Visiting veterans: Umpire's best call
By JULIANNE WU, Times Staff Writer
SEMINOLE -- He used to butt heads with irate baseball managers, but now Larry Barnett spends a kinder, gentler time shaking the hands of veterans and passing out autographed pictures of himself.
The former American League baseball umpire on Wednesday visited patients at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines, one of five VA hospitals he is touring this month.
After 31 years in the majors, Barnett retired at the end of the 1999 season. Now he visits about 50 VA hospitals a year, with his travel expenses paid for by the Disabled American Veterans organization. He estimates he has made 1,800 visits to veterans at all 172 facilities since 1976.
"I do this because I enjoy it," said Barnett, 58, who makes his home in Prospect, Ohio. "The veterans are the best group of people I've ever been around. They need to be remembered."
"Did you know Don Zimmer?" asked veteran Jim Zimmerman, 69, of Bradenton, who was recovering from a knee operation. He was in the Army Medical Corps from 1953 to 1955.
Zimmer, who has managed four teams, is the New York Yankees bench coach.
"Sure, I know him," said Barnett. "I used to argue with him."
Barnett then showed Zimmerman the 1975 World Series ring he was wearing. The umpire worked the Boston Red Sox/Cincinnati Reds series, which the Reds won in seven games. Barnett started his minor-league umpiring career in 1964 at the age of 18 and made it to the majors in 1969. His served as an umpire in four World Series, seven playoff series and five All-Star games. At his retirement in 1999, he was baseball's senior umpire.
"It's nice of you to spend the time here," Zimmerman told Barnett. When Barnett got to a day room in another ward, some of the older patients were more interested in playing dominoes.
Then, Barnett introduced himself and the questions and stories began to fly.
One woman asked: "What's the worst thing about being an umpire?"
Barnett: "Having a manager shout at you while he's got chewing tobacco in his mouth."
He then told one a story about baseball Hall-of-Famer and former Yankee Yogi Berra.
"One time, when Yogi was being honored at a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria (Hotel) in New York, he got a grandfather clock as a gift," Barnett said. He continued about how Berra decided to haul the clock out to his car by himself. In the process, a drunk bumped into Berra.
"Yogi said to him, "Why don't you watch where you're going?' "
The drunk replied, "Why don't you just wear a wristwatch like everyone else?"
The veterans roared.
When asked how he thought Lou Piniella will do as the new manager for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Barnett said, "He's a fierce competitor and I used to fight with him all the time. But he'll be a good manager."
As is his custom, Barnett always gives away one baseball jacket which bears his name. The recipient at Bay Pines was Virginia Phillips, 44, of Pinellas Park, who served in the Navy from 1978 to 1980.
"I think this is fabulous. I love it," said Phillips, who has been a baseball fan since she was a child.
When he's not visiting veterans, Barnett is busy with the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring, a school in Kissimmee that he owns.
-- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Kitty Bennett helped with this report.
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