After death of two sons, a baseball umpire prepares for another season

Home plate umpire John Hirschbeck winks during a baseball game in 2013 AP Photo/Alex Brandon.

People don’t typically root for umpires, but an exception should be made for one because of today’s beautifully written story about baseball umpire John Hirschbeck.

“Believe me,” Hirschbeck says, “if someone had told me when I was a young dad like you that this is what’s going to happen, I’d say, ‘Give me a gun! I’m out! I’m shooting myself right now!’ But when you’re faced with something, you just say, ‘Why not me? Why should it be anybody else? What makes me different?’

In 1992, the Hirschbecks learned that their 7-year-old son, John Drew, had adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) and given one year to live. At the same time they learned their five-year-old boy, Michael, had the same thing. Their 3-year-old daughter, Erin, and 8-month-old daughter, Megan, were ALD carriers.

Their oldest son died a year later.

Michael, however, survived and joined his dad on the baseball field. He served as a bat boy for several teams. He often sat on the Minnesota Twins bench during spring training.

Baseball was what Michael lived for. He loved the sport, loved tagging along whenever John would umpire games in Cleveland or Pittsburgh, loved the friends he made in the locker room. His favorite team was the Indians, and he worked as a bat boy for every Tribe manager from Mike Hargrove through Terry Francona, as well as for multiple visiting clubs. On special trips, he got to fulfill the same role in Yankee Stadium, in Fenway Park, in Camden Yards. And every March, Michael would be right alongside his dad in Florida, on the Spring Training circuit. That was the one time of year when father and son were inseparable.

Photo via the Hirschbeck family.
Last April, Michael had a seizure in his room at home, nobody heard him, and he died.

Hirschbeck, who beat cancer twice, was going to retire in 2013, but his son convinced him to ump for another season. After his son’s death last year, he skipped the season.

Now, he’s planning to go back on the field.

It’s Michael. It’s knowing his son won’t be there on March mornings, won’t be packing up his bag for another day of volunteering at the ballpark, the place where he was happiest. Christmas didn’t mean nearly as much to Michael as the first day of the Grapefruit League schedule, so this will be even harder than the holidays.

But John wants to do this, for himself and for his family. Denise has mixed emotions about her husband going back on the road, but husband and wife agree this is what Michael would have wanted. John thinks about last season and concludes, “I don’t want to go out like that.” So he’ll do this season, and then see what the future holds. He’ll go out on his terms.

The first baseball games of the spring begin in 45 days.