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Longtime major-league umpire, Tampa Bay area resident Jim McKean dies

McKean worked in three World Series during a nearly 30-year career.

ST. PETERSBURG — Jim McKean was a man of many skills.

He played quarterback and punter in the Canadian Football League. Coached basketball at Concordia University. Refereed college hockey games with aspirations of going to the NHL.

But he found his home behind home plate, and the other bases on the baseball diamond, working nearly 30 years as a major-league umpire, taking part in some of the game’s most memorable moments and earning a stellar reputation.

Mr. McKean, a longtime St. Petersburg resident, died unexpectedly early Thursday at age 73.

He had a recurrence of past liver issues around Thanksgiving, then while recovering contracted a MRSA infection and lost considerable weight and had been hospitalized in a rehab unit, his son Jamie said: “We thought he was out of the woods. We just think his ticker gave out in his sleep.’’

Mr. McKean worked in three World Series and three All-Star games, well liked and respected throughout the industry.

“He was a good man and a good umpire,’’ longtime big-league player and manager Lou Piniella said. “He was very considerate. He let you voice your opinion a bit. He wasn’t quick with the trigger. I always enjoyed when his crew came to town. He wasn’t controversial. He didn’t make many mistakes and if he did, he was the first to tell you, ‘Maybe I got it wrong.’ We lost a very, very decent man.’’

Among the many highlights, key moments and controversies, Mr. McKean was the crew chief during the 1996 spitting incident involving the Blue Jays’ Roberto Alomar and umpire John Hirschbeck. He was the home-plate umpire for MLB’s first regular-season interleague game, part of the crew when Don Denkinger infamously blew a call at first base in the 1985 World Series between the Cardinals and Royals, and on the field for 10 no-hitters, though none when he was calling balls and strikes.

Mr. McKean was behind the plate for one of the lighter moments in All-Star history, when Randy Johnson memorably threw a pitch over the head of John Kruk in the 1993 game, the video clip still popular.

“He had millions of stories, that’s for sure,’’ Jamie said. “Pretty incredible career.’’

After leaving the field following the 2001 season, Mr. McKean worked as an umpiring supervisor and did some analysis for ESPN and other media outlets, and would often come to Tropicana Field for Rays games.

Mr. McKean was involved in a controversial play there during the Devil Rays’ 1998 inaugural season when a ball hit by hulking White Sox slugger Frank Thomas struck the B-ring catwalk and ricocheted into foul territory. The ground rules at the time called for such balls to be fair or foul depending on where they landed, but McKean deemed this one a home run. The rules were soon adjusted.

“Dad changed the rule on the spot,’’ Jamie recalled. “(Devil Rays manager) Larry Rothschild came out and said this is bull, this is the rule. And Dad said, ‘Why don’t you walk over there and tell Frank Thomas that ball he hit is not a home run.’ ’’


Mr. McKean got into umpiring in an interesting way.

After his football career ended by injury and he was unable to make it as a hockey referee because he didn’t skate well enough, Mr. McKean was attending an Expos game in his native Montreal with a friend who got the attention of umpire Billy Williams.

“He yelled out, ‘Hey, my friend wants to be an umpire,’ and Williams said, ‘Okay, if you’re serious, come down after the game and we’ll talk,’ ” Jamie recalled. “Dad went home and changed, almost like it was an interview. He went down and Williams said, ‘Here’s information for an umpires’ school in Gulfport, Fla., and if you’re serious, you need to go down there and try out.’ They had hundreds of guys, and Dad was one of two or three they picked. Couple years in the minor leagues and then he was up in the big leagues.’’

Mr. McKean settled in the Tampa Bay area in the early 1980s with his wife, Ann, who died in 2007 of cancer. Their two sons, Jamie and Brett, played baseball at Clearwater Central Catholic and for the University of Tampa, and they still live in the area. Jamie is a lawyer, Brett a St. Petersburg police officer.

A lesson Mr. McKean taught his boys that stuck, Jamie said, was to make connections with everyone, not just the stars and big names.


Before going into umpiring, Mr. McKean played in the Canadian Football League, and also worked as a hockey referee at the college level with aspirations of advancing to the NHL but for the slight problem of not skating well.

Jim got into umpiring in an interesting way, Jamie recalled.

After his football career ended by injury and he was unable to make it as a hockey referee, Mr. McKean was attending an Expos game in his native Montreal with a friend who got the attention of umpire Billy Williams.

"He yelled out "Hey my friend wants to be an umpire,' and Williams said, “Okay, if you’re serious come down after the game and we’ll talk. Dad went home and changed almost like it was an interview. He went down and Williams said, “Here’s information for an umpires' school in Gulfport, Fla., and if you’re serious you need to go down there and try out,'” Jamie said. "They had hundreds of guys and dad was one of two or three they picked. Two years in the minor leagues and then he was up in the big leagues.''

A lesson Mr. McKean taught his boys that stuck, Jamie said, was to make connections with everyone, not just the stars and big names.

"He’d say it was not just important you were friends with Alex Rodriguez, but you needed to be friends with the clubhouse guy, the security guy, the groundskeepers,’’ Jamie said. “He loved every bit of his job. He loved his friendships with everybody. ... He loved, loved, loved hanging out with you guys in the press box.’’

Among other honors, Mr. McKean, the first MLB umpire from Canada, was a member of the Canadian Baseball and Florida State League halls of fame.

MLB officials and umpires held a moment of silence in his honor at their annual meetings Thursday in Arizona, and issued this statement: "Major League Baseball sends its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Jim McKean, an accomplished Major League Umpire and later an Umpire Supervisor for the Office of the Commissioner. Jim was a highly respected figure in the sport, and we are particularly grateful that he represented our game so well in his native Canada.”

Viewing will be held from 6-8 p.m. Sunday at the Anderson McQueen Funeral Home, 2201 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg. Funeral services will be 9:30 a.m. Monday at the Holy Family Catholic Church, 200 78th Ave. NE, St. Petersburg.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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