Renowned trainer Mackie Shilstone empathizes with the rigorous life of a major league umpire.
“The hardest part of this job is really probably the travel and the grind it takes on you during the season,” said Joe West, a 33-year veteran and president of the World Umpires Association. “It’s not so much the balls and strikes and safes and outs, as it is the wear and tear on your body going from city to city changing time zones, staying in hotels and always having to eat out because you’re never at home. For 12 years, Shilstone, a New Orleanian, has worked in conjunction with Major League Baseball to ensure its umpires can withstand the grind of a 162-game regular season and maintain a high quality of life through retirement.
As director of lifestyle management for MLB’s umpires, Shilstone and his team — athletic trainers, nutritionists, physical therapists and physiologists at the Fitness Principle at East Jefferson General Hospital — assisted in the development of a comprehensive lifestyle and training regimen, complete with on-field diagnostic testing.
Before training camps begin, MLB hosts an annual three-day retreat in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the umpires gather to discuss equipment, rules, regulations and procedures.
During the retreat, Mark Letendre, Director of Umpire Medical Services, along with Shilstone and his team, administer mandatory physicals that include an on-field matrix designed to simulate an umpire’s game experience.
“Early on, the umpires were nervous about this matrix,” Shilstone said. “Now they actually prepare for it. We did the first one (matrix) on a tennis court, and then the union wanted to shift to more of a field thing. Joe was the catalyst in my mind for creating the on-field assessment with Mark. I had to test it out … but nothing was going to happen without union support.”
The initial implementation of the program was met with a great deal of skepticism.
“The union was taking a watchful eye on the program, because at first, it looked like it was coming on to be a punitive program to get umpires off the field,” Letendre said. “That was never the goal.”
The moment of truth
The genesis of baseball’s umpire medical services occurred in 1996, when National League umpire John McSherry died of a heart attack during the Cincinnati Reds’ opening game. At the time, McSherry was listed at 328 pounds, but those who knew him believed he was heavier.
“I saw the tape,” Shilstone said. “He was dead before he hit ground. That was the moment when baseball had to do something.”
“Unfortunately, that was a troubling point,” Letendre said. “Perception had become that umpires were fat and out of shape, and therefore they were missing calls.”
To combat this perception, during the winter leading to the 2000 season, MLB reorganized its umpires into one entity, which came under the auspices of the Office of the Commissioner.
Then executive vice president of baseball operations Sandy Alderson advanced the idea of providing medical care for the umpires.
“They are considered the 31st major league team,” Letendre said. “We look at them as industrial athletes, where they do athletic moves on a field, but they are not necessarily athletes themselves.”
Ralph Wilson was appointed vice president of umpiring to head this new division in the commissioner’s office. Wilson then turned to Letendre to oversee the development of the first comprehensive athletic health-care and lifestyle-management program for the 68 umpires in the majors.
The two had worked together in San Francisco, where Letendre served as the Giants’ head athletic trainer and Wilson as assistant general manager.
“They were entertaining perhaps having an outside group provide that medical care, and in conversation with them, I was able to show them that under my tutelage at the Giants, it was easier and more economical to actually have somebody as an employee providing those services,” Letendre said.
After Letendre accepted the position, he brought in an associate from his years with the Giants — Shilstone.
The two became colleagues in 1989 when Letendre hired Shilstone as a consultant for the Giants after being impressed by Jesuit graduate Will Clark’s results from working with Shilstone.
Letendre said: “He (Clark) was in the New Orleans area, and he worked with Mackie one on one to try to get functionally in shape to try to take on the demands of first base for the San Francisco Giants.”
Shilstone said he and Letendre became friends in San Francisco.
“He’s taking it from inside, and I’m taking it from outside,” Shilstone said. “What that means is: Mark’s a certified athletic trainer, so he took the medical model of inside pro sports, and my world is exercise physiology, sports training and nutrition. … I was the performance model.”
The epicenter of Shilstone’s performance model is his facility at East Jefferson Hospital, which baseball executives and umpires refer to as “Mackie World.”
“The umpire lifestyle management program is an offshoot of using the Fitness Principal at East Jefferson General Hospital,” Letendre said. “You have the premier physical therapy functional performance facility, and then the bonus is the Zephyrs, where umpires would actually get treatment but also work in the minor leagues — much as an injured major-league player does before he returns to the major-league field.”
Shilstone said: “We will track them with their steps. They want accountability; we can give them accountability. We will analyze their diet. We will give them diet information. We created restaurant guides for the road with their own eating plans.”
Shilstone said that since its inception, the program has evolved to include a combination of technology, innovative training techniques and common-sense solutions, but added, “None of this would have been possible without Mark Letendre bringing me in and Joe West buying into my program.”
Letendre said: “The older veteran umpires did not have the proper information. They weren’t knowledgeable about how to take care of the body, so they were empowered to do whatever they could to survive.
“This generation of young umpires coming through, we are providing the information, which does make them knowledgeable about how to withstand the rigors and demands of the job, and now they’re empowered to be doing the right thing going forward, and that’s what’s so exciting about this program.”