The thinnest of smiles spreads across Eric Gregg's round pudding
of a face as he considers the butter on his room-service tray.
"Each little ball of butter is 150 calories," rumbles Gregg, the
heaviest umpire in the major leagues. "I used to spread four of
them on a roll and make a butter sandwich. Now I realize the
less of a glutton I am, the more life I can live."
Until recently this 6'3", 45-year-old butterball thought more
was more. As in more than 380 pounds, his gross tonnage on
Opening Day of the 1996 season. "After a game I'd have six or
seven beers at the stadium, go to a bar and have a half dozen
more," he says. "Then, a huge meal with a bottle of wine and
after-dinner drinks. Every night was New Year's Eve." The
revelry ended April 1 when fellow National League umpire John
McSherry dropped dead of a heart attack as he worked behind home
plate in Cincinnati. Now Gregg is strictly a club-soda man.
Gregg last saw the 370-pound McSherry the week before his death.
"Hey, E," said McSherry. "How's your diet?"
"Horse----," said Gregg.
"Good. Keep up the good work."
When word of McSherry's death came, Gregg was in Miami for the
Florida Marlins' opener against the Pirates. "The news footage
of Big John scared the hell out of me," says Gregg. "I thought,
That could have been me. How many warnings do I need?"
Two weeks later Gregg took a paid leave of absence and hauled
himself to the Duke University Diet & Fitness Center for some
corpulent downsizing. At the time flab hung off him in sackfuls:
His bulging neck, vast belly and elephantine haunches made him
look like the result of a curious breeding experiment. Gregg
emerged July 6 a great deal less of a man than he was
before--14% less. Today he hovers, if that's the word, at 325
pounds. "Now when I get a shoeshine," he says, "I don't have to
take the guy's word for it." He hopes to continue to lose a
pound a week till he's down to a svelte 285.
Moderation was never a Gregg family trait. His father, Ernest,
was an alcoholic. His sister Cheryl died of an apparent drug
overdose. His brother, Ernie, is in prison on a drug rap. Young
Eric was a cheese-steak and soap-opera junkie. It was while
watching Another World with his mother, Dorothy, that little
Eric announced, "One day I'm gonna be on TV."
"Eric," said Dorothy, "the only way you're going to be on TV is
if I pick you up by your big butt and put you on top of it."
Eric's ambition to someday play baseball for the Phillies was
deflated too. He was cut from the West Philadelphia High team as
a senior. Shortly after that, though, he saw an umpiring promo
on the Game of the Week. "Curt Gowdy said you could make $30,000
for six months' work," Gregg says. "I decided, That's for me."
He went to umpiring school in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1971 and
started scaling the cliffs of organized ball. By '78 he was a
full-time big league ump. And in no time he was a big big league
ump. "Eric Gregg looks like the Michelin Man," actor Bill Murray
observed during a telecast of a game. "If he had to haul ass
right now, he'd have to make six trips." Off the field Gregg
hates the fat jokes he has been obliged to listen to with a
merry smile. He feels no such obligation on the diamond. "If a
player makes fun of my weight," Gregg says, "he's history."
Over the years Gregg has had no trouble losing pounds. He has
had no trouble finding them again either. His visit to Duke was
his third. "I've tried Nutri/System, Weight Watchers, Ultra
Slim-Fast," he says wearily. "They all worked until I stopped.
The best is the Eric Gregg program." That regimen includes daily
five-mile walks, hourlong swims and a 2,300-calorie limit. "With
my program I know what I need to do," he says. "Nobody's on my
shoulder but me."
Nobody's on his shoulder, but somebody's on his wrist. Gregg
wears a silver bracelet inscribed BIG JOHN, #10. It gleams like
a tombstone whenever he reaches for a burger. "I love to eat,"
he says, "but I love being alive even more."
COLOR PHOTO: RICH PILLING/MLB PHOTOS The Before: Gregg at 380 pounds (top). The After: Gregg pared down to 325, en route to losing 100. [Eric Gregg]
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO [See caption above--Eric Gregg]