can do it, anybody can do it.’”
Best part of job: “The feeling of satisfaction you get when you’ve done a good job. Just like you know when you’ve missed a call, you know when you’ve gotten it right.”
Worst part of job: “The travel. Without question. Because of replay, it’s 120 games a year now, which is enough. Still, it’s every three or four days in a different city.”
Biggest umpiring influence: “The three crew chiefs I’ve worked with: Bruce Froemming, Doug Harvey, Terry Tata.”